Taking on the top fashion job at Marks & Spencer was never going to be an easy ride.
The retailer’s dwindling fashion sales have been well documented over recent years, as has its numerous changes in strategy and tenure. After failing to turn around its struggling clothing and home division, M&S this week ousted its managing director, Jill McDonald – the fourth fashion boss to exit in a decade.
Group CEO Steve Rowe will now take over the leadership of the department directly in the near term. He praised McDonald for strengthening the clothing management team, improving the quality and style of products, and setting a clear direction for the business to attract a younger family age customer.
The decision to part ways with McDonald is said to have been taken after the board was frustrated by the retailer’s recent denim performance. It failed to stock enough of its new best-selling range of jeans, as worn by television presenter Holly Willoughby.
At Tuesday’s annual shareholders’ meeting, Rowe said the failed jeans promotion “led to [M&S] having some of the worst availability in casual trousers I’ve seen in my life”.
The “jeansgate” disaster, combined with an overly large and confusing offer, supply chain issues and poor availability of popular styles, were blamed in part for the disappointing performance of the division. 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.
McDonald joined M&S in October 2017, having previously been the chief executive of bicycles and car parts company Halfords and fast-food chain McDonald’s UK. Her appointment raised eyebrows at the time as she had no previous fashion experience, despite a strong background in customer service.
“You can’t go from bikes to bras, blouses and bikinis,” Mary Anderson-Ford, managing director of merchandising recruitment specialist Aqua Retail said.
“Everyone knew that McDonald didn’t have the knowledge or expertise to push through what was required at the retailer, so it was a doomed appointment from the start,” the director of one fashion multiple said.
However, insiders have told Drapers the appointment was a “poisoned chalice” and that McDonald could not be blamed for the division’s downfall.
“To blame her for everything is ridiculous,” said one retail director.
“You can’t turn an ailing business like M&S around in just two years – even someone with a more defined skillset than Jill could not make it happen.”
One retail veteran agreed: “Everyone has been quick to over-simplify and overlook the situation, blaming a shortage of bestselling products for the retailer’s downfall. If M&S can be knocked sideways by just one issue, then there’s a bigger issue at hand here than we think.
“The organisation is big and complicated, and it takes too long to turn things around. There will be many people out there who think they can go in and make a difference. Unfortunately, it’s never going to be that simple.”
Industry sources believe that M&S needs to appoint a new clothing boss with retail expertise: “It feels like M&S keeps putting people in that role that are disruptive and not experts in that field,”said one womenswear buying director. “It now calls for an experienced product view. The division needs a good old-fashioned product expert, who understands ranges, product, stock and how much stock the business needs. They need traditional skills and to really understand the brand positioning – and what the customer wants to buy.”
One former M&S executive told Drapers: “The role is not for the faint-hearted. I would hope M&S would realise you have to have experience in the role, to try and sort out the UK’s biggest clothing conundrum. They have to be really clear about what they need.
“I think the nation wants M&S to succeed and thrive, and wants it to be good at amazing quality. To do that, they need a steady strategy that doesn’t keep changing.”
One former womenswear CEO said: “In terms of a replacement, I’d be looking for a ‘get their hands dirty’ experienced retailer. The new person must understand the importance of detail, be strong enough to overcome the M&S bureaucracy, not afraid to ‘make waves’ and disagree with the established view there, and have experience of turning around a clothing brand(s).”
Sources said there are several “strong” potential internal candidates who could take over the role, including Jill Stanton, womenswear and kidswear director, and Wesley Taylor, menswear director. Another candidate flagged was Maddy Evans, former fashion director at Topshop Topman, who Drapers revealed last month is moving into a head buying role at M&S.
After several failed relaunches over the past decade, the jury is out on whether 135-year-old retailer’s clothing division can ever be turned around.
The former womenswear CEO said: “It sounds obvious, but the business needs to listen to its customers and perform a robust analysis from its huge amount of data. I would question how much of its CRM [customer relationship management] data is used from the design stage through to working out how much to buy, and how to display on the sales floor. The number of styles is way too wide. The ranges need detailed scrutiny to weed out success and failures, and an honest and transparent analysis from the teams involved.”
A spokeswoman for Marks & Spencer said: “We will update on succession in due course.”