Drapers gets a sneak peak of Marks & Spencer’s upcoming autumn 19 womenswear collection, and gives our verdict on the offer.
At the advent of a new fashion season, Marks & Spencer’s clothing collection garners more scrutiny than most, as onlookers attempt to divine whether the retailer is finally on the cusp of a fashion comeback.
Clothing sales are struggling for the retailer: in its latest results for the year to 30 March, UK clothing and home revenues fell by 3.6% overall, and by 1.6% on a like-for-like basis. Well-documented issues including an overly large and confusing offer, supply chain problems and poor availability of popular styles have dogged the retailer.
However, as Drapers got a sneak preview of the autumn 19 collections set to launch into store, and a look at styles heading to the shops as spring 20 kicks off in January, there was a sense of optimism and freshness to the collection.
Several strong styles and a considered and cohesive overall aesthetic hint that M&S’s designs have moved in the right direction.
Head-to-toe tailoring, midi-dress silhouettes, statement coats and a new stretch denim are the key stories for the season. Colour palettes revolve around a warm, neutral base with pops of brightness in scarlet and cobalt blue.
A subtly 1970s aesthetic pervades the autumn offer with bold floral prints particularly key, but the overall aesthetic is classically stylish. Looks revolve around timeless shapes such as longline overcoats, blazers and skinny jeans.
“The customers want simple solutions, versatile, easy outfits and value for money,” notes Lisa Illis, head of design for womenswear. “They want adaptable styles and understandable shapes.”
The overall focus for autumn 19 and spring 20 is about presenting familiar products in unfamiliar ways. This is both in terms of styling – mannequins and campaign materials feature “high-low” dressing suggestions, such as menswear-inspired tailoring paired with sweaters and puffer coats – but also the products themselves. Classic cut coats appear in bold checks and bright colours, sophisticated midi-skirts in vibrant scarlet leather and sporty hoodies in luxurious cashmere.
Stand-out pieces from the autumn and winter collections, which will drop into stores before the end of 2019, include a plush velour suit in deep raspberry from the Autograph range, as well as an M&S Collection print midi dress featuring a 1970s- inspired pussy-bow neck and slightly puffed sleeves.
The leather offer from Autograph is also particularly strong. A scarlet wrap skirt and straight-leg black trousers are sophisticated and sleek. Moving into spring 20, a tan leather trench coat and boxy jacket are also highlights from the leather offer. Well-priced and buttery soft, the range looks set to be a hit.
In the UK, M&S holds the number one market share for denim, selling more than 5 million pairs of jeans every year – making it one of M&S’s “authority” categories. Autumn 19 brings a new, super-soft denim fabric for the retailer, which will appear in three cuts – skinny, straight and cigarette – and a range of washes, with all styles priced at £29.50.
M&S is looking to learn from the mistakes that led to the “jeansgate” disaster last season when the retailer failed to stock enough of its new, best-selling denim styles, which were featured in a campaign with TV star Holly Willoughby.
For this season, M&S is buying more deeply into its “window lines” and core ranges, with departments working more closely together across the business to ensure that there are adequate volumes of key styles.
Illis highlights outerwear and knitwear as M&S’ other two “authority” areas for autumn 19 – categories the retailer has a strong reputation with – and notes that M&S is focusing on “buying with confidence” in these top categories.
The reimagining of the Per Una sub-brand is also fully realised with the autumn 19 collection. Narinda Leon, design lead for womenswear, describes the label as having “reset”, as M&S reviewed its sub-brands, to give a more clear identity.
The collection has its own dedicated design team, which has focused on defining a distinctive DNA for the brand, based on what customers wanted the collection to be. The resulting refresh, which was soft launched in the spring 19 offer, sees a focus on colour, print and femininity, and contrasting textures are central. Velvets, tweeds, brocades and silky fabrications are key and designs have a sophisticated bohemian note – nodding to the eclectic aesthetic that has always characterised the brand.
Prices sit between the main M&S Collection and Autograph, which has a slightly more premium price point.
Despite the goal on creating distinctive identities for the brands, Illis stresses that there is equally a focus on ensuring that there is a synergy within the collections in terms of colour, print and overall “mood”. While the three brands each have a dedicated design team, the departments focus on ensuring the lines complement each other rather than appearing too disparate in their design focus – giving an overall “M&S handwriting” across all styles.
Looking ahead to spring 20, injections of colour – particularly greens and yellows are key – with a remaining focus on subtly twisting classic styles and offering reliable, wearable designs.
The Drapers Verdict
There is no doubt that M&S womenswear clothing offer has come on leaps and bounds in recent seasons. There are some eye-catching stand out items and classic pieces all of which come with the associated assumption of quality that M&S remains known for.
For autumn 19 and into spring 20, the retailer seems to have nailed its goal of producing pieces that are stylish, but not overly “fashion” – the proliferation of flattering midi-dresses, cosy cashmere and classic coats dotted through the collection are solid, timeless and sophisticated.
When presented in isolation the product and collections are both strong, and the team has achieved its goal of differentiating the various sub-brands to give them each distinctive identities. However, the battle for M&S is how it communicates the strength of its product offer in its stores, some of which are dated and cramped, and at odds with the message that the product design conveys.
For a fully fledged fashion turnaround, the whole M&S retail experience is still in need of modernisation – and a shopping journey that matches up to its fashion credentials.