M&S bosses invited Mail readers to give verdicts on the new collection

M&S meets its toughest (and most loyal) critics…you: It’s the High Street favourite that’s faced claims it’s lost its spark in the clothing department. So store bosses invited Mail readers to give their very honest verdicts on the new collection

  • M&S share prices jumped following addition of third-party brands on the website
  • However, lifelong shoppers have penned letters about own-brand womenswear 
  • M&S design team met a few disgruntled customers in their North London studio
  • Customers gave verdict on the collection launched today in an exclusive preview

Your biggest fans are often your harshest critics. And for a national treasure like Marks & Spencer this is definitely the case.

A High Street institution that many of us have shopped at our whole lives, for everything from knickers to knitwear, M&S occupies a special place in our hearts and wardrobes.

However, with that affection comes an expectation of quality and consistency. Any sign that M&S might not be delivering is a blow to its legions of loyal customers. The past 18 months have, of course, hit an already singular High Street. While M&S fared better than most — growing its online share of the women’s fashion market in the second half of 2020 — last year it recorded its first financial loss in 94 years.

As part of its recovery plan and for the first time ever, M&S has started selling third-party brands on the website. Among the 11 listed are Hobbs, Joules, and Phase Eight. The strategy could already be paying off: M&S share prices jumped last month, with 2021 so far delivering better-than-expected profits.

M&S invited lifelong customers to meet at their North London studio to discuss their concerns about the brand’s womenswear. Pictured left to right: Lesley : Shacket, £79; top, £15; leggings, £19.50. Anne : blouse, £25; trousers, £19.50; shoes, £49.50. Lyn : blouse, £19.50; trousers, £35; trainers, £22.50. Gillian : Blouse, £19.50; trousers, £35; heels, £65. Rene : faux leather shirt, £35; jumper, £89; trousers, £29.50; trainers, £45

This season, the focus is still on M&S own-brand womenswear. But can the new autumn collection please their long- standing customers?

When 66-year-old Anne Crook from Woodford Green, Essex — herself a lifelong M&S shopper — wrote to the Mail after a frustrating shopping trip, her comments struck a chord. ‘The M&S stylists don’t appear to understand their core customers,’ she stated.

‘Customers want age- appropriate clothes that are on trend, but do not slavishly follow every crazy new fashion.’

‘I’d love to be able to buy well-designed clothes with clean lines, no fussy details, made with fabric that feels lovely to the touch.’

Other loyal M&S shoppers responded, writing in to share their dismay about the direction the womenswear had taken.

‘It still insists on trying to sell clothes with tassels sparkles and cheap embellishments.’ ‘Wishy-washy colours.’ ‘Baggy and shapeless’ some wrote.

And so M&S bravely invited some of the disgruntled letter-writers to meet the design team and discuss their concerns — and get an exclusive preview of the autumn collection (launched today) plus an opportunity to share their opinions with the people who designed it.

Anne and four other Femail readers from around the country travelled to a North London studio to have their say — and didn’t mince their words.

Lesley Edwards, 63, from Cheshire, who has been shopping at M&S for 40 years, said the brand’s quality has deteriorated and she can never find her size. Pictured: Blazer, £39.50; jumper, £25; trousers, £35; boots, £65; bag, £69, marksandspencer.com

THE DAY OF RECKONING

‘It’s like having an ill friend who you really want to help,’ says Lesley Edwards, 63, from Cheshire.

She arrives in an acid yellow Zara trouser suit and has been up since 8am trying to snap up the latest H&M designer collaboration before it sells out online.

‘I’ve grown up with M&S, I’ve been shopping there for 40 years — that’s why I care. But the quality has deteriorated and I can never find my size.’

Gillian Gatehouse, 76, from Berkshire, nods. She’s wearing a neatly-cut navy blazer she bought from M&S three years ago — the last time she found something she wanted to buy. ‘I’ve shopped there for over 30 years. I used to work at the University of London and visited the Oxford Street branch most lunchtimes. There was always something I loved. I spent so much money! Now I come out empty handed and end up buying Boden.’

Gillian’s local M&S branch in Wokingham closed down in 2017. ‘It’s a real shame, people really miss it. When you look at the High Street, House of Fraser has gone, now Debenhams and GAP.’

Gillian Gatehouse, 76, from Berkshire, who shopped at M&S for over 30 yeas, said she now leaves shops empty handed and buys from Boden. Pictured: Dress, £39.50; roll neck, £35; heels, £25; bag, £35 marksandspencer.com

The worry that M&S could suffer the same fate, is what prompted Rene Morley, 75, from Leeds, to write in. ‘Can you imagine what the High Street would be like without M&S?’ Rene says, obviously quite aghast.

She has a chic grey bob and wears a M&S biker jacket. ‘It is a bit unfair, this expectation of perfection that we have for M&S, you wouldn’t have for other stores,’ she admits. ‘But it’s because we love it! I don’t want to see it go.’

‘Other places can be snooty, but M&S doesn’t make you feel like that,’ chimes in Lyn Fletcher, 68, from Hornchurch, Essex. ‘I’ve shopped there my whole life; I even remember my mum taking me there as a child.’ Lyn was eagerly awaiting M&S reopening post-Covid restrictions but found herself disappointed: ‘The womenswear used to be “me” but not any more.’

Sitting with the five, are Francesca Zedda, head of creative styling at M&S, Lisa Illis, head of womenswear design, and Elin Newland, junior womenswear designer. They listen attentively, sometimes writing notes, as their customers deliver their verdict on the state of M&S womenswear.

To their credit, the design team don’t dodge the criticism, nor simply smile and nod, they genuinely want to know what the issues are. Eventually, five key concerns emerge. A manifesto, if you will, of what our readers believe needs to change in womenswear design.

