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Drapers comment: Can the skirt of the season lift Marks & Spencer?

With a huge waiting list and endorsement from Alexa Chung and Olivia Palermo, a humble suede midi skirt could signal a change in fortunes for M&S’s womenswear sales

Of all the spring 15 womenswear hitting the high street, one skirt has enjoyed an unrivalled amount of attention. It was spotted being worn in February by presenter and celebrity clothes horse Alexa Chung in London and US socialite and model Olivia Palermo on the front row at New York Fashion Week, two months before it hit shop floors. Customer demand has been so high that a waiting list grew to 800 names in 24 hours. Five times the original amount have been produced to satisfy requests and its release date was brought forward by a month, to April 10.

Which item are we talking about? It costs £199, is real suede and mid-length and features contrast stitching, with more than a dash of 1970s style. It’s a skirt from Marks and Spencer’s Autograph range. Yes, M&S - and is now available in all the retailer’s top stores (about 35 in total) and Marksandspencer.com.

M&S is bang on trend with this catwalk-inspired 1970s-style dress. It also walks the line between being a trend-led piece that will catch the eye of the trend-conscious shopper and having a timeless, wearable and trans-seasonal appeal that may draw in its core customer too.

Cast your mind back to autumn 13 and the retailer pulled off a similar coup with its much-hyped, sellout pastel pink coat, which was also heralded as a ‘season-defining must-have’ by the fashion press. But will this make any difference to M&S’s sales - especially considering in its latest results for the 13 weeks to December 27, clothing like-for-like sales were down 5.3%?

“M&S is one of the only players that can or has managed to turn one item into a [must-have of the season] so well and it’s a real positive for it,” says Jessica Fioriti, associate retail analyst at research firm Verdict. “For building brand perception and putting value into the product it’s great. It will drive footfall. Whether it will turn into sales and [help] turn around the business, I doubt it.”

Maureen Hinton, group research director for global retail at research firm Conlumino, agrees. “This is good for publicity and will drive traffic to its site and stores, but it is only one piece. One winner is an asset but it will not make a winning season unless it is backed up by others. The winning formula is to have several must-have pieces in a range but still have alternatives that excite, so that there are consistent sales across the whole business,” she says.

M&S has thought of this. There is a cheaper, fake suede version of the skirt in its Limited Edition collection, costing £39.50, for those who miss out on the £199 skirt or can’t afford it. This will appear alongside a plethora of similarly 1970s-flavoured pieces and more suede items, which will arrive throughout the season. This is all part of a spring 15 range that stands out as one of the strongest since Belinda Earl was appointed as style director in 2012.

M&S needs more of these pieces to make their mark this season - after all, one skirt doesn’t make a summer.

What the M&S team says:

Belinda Earl, style director

“When I first saw the skirt I knew it would be a popular style for us, although the support and excitement we’ve received has exceeded all expectations. When the design team received the first sample, they knew instantly that it had to be included. Following the remarkable amount of editorial coverage and support from industry experts combined with the customer eagerness, we predict it to be one the bestsellers for the spring 15 season.”

Queralt Ferrer, head of design

“We looked to our extensive archives in Leeds, which reference the midi shape and highlight suede as a key fabrication - a combination that felt really relevant now and something that our customers would react well to. Leather is always a bestselling fabric for Autograph and the demand from our customers for premium investment pieces is always high. The suede skirt is a perfect example of this. It’s a timeless, wearable item that has a really luxe finish. The 1970s trend is predicted to continue into the autumn 15 season. which makes this even more of a key investment buy.”

Jo Hales, head of buying

“The increase in anticipation for the skirt is thrilling for a head of buying. We have managed to respond to the growing popularity by bringing the in-store date forward and increasing the order of skirts too. To see the demand for something develop so quickly is really exciting and it has confirmed our predictions that this will be a hero piece for the season.”

Readers' comments (1)

  • Will M&S share their returns data? The skirt is too long and too heavy a fabric for anyone below 5'7".

    Good marketing though. It will drive traffic to the website and cunning to release a few of the skirts early, to those who had signed up to their website.

    Will always wonder if they've paid Alexa to wear it?

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