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The Money Programme Saturday, 26 February, 2000, 12:28 GMT
More 27/02/00
Inside Marks and Spencer

'I'm bringing fun excitement, sex and glamour to a dull Marks and Spencer' - said Julien Macdonald backstage during London Fashion Week. He'd just wowed audiences with a daring display of glitter and ghetto chic, capping it all by appearing with super-model Naomi Campbell who was wearing one of his trademark lacey dresses.

From next week some of that style will be available from Marks and Spender. The high street store has signed up Julien Macdonald to design clothes for their new 'Autograph' range. 'Autograph' is a daring venture for Marks and Sparks, one which it hopes will help dispel its dowdy image.

M and S is more than a household name, it's almost a member of the family responsible for at least one pair of knickers or socks left lying around the home, so when it's profits nose dived over a year ago the story merited more than just business coverage. Since then hardly a day has gone by without a mention of the store in the papers.

M and S wants to put that behind them. 'Autograph' is the beginning of a badly needed makeover. But this venture is not just about clothes - it's also about a new way of working. The retailer is seen as rather slow and bureaucratic. That may have been okay once, but today fashion retailing is fiercely competitive, fast and furious. Consumers look for constant change and excitement. When they don't find that they walk - to the shop next door - as M and S has found to its cost.

For 'Autograph', Marks and Spencer has put together a small team which selects and co-ordinates the collection from designers ideas and then commissions manufacturers. This is completely different from way they usually buy clothes - off the peg from manufacturers own designs.

Clara Freeman - head of Marks and Spencer stores in the UK believes they've learnt a lot over the last year - 'the lesson for us is why not do that in the rest of the business, and make the decisions fast, make small teams accountable for each of the business areas.' Everyone's learning like the designer, Betty Jackson. Her involvement has been very hands on: 'It's been quite funny in the beginning. We do things in a slightly different way so we've shocked their production teams.'

Betty Jackson and Julien Macdonald's clothes along with Katharine Hamnett and two other anonymous designers will be sold under the 'Autograph' brand. Consumers who like to flaunt a designer name will be disappointed. But shoppers - or guests as they'll be known - will be given a VIP service which includes one to one attention with comfy sofas, tissue wrapped clothes and free wooden hangers.

This shopping experience will be available in only twelve stores so unless shoppers are prepared to travel, this new venture will pass them by. The danger is that by being cautious, Marks and Spencer may also leave many ordinary M and S customers, who can't afford the new range, wondering what the store is doing to improve their shopping experience? The company counters this by pointing to other improvements like cutting prices and putting more sales staff on the shop floor.

But even if customers flock to buy the new range, the impact on the company's flagging financial performance will be minimal. This venture is not about sales figures. It's about sending an important signal: Marks and Sparks has taken criticisms on board and is acting on them.

Roz Bew

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