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Deputy Diary: M&S' big reveal - did it work?

When an invitation to a fashion event indicates that doors will open at 6pm for a 6.30pm presentation, no-one expects guests to be on time; the punctual ones will start to file in at around twenty past with more than a handful arriving after the presentation starts.

But last night wasn’t just any press event; it was M&S’ autumn 13 press event, and the anticipation to what lay behind the heavy doors of One Marylebone was too great for any journalist to arrive fashionably late.

Quite what we were expecting from the first collection under the new general merchandise team, which was appointed last autumn, I’m not so sure.

This is M&S after all and a drastic change of direction wouldn’t have been the answer. Personally, I thought we’d see a streamlining of the sub-brands, more design and trend-led product at great quality and better stock management. The last two wishes were granted.

The coats - across all sub-brands - stood out for me, in particular a wool check style in Autograph (which was arguably the strongest brand) and a lovely, soft pink coat for £85.

By offering a texture-heavy collection, M&S was not only making a trend statement, but also one about quality. It has introduced a new quality charter to ensure high standards in fabric, fit and finish, and fabrics like lambswool, cashmere (whose weight M&S has increased by 9%), leather and lace were seen in abundance across all product categories.

As for stock management, I almost burst into tears when Frances Russell announced that GM had been edited by at least 10% to create fewer options, but more depth. I’ve always thought M&S needed a much tighter collection of great pieces rather than an overwhelming choice of average ones. As John Dixon explained of one, unnamed product category: “90% of sales were coming from 50% of the SKUs”.

But as for the sub-brands, they are all still there, although M&S Woman has been rebranded M&S Collection. It’s a much better name, but why didn’t they come up with it two years ago when M&S Woman was launched? I was assured by Belinda Earl that each sub-brand does “great business” and that differentiation will come from distinct product within each brand. Earl admitted that there had been too many similarities between the different brands.

No-one expects M&S’ womenswear fortunes to turn around after one season, but this collection is a step in the right direction. Of course, a lot will depend on in-store merchandising and communication with its customers about the new collection, so these must be executed with precision for the ranges to make an impact.

In the post presentation Q&A, the respected analyst Tony Shiret wasn’t impressed with M&S’ choice of young models to show off a collection targeted at a 45+ customer, nor did he think such a customer would choose those trend-led pieces. He’s right on the first point: M&S’ customers have to be at the core of every product decision and 20-something models is at odds with its 45+ shopper. But I believe that the M&S woman absolutely wants beautifully designed clothes with a confident nod to trends, if the trends are appropriate, which many of them (with perhaps the exception of grunge…) were.

M&S needs to be bold. The competition is far too tough for a softly-softly approach.

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