The team tasked with giving Marks & Spencer’s fortunes a makeover has unveiled the key fashion pieces they think will bring customers back to the ailing store.
Chief executive Marc Bolland said the Autumn/Winter 2013 ranges revealed at a catwalk show in central London represented “a step in the right direction”.
“We want to be very clear that this is a step-by-step approach,” he said, adding: “The team will keep on improving. What is important is the direction - and I am very confident that the direction is in style and in quality.”
Mr Bolland carried out a major reshuffle last year amid sliding sales but insisted that the impact of the changes in clothing would not be felt until after this year’s spring and summer lines, which were put together by the previous regime.
However, the executive makeover received a major setback when “Knicker Queen” Janie Schaffer walked out after just three months as director of lingerie and beauty.
Mr Bolland said he had confidence in his new team, praising them for their “very, very hard” work.
“We have inherited a very strong brand,” said Mr Bolland, who took over as M&S boss three years ago.
“There is very strong quality, strong retail and branding.”
He defended higher-priced items of clothing – including a red leather jacket at €280 – saying they were to be sold for a fraction of the price of clothing at luxury store Selfridges.
“It is quality, and the best price, both at the same time,” he said.
General merchandise executive director John Dixon – formerly M&S’s head of food - admitted much of the British high street had “changed at a faster pace than we have” and that the chain was focused on listening to shoppers’ needs.
“Let’s be clear that this new team is acutely aware of our core customers,” he said.
What they had been told by customers is that the chain “needs to improve its style credentials” – something the new clothing strategy is intended to address.
It aims to present a more streamlined look to the stores, with a 10% reduction in womenswear options and less cluttered stores.
Mr Dixon said the team had drawn inspiration from the firm’s archives as well as having “a good look” at competitors.
He sees women’s fashion as the key to reviving other areas of the business.
“If we get womenswear firing on all cylinders, there is a halo benefit to the other ranges,” he told the audience at One Marylebone in central London.
The chain had 34 million customers last year, with 60% of the UK adult population buying Marks and Spencer general merchandising, said Mr Dixon.
The key now is to persuade younger customers, already in the store to buy lingerie or food, to pay a visit to the womenswear department.
“We are not focusing on young, young, young,” said Dutchman Mr Bolland. “But we have customers in store from every single age group and if they see something they like, they might get it.”
Womenswear has suffered from poor buying decisions in recent years, contributing recently to the company’s seventh quarter in a row of falling sales in general merchandise.
The 12 weeks to February 13 saw M&S’s share of the clothing and footwear market slide to 11.1% from 11.5% a year earlier, according to recent Kantar Worldpanel figures.
Rivals such as Debenhams and H&M are seen as having stolen a march on M&S by attracting on-trend fashion shoppers with their designer ranges, while Marks was still using 1960s model Twiggy for celebrity inspiration.
There has also been criticism of its basic and dependable ranges such as underwear, knitwear and simple tops.
The new ranges have much more of an emphasis on fashion “with a capital F”, according to new style director Belinda Earl.
The former Debenhams and Jaeger boss, who joined M&S last summer, said: “There’s more of a role than ever for us to lead in fashion and design.”
She spoke of the chain’s “fabulous fashion heritage” and her desire for its clothes to be compared to what she described as the “best in class” in the clothing industry.
Part of the strategy is to launch the new M&S Collection, taking the place of M&S Woman, “as a symbol of a new era”, according to director of womenswear Frances Russell.
The rebranding will see the Limited Collection range become Limited Edition “to reflect the seasonal nature of the product”, with items aimed at an audience of 25 to 35-year-olds.
Ms Russell said: “We’ve injected some love back in to our brands and focused on our brand signatures to ensure that every product in each of our collections has been designed specifically with our customers in mind.”
The Autumn/Winter ranges arrive in stores and online from July.
Jo Jenkins, poached from Next to take charge of lingerie and beauty after the departure of Schaffer, will join the team later this year in the company’s hope that she can also play her part in restoring fortunes.
Analysts say a sustained improvement in Marks’s womenswear offering is key to its turnaround