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Marks & Spencer aims for simplicity in womenswear

From selling loose fruit and veg in order to minimise plastic to another wave of UK store closures, the picture painted of Mark Spencer in the headlines so far in 2019 is of a company doing its utmost to stay relevant and survive. When it comes to clothes, it’s very much the same story.

Wardrobing: a suit worn with slub jersey T-shirt and sneakers Photograph: PR Company Handout

At the preview of its spring/summer 2019 womenswear collection, the message is one of consistency and simplicity.

“We need to stop thinking too much about everybody else and really focus on what makes MS great,” said Jill Stanton, who was enticed back from California last year after a 20-year hiatus to become the trading director of womenswear and kids. “Coming back to the UK and to MS, I realised how much goodwill we have as a company,” she said. “It’s a fantastic position to be in because it doesn’t feel like you have barriers.”

Stanton is a part of a new team – along with the new head of womenswear, Lisa Illis, and the head of lingerie, Soozie Jenkinson – attempting to assess what these barriers are. Their plan is to achieve consistency in order to strengthen customer loyalty and streamline collections to ensure they have a product that, in Stanton’s words, “appeals to all age groups: from the sporty girl to the pretty girl to the classic girl”.

It is not a world away from what her predecessors spoke about at MS’s last preview, although the Limited Edition collection has been absorbed in the interim, leaving the womenswear category with three collections: Autograph, MS Collection and the best-selling Per Una. A fifth line, Indigo, was phased out in 2016.

There is now a focus on “wardrobing” rather than “outfitting” to enable customers to choose pieces from across the collections over a six-month period that complement each other and achieve the high-low mix that Illis believes customers crave.

Laid back: The Ivy skinny jeans Photograph: PR Company Handout

It is a move that signals the end of the headline-grabbing single items, which these previews have previously served to identify. “Our business is big and complex and for us to be successful, we have to be winning across our portfolio … T-shirts, jeans, dresses, top, swimwear, activewear and lingerie pieces, which have been more consistently successful over a period of time,” said Stanton. “We can’t be in a place where it’s just [about] one trophy item.”

Easy to wear dresses in styles loyal customers love take precedence Photograph: PR Company Handout

A focus for the season will be denim. Stanton said it was an area where MS was the market leader, although she acknowledged that, in order to keep up that momentum, MS needed to be broadly thought of as a No 1 destination for denim. The television presenter Holly Willoughby, who was appointed as brand ambassador in September, is selecting “Holly’s Must-Haves”, many of which sell out in record time. Her next selection is a series of denim miniskirts, dresses and jeans.

Lingerie, led by Jenkinson, has achieved a 36% market share in bras – “the most ever”. A further instalment of the model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s popular Rosie for Autograph collection is expected to boost sales, along with the introduction of the new high-rise Miami underwear style. Meanwhile, vegan footwear – born out of customer feedback after the brand saw a big increase in search terms – is being promoted with prices starting competitively at £25.

The company currently enjoys a 36% market share in bras Photograph: PR Company Handout

The introduction of a “Dress of the Week” online has helped boost that area of the business. “It helps us understand what is resonating with the customer,” says Stanton. The team has been looking at dress fits that have proven popular in the past, such as shirt-dresses and tiered and broderie anglais sundresses, but has “refreshed them with colour, print and pattern so that [our loyal customer] can come back and buy”.

With MS able to attract 19.5 million shoppers every week, the loyal customers are still there, enabling Stanton to concentrate on the “areas of the business that are really great for us”.

Focusing on what the company’s womenswear customers want and, more importantly, actually buy will form a significant part of CEO Steve Rowe’s promise to leave “no stone unturned” as he looks to overhaul “every aspect” of its struggling stores in a bid to reverse fortunes.

In November, the group reported a 7.1% increase in pre-tax profits to £126.7m in the six months to 29 September 2018 although group sales declined 3.1% to £5bn as it shut 24 stores in its long-term store closure plan.

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