Department stores are dead. Or so implies the news. Over the past few months, Debenhams, House of Fraser, Fenwick and Marks & Spencer have all announced store closures following dramatic profit drops. In fact, House of Fraser’s future currently hangs in the balance – having been saved from going into administration by Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley, the store is currently enjoying daily headlines detailing suppliers pulling stock and customers not receiving refunds. John Lewis, too, has had its fair share of turbulent times. In June, it issued a profit warning and just last week announced it would be cutting 270 staff members. It’s no secret that it’s currently very tough out there on the high street, particularly for the department store. However, they are fighting back and none more so than John Lewis – or, as of last week, John Lewis & Partners.
If you were watching Bake Off last Tuesday, you will have seen the store’s latest TV advert – a heartwarming school-production scene, set to the tune of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. With the tag line “When you’re a part of it, you put your heart into it. Because for us, it’s personal”, the message is of a brand focusing on team-player mentality and a personal touch. But how does this relate to clothes? Well, as well as revamped physical store spaces (if you’re near Oxford Street, check out the new shoe lounge, which has changing rooms, so that you can check your new shoes match your outfit), John Lewis & Partners has boosted its fashion offering, introducing style talks, a shopping app and launching Madewell online. But at the heart of this is its redesigned eponymous own-brand collection.
The collection is all about stylish wear-forever pieces in bold colours. Everything is designed to be worn together, mixing and matching the pieces to fit in with your personal style. “This is a partnership, not a dictatorship – we don’t want to tell you what to wear,” explains Iain Ewing, head of designs womenswear and accessories. The September drop is split into four shade groups – yellows, reds, blues and greens – with a few pieces of white, black, grey and camel added in for neutrality. For the first time, accessories have been designed alongside the clothes, meaning that, as well as finding a new outfit, you should be able to find the bag and shoes to go with it. And although there will be three drops a season, the point is that pieces are true wardrobe keepers, with a wear-all-year-round aesthetic and a focus on great-quality fabrics that will last. So, the big question is: do I want to wear any of it?
A couple of days ago, I popped into the Oxford Street store to find out. Taking advantage of the new Style Studio, I booked a "3 steps to style" styling session, which is two hours long and totally free. After a mini consultation, in which I told my stylist, Ayse, about what I usually wear (grey, navy, dresses, jeans) and what I’d like to try more of (trousers, colours), she went off to gather some bits from the new collection, while I sat and sipped my sparkling water (again, complimentary – fizz was also offered). My confidence momentarily faltered when, 10 minutes later, I was stood in front of a rail filled with terrifyingly bright clothes, save for one slice of black by way of a leather biker jacket. Nevertheless, I went into the changing room and tried on the first outfit– a pair of coral-red culottes and matching top.
The collection is all about stylish wear-forever pieces in bold colours. Everything is designed to be worn together, mixing and matching the pieces to fit in with your personal style
Far from being my usual style, the culottes were actually a very flattering cut and the colour didn’t look half bad, especially when paired with the red top. (NB I tried them on with a plain white T-shirt, but the end result wasn’t nearly as nice. Sometimes more is more.) I nearly yelped when my stylist suggested I put on a pair of burgundy shoes, but again it unexpectedly worked.
Keeping with the culottes, I tried on a hot-pink jumper which, in theory, should have worked, but in practice looked very dodgy, then moved on to a yellow fisherman’s rib jumper. Now, I have a thing about wearing yellow and red together – it makes me think of Ronald McDonald – so was ready to write this off. However, thanks to the orangey tones in the culottes, it was less "mustard and ketchup", more useful office outfit. I’d wear it with tan shoes and bag.
The big hits for me were the jumpers. Extraordinarily soft with not a hint of itch, the two colourblock roll-neck jumpers would be brilliant slung on with jeans or worn with a swishy midi skirt. The navy slim-leg cord trousers were increadibly comfortable and offer an alternative to indigo jeans, as did the blue wide-leg cropped trousers. The coats, though gorgeous, felt a little bit too grown-up for me (I’m still a scruffy 16-year-old in my head); however, if you're after a bit of polish, then definitely take a look. I love the fact that they are purposefully lightweight, so can be worn over blazers or chunky jumpers.
As for the accessories, the shoes and bags Ayse picked out for me were lovely, but too bright for my stubborn monochrome ways. I went rogue and sought out a black double-pocket cross-body bag and the Rhea bag in burgundy, which, for £119, is perhaps the best under-£300 handbag I’ve seen in ages.
So, what did I buy? After all of that colour experimentation, I came away with a grey flecked grandad cardigan – typical. At £120, it’s more than I would usually spend on a cardi, but the softness and fit won me over. (Plus, I can wear it over strappy midi dresses as the weather cools, prolonging their shelf life well into autumn. So, I’m basically saving money.)
With the likes of And/Or, Whistles, Hush and Madewell, over the last year or so John Lewis & Partners has become a real fashion-destination contender and this latest addition only adds to that. I’d be tempted to mix and match my way through all of the brands – some zebra stripe And/Or shoes, jeans from Madewell and one of the aforementioned jumpers – rather than sticking to just one, but I think that’s the point. It’s a one-stop fashion shop. One I’ll be popping into again.