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If a trend hasn’t reached its full expression until it hits the high street shop floor, this week’s announcement that Marks and Spencer has adopted the “see now buy now” retail strategy must cement the expression as this year’s official buzz phrase.
“See now buy now” refers to the practice, increasingly common among luxury houses, of selling clothes direct from the catwalk, thus eclipsing the three to four months it has traditionally taken collections to arrive in store after being unveiled to the world. But in fact very few people actually saw M&S’s launch into this market.
The Big Easy, the store’s small collection of women’s apparel that will go straight into 26 stores and online was revealed to a handful of fashion editors this week. There was no catwalk presentation, there were no Instagram shots of front row celebrity patrons, and no models. Instead, there were just a half-dozen mannequins dressed in some pleasantly tasteful layered neutrals.
The idea of a high street retailer taking on the language of big luxury houses such as Burberry or Tom Ford seemed a trifle daft at first. After all, isn’t the whole premise of high street retailing that you can get what you want, when you want it? That you buy things on the basis of need now?
But perhaps it’s not silly at all. Remember all the brouhaha that accompanied the launch of mid-length suede “Alexa skirt” at a similar press event last year? It was fallen on by the more hysterical elements of the press quick to herald the garment as the saviour of the company’s financial woes: the “it skirt” that would save M&S. It subsequently acquired a huge waiting list, although some consumers had already moved on by the time it arrived in store weeks after it was first shown.
Under the direction of a charismatic all-female design team, lead by Belinda Earl, the style director, M&S has honed a unique talent for building hype around its seasonal launches. In this country, and increasingly on the international stage, new launches and initiatives have become breaking news events; witness the publicity, for example, that accompanied the launch of Alexa Chung’s archive range for the company. The Alexa collection went on sale last month at the same time as its press launch and, with the “see now buy now” range made official, the company is learning to capitalise on its publicity peaks.
Asides this, however, there have been further, more subtle shifts in the brand’s retail strategy process that should give us cause to cheer (if indeed you are predisposed to cheering M&S’s success, which I am because any company that can sell 30m pairs of tights, shifts a pair of knickers every 2 seconds and sustain me for days with its succulently tasty Percy Pigs, deserves a cheer). In January the retailer posted a 6 per cent decline in sales — with womenswear performing especially poorly. Much of the decline was blamed on an unseasonably hot winter, that found the store selling out of lighter weight knitwear and overstocked with heavier coats and jackets.
The Big Easy collection lays the foundations for a more trans-seasonal offering that, according to Jo Jenkins, director of womenswear, lingerie and beauty, will allow them to “step the weight” through the season and better co-ordinate the offering.
But there were other more fundamental problems with its womenswear that have stymied the company’s growth. It is going some way to solving them by cleaning up the colour palette and, more crucially, streamlining the product offering.
I could count the ways in which I hate the confusion of womenswear lines that exists in M&S: Per Una and Autograph and Collection and blah blah mess. It’s one of the features M&S’s new chief executive Steve Rowe has identified as being on his list of things to examine and — hopefully — extinguish. While they haven’t been abandoned yet, the new season will find the collections organised and edited in store into category-based displays, “piece” focused rather than scattered among its many diffusion ranges.
“We’ve become more focused and more coherent,” says Queralt Ferrer, the design director. Ferrer, a former Inditex executive who worked at Zara and Massimo Dutti was brought in by Rowe last September to bolster the in-house design team. “So if you’re looking for a peacoat, one of the big focuses for the next season, you’ll find all of the peacoats in the same place, at all the different price points in all the different offerings.”
For those of us who’ve spent time walking round the store in circles trying to find a white T-shirt, this decision seems the most sensible yet. “It will mean a more confident display,” says Earl. “Our designers are now focused on individual categories — such as trousers, coats or dresses — rather than the broader collections. It will eliminate replication, and ensure we don’t miss anything, offering customers a greater sense of the price architecture and range of fabrications.”
The company’s decision to take more risks, edit more rigorously and champion specifics of clothing is commendable. Most importantly though, are the next season’s clothes any good?
Thankfully, yes. If this AW16 collection is a first taste of Ferrer’s potential then other high-street retailers should watch out. Of note: a black silky puffa coat (£99.99) that wouldn’t look out of place at Rick Owens; a block-heeled over-knee boot in khaki suede (£125); and a metallic quilted mule (a wickedly cheeky homage to Gucci priced at £35). Later, the season features a great range of romantic floral print blouses in mustardy ochre, forest green and muted pinks (priced from £39.50) and pretty dresses with a fashionably vintage appeal.
Of its fabled underwear, an anniversary bra modelled on a 1972 version that sold more than a million units will mark the 90th birthday of the first M&S bra, and I, for one, will be especially curious to road test the new Flexifit technology that sees the launch of a knicker with 360 degree stretch and, with luck, an end to wedgies forever.
Best of all is a slouchy velvet trouser suit in antique rose: one of the prettier pinks and more flattering fits I’ve seen anywhere for next season. Priced at £79 for the jacket and £39.50 for the trousers, it won’t arrive in store until mid-October. See now buy now? Even the emboldened, streamlined new M&S thinks some things are worth the wait.