By Jan Shure
August 14, 2008
Don't believe the hype. Marks & Spencer's latest bid to recapture a sassy, style-conscious customer base with yet another niche "collection" - this time called Autograph Essentials- is a triumph of hype over wearability. Despite the extravagant claims to the contrary (Autograph Essentials "falls into the buying less and investing better bracket", according to head of M&S womenswear, Kate Bostock), it is yet again a dispiriting and disappointing collection. The fabrics are unpleasant, the colours are horrid and dull and the attention to fit and detail (as opposed to details) is zero.
In case you are wondering about the relevance of this seemingly random fashion rant to JC readers, not only are a lot of JC readers women - and women who buy clothes, and once bought many, many clothes at Marks & Spencer - but the history of that particular company pulls us atavistically. No matter how Aryan M&S becomes, and how far M& S travels from its roots among those immigrants from the Polish shtetls and the "don't ask the price, everything's a penny" beginnings of Simon Marks, we still feel a connection to the firm and the Sieff-Sacher dynasty whose sons, daughters and grandchildren are writ large across the history of Israel. And that is without any proprietorial feelings we retain about the family's contribution to British retailing.
I sometimes wonder - indeed, I speculated in a feature some seven years ago in the pages of the JC - whether it is entirely coincidental that M&S began its decline at just around the time that the last members of the Sieff and Sacher families departed the M&S board room. It seems there was something about the resolutely middle class and aspirational values of the founding family - in particular Marcus (later Lord) Sieff, who was chairman from 1972 to 1984 - and of the (predominantly Jewish) men and women who worked at the firm's Baker Street HQ, that translated into merchandise of a quality and style that customers clamoured to buy, and which the present regime seems unable to replicate no matter how much presentational spin and PR effort they expend. In those days, M&S produced designer copies just weeks after they had appeared on the catwalks, but in fabrics that were often of the same quality as the designer originals.
In those days, M&S rejected the synthetic fabrics and the lurid colours traditionally used by chain-stores. They knew their customers would pay a little more for genuinely high quality, cutting edge fashion - and make no mistake, much of their output was determinedly cutting edge - because they knew they could often pass off their high street buy as a designer original. You would have trouble passing off the new Autograph Essentials collection as anything higher up the fashion-chain than BhS.
Yes, we want investment dressing, but the chances of M&S winning us back to buy it not matter how cleverly designed, gorgeously lit and beautifully signposted the stores now are, are - like another of their niche collections - Limited.