Industry insiders have welcomed the appointment of two product-focused fashion directors at Marks & Spencer, but say the pressure is now on to ignite a turnaround at the struggling retailer.
As part of a fashion team restructure by the new M&S clothing and beauty boss, Jill McDonald, former managing director of Burton Wes Taylor has been appointed menswear director and Jill Stanton, former head of product at Old Navy, will be joining as womenswear and kidswear director.
Amid the appointments there were also departures: Michael Kerr, menswear and kidswear director, and Queralt Ferrer, womenswear and lingerie design director, are leaving, while Belinda Earl is stepping away from her commercial role but will continue to work in an advisory role.
One industry insider said M&S now needs to step up a gear, but questioned whether the new team would bring a much-needed “light-bulb moment” to the retailer.
“For the last few years [chief executive] Steve Rowe has been focused on fixing problems and the logistics. But executing the strategy and running the business well is not enough two years on.”
She continued: “The question I would ask is, ‘are these the people with the big ideas?’ Because that’s what M&S really needs now. And I don’t mean a new range or a new sweater. Jill [McDonald] needs to bring really big thinking to the table, so the challenge of this new regime is how will these people get on board.”
Retail strategic advisor Richard Hyman believes that part of accelerating the performance of fashion at M&S means really getting to know its customer: “It’s about a rebuild. It’s cultural, it’s philosophical, it’s about being clear about who the customer is – and I don’t think M&S really is. When you look at the body language of the product, that’s where you can really tell.
“Menswear in the last few years has looked better than it has for a long time, and its performance has been slightly better than women’s. It looks better, but also more cohesive. Womenswear, in contrast, continues to look all over the place. M&S spends loads of money on understanding the customer, but it has a culture that doesn’t really allow that insight in the door at the top.”
Nivindya Sharma, director for retail strategy and insights at WGSN, said bringing new people into the business could be just the cultural shake up it needs: “They have experience in different companies and in different aspects of retail.
“Previously, we’ve had the idea that senior management need to be M&S lifers. But now it’s about getting people who have different experience and injecting fresh blood at the top. They have enough people who understand the M&S DNA, and these appointments will bring in a fresh vibe to M&S.”
Clothing sales at M&S have been in decline for years, despite numerous attempts to revitalise its offer. Sharma said McDonald’s new team could be just the right change to help turn things around: “Wes has joined from Burton – that’s a business that has been run very differently. It’s more fast fashion and he will have dealt with customers who are high demand, so how can he apply all that knowledge into something that is a traditional, established business?”
As well as her stint at Old Navy, Jill Stanton has also served 14 years at Nike Group. Having spent recent years in the US, her biggest challenge will be getting to grips with the UK high street once again, the managing director of one womenswear chain observed: “Stanton will bring a good global view of the marketplace and her stint at Nike is interesting. The UK high street is very volatile at the moment, but it won’t take her long to get to know the ins and outs, and putting product people in place is the right call.”
However, she added that the biggest challenge for M&S will be re-establishing what the brand stands for in the consumers’ eyes in an increasingly competitive environment: “[M&S] has become obsessed with style and always wanting style in womenswear. What has been forgotten is what they stand for with regards to quality, which doesn’t have the same value as before. I’m surprised that’s never been looked at.
“The new John Lewis Westfield London store is like a Selfridges, and there’s a level of excitement there, but where is the excitement in M&S? This new team will really need to deliver to help drive the fashion business back to growth.”
The Drapers verdict
Marks & Spencer’s new fashion team is facing an uphill challenge, particularly with the retailer’s jewel in the crown: womenswear. Sat in the squeezed middle market, with consumers trading up and down all around, the offer has been described as at best “incohesive” and at worst “schizophrenic.” Arguably, there has been too much of a focus on price and not enough on quality and relevance, but there seems to be an urgent need to address who the M&S core customer really is. It’s too early to tell, but hopefully this new team will inject fresh ideas, creativity and innovation into the much-loved brand and help return it to the former glory days as a premiere high street retailer.