Has Marks & Spencer finally nailed its fashion formula?

·6-min read
Marks & Spencer
Marks & Spencer

In fashion circles, Marks & Spencer has long felt like that old friend who always tried too hard but who never got it quite right. Finally though - after years of failed collections and too-trendy collaborations - it seems as if the British high street stalwart’s luck is changing. Today, the brand released its Christmas figures and they’re good - surprisingly so. There was growth across all divisions, and most notably fashion, which has long been a source of serious woe.

Numbers wise, sales reached £3.27 billion, with clothing and home buys now 3.2 percent higher than pre-pandemic levels, and 37.7 percent higher than last Christmas. As a result, the brand said that it had reduced the amount of products on promotion.

So what are they finally doing right? There are a number of answers but one in particular stands out. For years, M&S lost sight of its core customer base - fruitlessly chasing fashionable millennials who were always more likely to buy their dresses at Zara and their basics at Uniqlo. But over the last two years, it seems as if the brand has not only made peace with its midlife market but finally begun to celebrate it.

Flattering leggings that sell less for as little as £25 - about half the price of their closest competitors.
Flattering leggings that sell less for as little as £25 - about half the price of their closest competitors.

This can be seen by their acquisition of Jaeger - a brand that in the 1950s and 60s was a beloved part of the British high street, dressing the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, and attracting working women with their sophisticated, great-quality clothes. Jaeger represents exactly what so many 40-plus women miss from a high street that now specialises in rock bottom prices and often quality to match.

Many of the Jaeger and M&S pieces are more expensive than the brand’s usual fare but undoubtedly worth the price. ‘We wanted to keep true to the Jaeger values of sensorial quality, British heritage and relaxed confidence but make it modern,’ Fiona Lambert, Jaeger’s new managing director, told the Telegraph at the time of the release - and they have largely achieved it.

As well as Jaeger, M&S has collaborated with Ghost - the brand beloved by the British everywoman for its three-quarter length silk skirts and floral midi dresses; designs you’ll see paired with ballet flats, trainers and ankle boots at school gates, office canteens and high street restaurants around the country. Since the first team-up in November 2020, the collections have delivered M&S-friendly twists on Ghost’s consistent bestsellers, and at slightly lower price points (around £65 on average) than the originals.

When the second drop from M&S x Ghost launched last April, the retailer sold more than 30,000 dresses from the collaboration in a single week. Dream numbers, indeed, for a clothing department that had just reported some of its worst ever results and been roundly criticised in the fashion press. ‘Mini me’ versions of some styles were also produced, allowing daughters to match their mothers, while the types of florals on offer expanded, with silhouettes including classic wraps and 1940s-style tea dresses.

The brand saw similar results from its collaboration with Finery London, a label founded in 2015 and reinvented in the hands of Dragon’s Den businessman Touker Suleyman. Last year’s M&S edit was also surprisingly successful, filled once again with those beloved puff sleeve midi dresses in pretty colours and easy-to-wear wraps in cheerful prints.

the denim collections, which have reportedly become one of M&S’ bestsellers
the denim collections, which have reportedly become one of M&S’ bestsellers

Denim dress, £23, M&S

Although floral midis are clearly the way to British women’s hearts, M&S has found success in other departments too. The Goodmove activewear range was launched two years ago and has since risen to become the UK’s number one performance wear line. That means it outsells - at full price, at least - Nike, Lululemon and Sweaty Betty, which is quite a feat. Much of it comes down to the high-quality, flattering leggings that sell less for as little as £25 - about half the price of their closest competitors.

Then there are the denim collections, which have reportedly become one of M&S’ bestsellers. The brand sold more than 2 millions pairs of jeans in the last six months - many of which come from the Magic Shaping range, which allegedly slim thighs and flatter bottoms and waistlines, and are made in a thicker, sturdier material than former denim iterations. M&S has said that it has taken the sizing for these collections particularly seriously, ensuring that women who buy online aren’t likely to be caught out by fluctuations in measurements or length.

“It is an interesting time. For so long, brands like M&S and Next were forced to follow the rest of the high street into making cheaper clothes to a lower quality,” says retail consultant Eric Musgrave. “But I’m not sure it’s always to their advantage - notably some of their best-selling collections are not always the cheapest ones.”

Another reason cited by Musgrave for M&S’ buoyant sales is last year’s demise of Debenhams. “Oh it must have helped,” he says. “It is a natural home for people who shopped there. There’s an obvious overlap.”

Nobody's child dress
Nobody's child dress

Nobody's Child dress, £45, M&S

Of course, it’s not all plain sailing ahead. Unlike closest rival Next - which reported fashion sales 3 percent higher than M&S - the brand still has far too many city-centre stores that are often deserted, and too few retail park hubs. Nearly all their models are young and the brand could do with shooting some of their pieces on women closer in age to their average customer. Equally, customers have complained that many of their top collections are only available in certain stores. And their basics, arguably, could still be better as there is still such a gap in the market for well made T-shirts, cardigans and shirts but aimed at slightly older women.

Despite this, it feels as if M&S has finally hit its stride. Retailers are finally beginning to understand that ‘never out of stock’ and ‘never out of style’ pieces are important and can do very well. Particularly for a brand like M&S that was never supposed to specialise in fashionable, ‘copied-from-the-catwalk’ collections. And who could be better to pioneer high-street timelessness than the national treasure that is M&S? Let’s hope we see more of it in 2022.

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