Gillian told the M&S team that she wants to stand out and doesn’t want to have to shop online to find her size. Pictured: Shacket, £55; roll neck, £35; skirt, £35, marksandspencer.com

MORE COLOUR, PLEASE

Drab hues are dispiriting and these women want to feel good.

‘I want to stand out, not shrink away,’ says Gillian.

‘I bought a hot pink trouser suit from M&S earlier this year,’ says Rene. ‘Let’s have more of that!’

The M&S team says: ‘The autumn-winter collection will be brighter than ever before and there’ll be new drops of colour throughout the season, which reflects how people are embracing colour to inject some positivity into their wardrobe.

‘There will be more colours across basic products, too.’

SORT OUT IN-STORE AVAILABILITY

‘M&S shoppers like me, we like to shop in the stores,’ says Anne.

Gillian agrees: ‘I don’t want to shop online to find my size.’

Lesley struggles to find size 8 clothes in-store: ‘Surely there are systems to keep stock levels topped up? It’s so annoying when you go in and things are sold out.’ The M&S team says: ‘This autumn we are really focusing on our top 100 products across denim, knitwear, casual tops, coats and footwear, and backing them with bigger buys, so there will be more stock and better availability in-store.

‘There will be more choice in smaller stores in these ‘hero’ categories, too, and a minimum of 16 dress styles in every store.’

Lyn Fletcher, 68, from Hornchurch, Essex, who claims to have shopped at M&S her entire life, said the tailoring isn’t always scaled down in the brand’s petite trousers 

WE DON’T WANT TO BE SWAMPED!

‘A maxi length swamps the average height woman. It’s hard to find something that’s knee length,’ says Anne.

‘I buy trousers in a petite length, but the tailoring isn’t always scaled down, so they’re too voluminous,’ says Lyn.

‘We don’t all want a relaxed fit, some of us want fitted styles,’ agrees Lesley.

The M&S team says: ‘We try to design for a range of shapes for our diverse customer base.

‘Some of our main range dresses and trousers are available in short, medium and long lengths, but we’ll feed back your concerns about dress lengths.

‘We always try to improve our pieces, tweaking the fit and style based on customer feedback.’

FOCUS ON GOOD QUALITY FABRICS

‘Where have all the nice merino wool jumpers gone?’ asks Gillian.

‘I like real fabrics, not synthetics,’ says Lesley.

The M&S design team told the disgruntled customers that this season they are stocking cashmere in more stores because they know customers prefer natural fabrics

Anne agrees: ‘We don’t want cheap, throwaway fashion.’

The M&S team says: ‘We know customers prefer natural fabrics and are willing to pay more for quality clothes that last.

‘This season we will stock cashmere in 110 stores — 33 more than before. You’ll find merino wool in 89 stores — 55 more stores than before.’

RESPECT YOUR CORE CUSTOMERS

‘The 40+ shopper is looking for classic and stylish with a nod to trends, but nothing eccentric or zany. If M&S want to thrive they need to reconnect with their core customer, not just chase younger ones,’ says Anne.

The M&S team says: ‘Customer feedback is so important to us, so we wanted to meet Femail readers, and talk to them about how we are meeting their needs for the new season and beyond.

‘We’re listening to you, and working hard to deliver products that inspire, fit and flatter.’

And their verdict on new collection … Marks has its mojo back 

When everyone’s views are aired, it’s time for our readers to cast their critical eyes over the new autumn collection.

Central to it is The Edit concept, ‘style-focused staples’, designed to be dressed up or down, and which co-ordinate, so you can put together outfits easily.

There are semi-tailored trousers in soft fabrics, printed blouses, knitwear in an array of neutrals and, yes, colour, from lime green to a pretty coral. Shirt dresses, faux leather jackets, pleated midi skirts.

But can our five readers find an outfit they would like to be photographed in? Rene is drawn to a cobalt blue shirt dress. ‘Very flattering,’ she comments, but ends up choosing wide-leg khaki trousers and a faux leather shirt in the same shade. ‘How cool is this? I like that you could dress the trousers up or down.’

Pictured: Jacket, £69; knit vest, £29.50; trousers, £59; loafers, £49.50

Gillian and Lyn choose animal print shirts. ‘It’s striking but not in-your-face,’ says Gillian of the tiger-print, while Lyn likes the pink in her leopard-print blouse. They resist wide-leg trousers, though.

‘This outfit is perfect for my social life,’ says Lyn. ‘I’m looking for casual outfits.’

Gillian is so happy with her choice, she jokes she might steal it. Another success.

The hardest nuts to crack are Anne and Lesley. ‘There’s still too much emphasis on midi and maxi lengths,’ says Anne, who settles on a monochrome top with black trousers; ‘I like the top, it’s a good pattern and the shape is flattering.’

Eventually Lesley chooses a checked jacket with a blanket-fringing detail. ‘It’s a little bit different,’ she says.

Watching them step out in their M&S looks, they walk taller, smiles wide.

Francesca, Lisa and Elin from M&S look on, delighted. ‘I feel like we’ve converted them. It’s all about encouraging people to try things on,’ says Lisa.

A push to have more M&S womenswear assistants on the shopfloor wearing the collection should help on that front.

And so, what was the final verdict from our readers?

Rene has her eye on a sage green coat, Gillian is looking forward to wearing her new outfit and Lesley can’t wait to show her coat off to her granddaughter.

Lyn says: ‘I’d like to see more colour but I’m hopeful M&S are heading in the right direction.’ And Anne is ordering the tasselled coat after seeing how great it looks on Lesley. She adds: ‘All my friends and family love M&S, I hope we’re starting to see it get its mojo back.’

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