It must be exhausting for Marks & Spencer to be so persistently held up as some barometer of British culture when they’d be far more usefully occupied making more sleeves, but nonetheless their every whim – from mass closures (one in three of their clothing stores is on its way out) to a change in design personnel, from a company-wide sustainability drive to a single pink duster coat – is reported as either the saviour or death knell of bricks-and-mortar retail. But here we are again and, for once, their plans seem precisely what every woman I know has longed for during M&S’s confused years in the wilderness.
This month, both M&S (rumoured to be worth less than online retailer ASOS) and their once-untouchable neighbour, John Lewis (who’ve recently seen a significant decline in profits), have announced a major rethink in their womenswear offering. Their spookily parallel plans are not radical but common-sense-ical, and a relief to any woman who, in recent times, has wandered into a high-street store, glanced at a sea of cold-shoulder tops and boho skirts that may as well be displayed under a sign reading “pre-menstrual mania/imminent breakdown”, and retreated wearily to her laptop for something – anything – to wear.
For, mercifully, it seems the high street’s obsession with taking on internet fast-fashion retailers is at least partially over. Focus for both John Lewis and M&S will finally shift from the many ill-conceived own-brand garments that tick neither the “high fashion” nor “simple classic” box and on to elegant, useful pieces that work year upon year. John Lewis, whose customers are telling them they want to buy fewer, but better, items, calls this new direction “style over fashion”. Marks & Spencer calls its new emphasis on personal style, rather than ephemeral trends, “heartland M&S”. I call it “the perfectly bleeding obvious”, but who cares when I’ll finally have something to wear without hitting my overdraft?
The soothing, thought-collecting lunchtime browse; the true look and feel of the fabrics, an unexpected find spotted in a window; the stolen coffee break as we contemplate the merits of mini in shop one or maxi in shop two
I welcome the garments that should once again cause me to hear the words “M&S” and think not of tatty fixtures and an unstaffed cash register, but of cosy, dependable, honestly priced basics. A cardigan that skims snuggly over the hips, rather than cutting me square across the middle, which I can buy in four colours and tick off my shopping list for good. The Breton top that leans out for my boobs, but back in for my waist, and still allows room for a pasty. The camel coat that makes me feel like Catherine Deneuve dressed for an autumn stroll on the Left Bank. The sucky-in tights that neither conjure up hurty back-fat nor trigger cystitis; the jeans that go skinny on leg but high in rise; the perfect leopard bag that accommodates more than a lipstick but costs less than a car. These are the staples of any grown woman’s wardrobe and the internet is either not providing them or making the gamble too risky and labour-intensive to be worthwhile (it took me three infuriating weeks to arrange the return of some disastrous jeans from fashion world darling Sézane. Never, ever again). And that’s not to mention too costly for the environment – who hasn’t needlessly summoned five garments across the country, purely to try on, before sending all but one back in another carbon-emitting van?
Few of us will be unfamiliar with the shame of opening the front door on a Sunday morning to find some poor bloke proffering a cardboard sarcophagus containing only four batteries and a lint roller we could easily have sourced ourselves by putting on shoes and engaging with the outside world. The vast quantities of frocks at ASOS may seem exciting at first click, but once I’ve filtered out everything that doesn’t have a back, two sleeves and a hemline that clears my pubic bone, what am I realistically left with that I’ll wear past next season, never mind next year? We live in a time when Burberry incinerates some £28m worth of stock to stop it from falling into the wrong hands, when not even charity shops will always accept worthless donations from Primark, when the House of Commons Environmental Audit select committee is launching an inquiry into how the multi-billion pound “fast fashion” industry is contributing to climate change. M&S and John Lewis’ decision to at least partially opt out isn’t just what they finally believe we want – it’s what they know we desperately need.
Where some may see desperation and a futile attempt to survive the digital age, I see John Lewis and M&S’s return to basics as necessary self-awareness at a critical time. We simply don’t look to these iconic retailers for throwaway fashion – and that could be entirely to their credit and profit. Leave Topshop, Boohoo, ASOS, SilkFred and the rest to do what they do well and instead make wearable, affordable and desirable clothes for adults that are once again worth leaving the house for. And maybe then we can actually return to enjoying the irreplaceable ceremony of going to the shops. The soothing, thought-collecting lunchtime browse; the true look and feel of the fabrics; an unexpected find spotted in a window; the stolen coffee break as we contemplate the merits of mini in shop one or maxi in shop two; the human contact; the satisfying fatigue of the bus journey home; the weight of our haul on our laps; the commitment and physical effort put into what we wear and how we present to the world. Instead of looking for signs that physical shops are done for, we need to acknowledge all we’d miss if they were.