Last year, Marks & Spencer produced a rather sassy day dress. Given wide exposure as part of its mega-expensive advertising campaign, it was a garment that was designed to appeal across several demanding fashion demographics, and was more than usually desirable by present-day M&S standards.
What was so interesting about the dress is that it was poppy red. Not just seen in poppy red in its ad campaign, but made only in red. So that, if perhaps you considered your size 14 silhouette too big for neck-to-knee red, or you had colouring and complexion for which this particular shade of red did nothing, or you merely rejected the notion of wearing an entire dress in a colour so eye-poppingly bright, you were stuffed.
At the very top end of the fashion business, it has forever been the preserve of the couturier to tell the client in what colour she should wear a particular garment. Colour is at the heart of a fashion collection, and colour is part of the designer’s “vision”. But gradually, over several decades, the same reduction of consumer choice — handed down as a diktat from the designer — found its way into ready-to-wear and diffusion ranges. That fabulous pair of trousers which you might want in grey or black are only available in chocolate; the sublime raincoat which you would love in grey is made only in purple. Don’t like that colour? Well, clearly, you don’t know your Ghesquiere from your Gucci, so please take your credit card elsewhere.
If you have studied the UK fashion industry for the last 30 years, you can trace the high street’s mono-colour trail back to George Davies. The man who founded fashion chain Next — and this month gave us GIVe — he was probably the first person on the high street to offer entire ranges of garments in a single colour or colourway. When he left Next in 1989, he launched his George clothing line for Asda, adopting the same colour policy.
Interestingly, among his senior staff at Asda — which he quit in 2000 after it was taken over by Walmart — was one Kate Bostock. And Ms Bostock, who would doubtless have seen the financial benefit of the policy, is now head of womenswear at… yes, M&S.
There is, of course, a sound economic basis for this diminishing choice. If, as a buyer, you order a dress in three colours, you have to work out all the permutations of sizes and colours, with the added fun of predicting which colour will be more popular in which size. For instance, a canny store buyer would never simply buy a jacket in black, red and green, with four of each size in each colour. The buyer knows that, as a rule, she will sell most black — and fewest brights — in the bigger sizes. But take away the colour variables and, hey presto, her job becomes infinitely simpler.
While M&S did not originate this technicolour tyranny, it is the biggest high street culprit. Currently, across all ranges — Autograph, Limited Collection, Per Una, Speziale, Portfolio, Classic — there are 120 dresses, of which more than 100 come in just one colour.
There are a staggering 161 skirt across their ranges, and again, around 130 come in just the one colour.
In knitwear, those craving a choice fare a little better: out of 312 pieces, 40 are available in four colours, 14 in three colours and 54 in two colours. But that still leaves around 200 items where the customer has no colour choice.
In coats, the situation is equally limited, with a few styles available in black as well as statement shades like fuchsia or purple or yellow, but most not.
You will not be surprised to learn that M&S’s Per Una range — formerly designed by George Davies and now overseen by his one-time protégé Kate Bostock — barely has a garment or an accessory available in anything other than a single colour.
And that is not due to any reluctance on the part of the designers; they offer colour choices but are simply told to produce just the one colour.
If we buy a Marc Jacobs coat or a Lanvin dress, we definitely want it in the designer’s signature colour so that everyone knows it is Marc Jacobs or Lanvin. But when it comes to colour on the high street, Sir Stuart Rose and the M&S board need to be reminded of the aesthetic issues (whether customers will like a colour and whether it suits them); of the practical issue (whether it works with the rest of their wardrobe); and — most important — the highly desirable element of anonymity when buying on the high street.
Much as we still love M&S for undies and basics, when it comes to a coat or a dress (especially a dress at £175, like the navy one, left, from the Speziale range) we probably do not want someone looking at us and instantly thinking: “Oh yes, that M&S navy dress…”