After decades in a wilderness of shabby dresses and depressing rows of frumpy pants, Marks & Spencer is finally regaining its fashion-forward reputation.
The high street star’s revival is thanks to a world-class style squad who have overhauled every aspect of clothes on the closet rails for the past three years.
These include the influential female bosses: Maddy Evans, head of women’s fashion; design director Lisa Illis; Merchandising guru Helen Wilson and Director of Sourcing and Technology Monique Leeuwenburgh.
Dressed to impress: A model wears a £49 denim mini skirt from M&S
Richard Price, who joined M&S in 2020 after a long career at Next, has overall responsibility for apparel, including menswear, childrenswear and homeware.
The numbers speak for themselves. M&S recently told the city that it will make better-than-expected profits this year, boosted by a 6 percent increase in apparel and homeware sales in the first five months of 2023.
Its stocks, which were removed from the elite FTSE 100 index in 2019, appear to be on the rise again, having risen more than 70 percent so far in 2023.
The chain is also moving into empty branches previously occupied by Debenhams, the department store brand that went bust in 2021.
How is everything going so well? And after so many false premonitions, is it really so?
To find out, The Mail on Sunday went behind the scenes with Price in the Kingston upon Thames store and with Evans in the design rooms at the Paddington HQ.
In Kingston, Price says there has been a shift towards higher quality and more expensive outfits as pressures on the cost of living have prompted customers to look for clothes that are versatile and durable.
Fashion Superstars: Helen Wilson and Head of Women’s Fashion, Maddy Evans
M&S Head of Womenswear Design, Lisa Illis
“We have a £20 cotton t-shirt which is one of our bestsellers, although we have others at cheaper prices.”
According to Maddy Evans, who is incredibly chic at 50, M&S has historically “never gotten it quite right” when trying to pick up a trend – either the cut, the colour, the length or the print were on subtly wrong.
Surrounded by the latest pair of jeans, Evans explains how she brought the fashion talent she picked up from a previous job at Top Shop to bear.
The bosses’ favourites
RichardPrice: Ultimate chino pants. Price £40. “I own ten pairs.”
Maddy Evans: Merino cashmere blend jumper priced from £49.50. “They’re coming soon in heather gray.”
The result is a meticulously detailed review of every aspect of M&S fashion, from fit, color palette and patterns to pricing and presentation.
“Me, Lisa, Helen and the team have a pretty good sense of aesthetics.” We try to perfect every single detail of a dress so that it fits and flatters most body types. “We look at everything.”
They invested in fabrics and also simplified many ranges and prices.
The team identified a number of ‘magic prices’, including £39.50 for dresses and jeans, that customers are happy to buy from. When it comes to sizing, Evans says, “When it comes to fit, we have a fantastically experienced technical team led by Monique.”
Proud: M&S Managing Director Richard Price
The retailer uses “blocks” or templates of each size for their garments, which are then tested in the size range 6 to 24.
The time between designing an item and hitting the store has been drastically reduced, allowing M&S to capitalize on trends.
Evans says denim mini skirts were flying out of stores this summer because “we spotted a trend, jumped on it and tested it very quickly.” Lisa Illis has a team of forecasters trying to spot the next big things.
The aim is to jump on a trend at just the right moment, once it has spread from the top into the mainstream, and interpret it correctly for their clients who don’t want to show anything too extreme or too much meat.
Trends that have also arrived at M&S this year include women’s vests, crochet dresses and double denim.
M&S has successfully partnered with Ghost, introducing third party brands such as Nobody’s Child to stores.
Price says he and the Style Squad are “uneasy unhappy.” But it’s a good sign that some things have become so desirable that even Evans has given up on them.
“I really wanted a little Chanel-style cardigan, but I just couldn’t get there fast enough,” she says. You and other disappointed customers should not despair.
Price says, “As a team, we celebrate sales now.” “We test new styles and trends earlier and if it works, we move on.”
The structured cardigan will be back in stores in October, he adds.
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