Cau­tious M&S spring styles mir­ror mood in board­room

Store’s show re­veals much more than what will be on dis­play rails next year

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Jess Cart­ner-Mor­ley As­so­ciate edi­tor (fash­ion)

The Marks & Spencer fash­ion show­case op­er­ates on three lev­els. It is a sneak peek as to the choice pieces which will be on sale next sea­son. It is a lit­mus test as to which cat­walk trends will break out of the high-fash­ion bub­ble and make it big on the high street. Lastly, and this is why it is viewed with in­ter­est be­yond the fash­ion world, it is a bian­nual in­sight into the self-im­age and strat­egy of a re­tail gi­ant.

Twice a year the mood in the M&S board­room – bullish or timid, ex­per­i­men­tal or nos­tal­gic – is spelled out in hem­lines, price points and colour com­bi­na­tions.

Right now that mood is sober, and so the aes­thetic is cau­tious. This could be seen in the long-sleeved, midi-length dresses that dom­i­nated the show­room man­nequins. A colour-block navy and emer­ald style will ar­rive af­ter Christ­mas, while spring will see a smocked cot­ton in dusty pink.

The em­pha­sis on dresses with sleeves builds on the suc­cess of au­tumn’s Con­stel­la­tion dress, a navy with silver em­broi­dery num­ber which at its peak last month was sell­ing at a rate of one ev­ery 90 sec­onds. “She likes a dress with a sleeve, even in sum­mer,” said the style di­rec­tor, Belinda Earl, at a pre­view.

The M&S cus­tomer – revered, all-pow­er­ful and slightly mys­ti­cal – is al­ways re­ferred to with the fem­i­nine pro­noun. The de­mands of the cus­tomer, rather than the whims of fash­ion week, are the key in­flu­ences here, as re­flected in the in­vi­ta­tions ex­tended to 75 hand­picked cus­tomers who were in­vited to pre­view this col­lec­tion be­fore it was un­veiled in the me­dia.

Wear­able is what M&S does well. Dresses with sleeves are a sweet spot: mod­ern, on-trend, but clas­sic. While the re­tailer has re­treated from at­ten­tion-grab­bing cat­walk copies at knock-down prices, it has not re­treated into ma­tron­li­ness. An “evening edit”, on sale today, is grown-up partywear: em­bel­lished knitwear, a stun­ning jac­quard skirt, along with a printed silk ki­mono for this sea­son’s Nigella-in­spired host­ess look. Shoes, which have bucked the gen­eral down­ward trend with strong sales fig­ures in re­cent sea­sons and have de­vel­oped a cult fol­low­ing for their com­bi­na­tion of com­fort and mod­ern styling, are strong once again, with wo­ven leather courts (not too high) and sleek takes on 2018’s ubiq­ui­tous white kit­ten-heel an­kle boot.

At a pre­view the buzz­words the style di­rec­tor re­turned to were “wear­a­bil­ity” and “ver­sa­til­ity.” The re­al­i­ties of the M&S cus­tomer base are clearly front of mind – ev­ery one-piece swim­suit has tummy con­trol, and new bra tech­nol­ogy now en­ables sup­port with­out a wire up to a G cup.

That these are chal­leng­ing times at M&S was re­flected in the re­place­ment since last sea­son’s event of the pre­vi­ous fash­ion lead, Jo Jenk­ins, re­cently de­parted for The White Com­pany, with new boss Jill McDon­ald, who joined M&S from Halfords and has taken over re­spon­si­bil­ity for fash­ion. “It’s too early for me to be pro­claim­ing about fash­ion,” said McDon­ald yes­ter­day. “I am lis­ten­ing to the team. And I know that they are lis­ten­ing to the cus­tomers.”

Re­fer­ring to the al­most mys­ti­cal M&S shop­per, style di­rec­tor Belinda Earl says: ‘She likes a dress with a sleeve. Even in the sum­mer.’

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