Fashion: M&S and the listening project

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It announced a substantial fall in profits last week, with fashion blamed again for not delivering. As Marks & Spencer launches its next season collections, will it finally work out what the British woman really wants? Stephanie Smith went to the London showcase to find out.

The customer is always right, that’s the theory. Or, that’s how the saying goes, anyway. And if it’s true, then clearly, any retailer worth its flaked sea salt would be wise to listen to her, and act accordingly.

Autograph fuchsia top, �39.50, and trousers, �45, coming in November.

Autograph fuchsia top, �39.50, and trousers, �45, coming in November.

So Marks & Spencer has been doing exactly that, questioning its customers, running suggestions past selected groups, analysing online demand and habits.

The fruits of all this hard work and customer research were presented at a two-day press showcase in a swish Mayfair townhouse venue.

It was certainly impressive – three storeys of gorgeous new fashion, homes style and beauty collections, all coming for autumn/winter.

New venue, new improved listening strategy and new, carefully considered key fashion pieces, each of which has been allowed to take its place only by meeting a new checklist of criteria: is it simple, is it stylish, is it ageless?

M&S Collection dress, �45, and trousers, �28, to buy now.

M&S Collection dress, �45, and trousers, �28, to buy now.

Listening, considering, putting into action, this is how M&S is continuing continues its determined mission to claw back credibility, kudos and customers to its fashion.

But, you might wonder, when around 55 per cent of M&S’s sales now come from the food division, why does clothing matter so much? Because 80 per cent of the High Street giant’s profits come from the clothing division, say retail analysts, a factor that highlights just how important fashion, especially womenswear, continues to be. M&S has to get it right, or start getting it right more often than it has been doing. Clothing sales rose for the first time in two years last Christmas, suggesting that recent M&S strategy to woo fashion customers has been having an effect. However, this week came the news that underlying pre-tax profits are down 10.3 per cent with sales in clothing dropping 5.9 per cent in the last three months; pressure is stronger than ever to turn around fashion.

So M&S is staying calm and pushing on with the spirit of its recently launched “Spend it Well” campaign. The autumn/winter fashion range reflects that message with a thoughtful approach to everyday luxury, as sumptuous fabrics, decorative textiles and cosy layers in lace, velvet, cashmere and silk play out in styles “designed to fit and flatter, whatever the occasion”.

There are heritage fabrics and rich colours, witness a £99 coat combining red, navy, black, cream and grey in its tweed, easy for styling with a range of shades for a pulled-together look. Luxurious velvets, statement knits and cosy furs meet pastel florals and glowing metallic tones, blurring day to night and making the everyday special.

Autograph coat, �119, in several shades, out August 31, bag, �99, out September 2.

Autograph coat, �119, in several shades, out August 31, bag, �99, out September 2.

Head-to-toe tonal looks in earthy reds, rich blues and warm caramel continue the confident polished theme. For the party season, there are silky, sequinned and elegant shine pieces in midnight shades.

There’s comfy but luxurious new lingerie too, with non-wired bras and fabrics that move with you (in a good way, I assume, not riding up).

And M&S is continuing its “See Now, Buy Now” strategy with an edit of five layerable, multi-functional, wearable dresses – priced at £45 each – to buy and wear right now. In May, dresses are at the top of the style agenda, with weddings and holidays coming up, and online searches for them peak. This is a perfect example of how listening to the customer is shaping M&S womenswear.

So, will this strategy of everyday, wearable, translatable luxury work? I for one am all for the idea of it, and very much liked what I saw at the press launch. I was keen to try The Dress Edit pronto, so went along to my local M&S at the weekend to take another look. And this is where I feel M&S still often falls down. It all looks wonderful at the press showcases, but frequently translates to the stores rather less well. I couldn’t see all five new styles from The Dress Edit together to compare them and decide which to try. I got confused and flitted about trying to find them. Under the harsh store lighting, the ones I did see looked less enticing than I remembered, the fabrics less luxe. I gave up and headed for lingerie, because you always needs more knickers.

M&S Collection dress, �59, coming August 31.

M&S Collection dress, �59, coming August 31.

Pleasing the M&S core customer – the 50-plus British woman – is a challenge. I’m 52, so I know. It’s all very well trying to give her what she wants, but does she actually know what it is that she really wants? She’s busy, she might have an idea in her head of the sort of thing she’s looking for, but she’d like it presented simply and easily to her. Style-wise, she doesn’t want to dress like her daughter or her mother and is conscious that her shape might be changing and it’s all too easy to look either frumpy or ridiculous or both.

With all its expertise and design talent, M&S is well placed to give her inspiration and guidance. And beautiful, wearable fashion for the 50+ woman is there, if she looks for it harder and, in many cases, opens her mind to newness and considers spending her money wisely on quality clothing produced in fair circumstances. At least Marks & Spencer is taking the 50+ woman seriously. That in itself is to be applauded.

stephanie.smith@jpress.co.uk

Instagram: YPStyleteam Twittter: @yorkshirefashq

M&S Collection dress, �39.50, coming August 31.

M&S Collection dress, �39.50, coming August 31.

The Dress Edit M&S Collection dress, �45, buy now.

The Dress Edit M&S Collection dress, �45, buy now.

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