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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 November, 2004, 16:23 GMT
M&S in style shock
By Lisa Mitchell
BBC News

Supermodel Helena Christensen
Not the sort of cardigan usually associated with M&S
Reading the press over the last week you could be forgiven for thinking High Street stalwart Marks & Spencer (M&S) was a shadow of its former self.

Falling profits, boardroom tussles and out-of-season sales have all added to the image that the once formidable retailer is like a doddery ailing grandparent.

But away from the financial pages, the store's womenswear has been creeping back on to the pages of glossy magazines.

A soft pewter bag is among In Style's top handbags this month while a silk skirt in an art deco print is teamed with a Chloe cardigan and Issey Miyake boots in Elle.

In Style also named M&S best for lingerie, beating designer undies from La Perla and Agent Provocateur.

And the shop has received an endorsement from actress Amanda Holden, who has said it is "both sexy and good quality".

Julia Mottram, fashion director at B magazine, said she is increasingly using pieces from the store's Per Una range.

"Marks and Spencer is not a brand we use constantly and we only feature things we think our readers would really like.

People have got used to walking past the old ladies' stuff and straight into Per Una
Julia Mottram
B magazine

"But the fake fur wraps look great and the Frye-style boots are absolutely brilliant. Whenever anyone in my office wears them people are always asking where they came from."

Ms Mottram thinks they have done something to address it with the compartmentalising of new collections.

"Our readers like that Per Una is in a separate part of the store. People have got used to walking past the old ladies' stuff and straight into Per Una."

'Buyable'

Josephine Collins, editor of fashion industry bible Drapers Record, says the company's lingerie is an outstanding success story and its new Limited Collection is the "best I've personally seen for a couple of years".

"It's all about the product. The Limited Collection has had lots of good publicity and I've walked into a store and thought 'that's buyable'.

"It would be nice to see more of the same."

The Limited Collection was introduced in September in only 66 of the company's 375 stores.

Womenswear section at M&S (M&S)
It's possible to glide past grannies-wear into chic

It features an ad campaign with supermodel Helena Christensen and Marc Jacobs-inspired dresses and acid yellow chiffon blouses.

Promising new products in store every three weeks and new ranges every nine weeks, it is an attempt to address one of M&S's biggest problems - fashion on the High Street moved faster than it can update stock.

And with three cuts of trousers, costing about 40 a pair, it is attempting to tackle another long-standing problem - competition from cheaper, trendier brands.

Despite the success of certain lines, the company has accepted it has a long way to go with the bulk of its ladies clothes before sales will be revived.

"Womenswear is the key and there are still too many rows of cardies," said Rhys Williams, retail analyst with the investment bank Seymour Pierce.

Part of M&S's problem is it is attempting to cater for women of all ages and styles.

"We don't want to pigeon-hole anyone," said spokeswoman Tanya Littlehales.

"Actually the clothes have always been very good. We've just got to get some of the store environments right so customers can find what they want."

In August, M&S lost its crown as the UK's largest clothing retailer to Asda.

Much anticipation from fashionistas and shareholders surrounds the first collection under the control of new chief executive Stuart Rose in spring 2005.

He has promised to listen more closely to what women want to wear.

"This winter's sales have been very disappointing," said Mr Williams. "We're waiting see what happens next spring. That's when it will start to count."


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