Marks & Spencer holds a special place in the nation’s heart. That much was demonstrated last week by a touching, much-shared tweet: “Nowhere and no time do I miss my dad more acutely than in the men’s department of M&S at Christmas”.
These words – inspired by the sight of a reasonably priced, angora-mix sweater, tied with a red ribbon – cut to the core of where many believe M&S’s strengths lie, in bringing the nation sensible, well-made, fairly priced, luxury basics that we love to choose, give and wear. As clothing sales have slipped over the past decade, customers have complained that M&S has forgotten those strengths, trying to be too catwalk-led, offering styles unsuitable for its key middle-aged customer. There have also been those quick to dismiss the M&S fashion offer as dowdy and predictable. So what’s a store to do?
Judging by last week’s London preview of its spring/summer 2018 womenswear collections, Marks & Spencer has decided to play to its traditional strengths once more by offering wearable, modest, versatile fashion, with more than a touch of M&S extra-specialness thrown in.
For years, the M&S core customer has apparently been asking for flattering sleeves. Well, sleeves she now gets. But not just ordinary sleeves. Fluted, flared, gathered, cuffed, kimono-style, three-quarter and elbow length, it’s all about the statement sleeve for next spring and summer. Because sleeves are working. Witness this autumn’s £45, navy and silver Constellation print dress with, midi-length, long fluted sleeves and high neckline, which has been selling at a rate of one every 90 seconds.
Still more encouraging, the decline in the Marks & Spencer’s clothing sales shows signs of halting, down by only 0.7 per cent for the six months to September, and slowing to just 0.1 per cent the second quarter.
Covering up does not have to mean frumpy and boring. This is fashion for sophisticated 30-somethings as well as pieces to flatter and inspire the increasingly sleek 55-plus market. “Finesse” and “femininity” are key watchwords used by M&S to describe its new approach as it sets out its fashion themes for next year.
The Explorer story sees warm shades of khaki and aubergine in luxe textures of leather and velvet, as earthy hues become the new nudes, lifted by botanical prints and muted blooms on clothing and lingerie.
Moving to spring, Horizon sees sporty detailing and exaggerated silhouettes with checks and stripes in a palette of reds, blues and greys.
Global is a summer story of natural, tactile fabrics, chicly bohemian, with billowing demure dresses offset with tailored pieces in caramel, blush, rust and ochre.
Then comes Art Haus, where bold primary colour contrasts with soft pastels, with vivid print combinations, taking shade and tone in a new direction.
But what about the bras and knickers? Happily, underwear remains a key weapon in maintaining M&S’s reputation for style, comfort and especially technology, which has helped develop a bralette that supports up to a G-cup. The romantic yet functional Rosie lingerie collection continues to grow, and knicker waists get higher, to work with the new shapes.
Look out for the “see-now, buy-now” partywear, in stores now, featuring a Nigella-style floral kimono. Indeed, many pieces have been designed for versatility, doubling up for day and night, work, weekend and going out, offering value for money. A cropped olive green leather jacket, £249, is fully reversible in navy leather and there’s a swimsuit that also works as a body, saving space in your carry-on suitcase. As for the footwear, it’s the perfect blend of technological good sense and catwalk sensibility. M&S is putting its best foot forward.
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