Can M&S save the great British high street?

Holly Willoughby, white T-shirts and brand new knickers – M&S is armed and ready to take back the high street, says Frankie Graddon

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By Frankie Graddon on

The high street is dead – desperately wounded, at least. We’ve all read the headlines (I’ve written some of them): store closures, slumped sales, mass layoffs. It’s all made for pretty grim reading. But is it all really that bad? According to a recent report by the Fashion Retail Academy, 61% of UK shoppers still prefer to try clothes on in-store, with more than two-thirds of consumers buying less than half their clothes online. Could it be that ye olde high street has some life in it yet?

The high-streets stalwarts are certainly fighting back. Last autumn, we saw John Lewis bare its teeth with a rebrand (it became John Lewis & Partners), a big-budget ad campaign (swiftly followed by a celebrity Christmas advert) and the relaunch of its own-brand fashion offering. And now it’s Marks & Spencers’ turn to show us what it’s got – starting, of course, with Holly Willoughby.

Undeniably the most successful high-street collaboration of current times, Willoughby’s first collection for Marks & Spencer launched at the end of September. An edit of the TV presenter’s favourite pieces from M&S’ autumn range, the first drop was an instant hit, providing with its biggest sales day to date. Fast forward to 2019, and Willoughby’s fourth collection lands on 26 February and expects all the success of the previous three. “She’s like customer catnip,” says Jessica Harris, head of PR for womenswear and lingerie, who goes on to explain that Willoughby’s affiliation has risen brand awareness by a whopping 50%.

So, out with the fashion-forward headline grabbers and in with stylish wardrobe fail-safes – but the plan of attack doesn’t stop there

The 16-look edit centres on denim, consisting of jeans, dresses and shirts with a gentle western influence, and taps into fashion’s current mood for utility and versatility. “Denim is so important at the moment, lots of styles are trending,” says Lisa Illis, head of womenswear design. Not just timely, though, the collection also utilises Marks & Spencer’s expertise in the denim field. “We’re an authority on denim,” says Illis, going on to reveal that M&S has the highest market share in jeans in the UK. Citing skinny and straight-leg jeans as the most popular, the brand has also seen an appetite for denim mini skirts, thanks to Willoughby – the mini she wore in the most recent TV advert was a Christmas bestseller. Illis calls this the “Holly halo effect”, explaining that customers come into the brand by way of Willoughby, shop the edit and then continue their shopping journey, purchasing items from the main collections. “It’s a two-way conversation with Holly,” says Harris, who attributes her relatability and authenticity (yes, she really is a fan of M&S) to the collaboration’s success.

However, successful though the “Holly halo effect” is, the high-street behemoth surely cannot rely on that alone and here’s where the clothes come in. Under the new direction of womenswear and kidswear directors, Jill Stanton and Lisa Illis (who joined the brand July 2018 and October 2018, respectively), the M&S womenswear offering has evolved, shifting away from the one-hit wonders (hello, pink coat, suede skirt, THAT polka-dot jumpsuit) to a cohesive and considered collection of multiple wardrobe hits. Think A-line denim shirt dresses, navy boiler suits, tiered midi dress and premium trench coats all designed with the intention of having a universal appeal. “We’re not calling out six or seven ‘must-haves’, because people don’t come to us for that. It’s about broader options and alternatives, not the one piece of the season,” says Illis.

This trench coat is sure to be a top seller when it lands in stores, from February

With a focus on addressing the smart/casual wardrobe, the spring collection has a high/low appeal, mixing sporty sweatshirts with tailored trousers and double-breasted blazers with wide-leg jeans. There are splashes of ochre (one of the brand’s most popular colours) and pops of lilacs and magentas by way of tunics and linen shirts, both mixed in with classic navy, camel and white. Pieces are modern and relevant, without feeling faddy, with nods to trends rather than full-on bows, an approach that Illis calls “unexpected but still super wearable”.

These little nods to trends – a pin-tuck here, some volume there – are what Illis intends on becoming M&S’ design handwriting and will be peppered throughout the entire womenswear offering, unifying the look of the clothes and building up a fashion DNA of sorts – something that has arguably been missing from the brand in recent years. “It’s important for our customers to know what to expect from us. We need to be consistently unpredictable. We need newness and freshness every season but we also need consistency,” says Stanton, who explains that a lot of work has gone into simplifying and elevating the basic T-shirt offering. The existing range has been simplified to four fits – fitted, straight, regular and relaxed – with variations in sleeve and neckline shape, “M&S should be the place that everybody goes to get their white T-shirt,” says Stanton. I couldn’t agree more.

Little extras elevate everyday basics in the new collection – a bit of volume on sleeves, for example, or a pintuck detail

So, out with the fashion-forward headline grabbers and in with stylish wardrobe fail-safes – but the plan of attack doesn’t stop there. As well as providing the clothes, M&S is also going to tell us how to wear them. “We keep hearing that she [the M&S shopper] wants solutions, she wants to know how to put the outfits together,” explains Illis. To that end, the brand will be showcasing more outfit inspiration both in-store and online. In store, the number of mannequins is increasing and their visibility will be upped, and clothes will be hung in outfits, rather than singular components. Areas such as denim are to be redesigned so as to look inviting, rather than confronting. Online, constant tweaks are being made to make the user experience a far nicer one – better product pictures and a faster site speed being two main factors. M&S has also just launched Style Finder, an AI-driven function that allows the user to upload a picture of an outfit they like and then finds similar pieces. “We really use the tech that is available to us as a brand. She [the customer] is shopping differently and we are having to adapt to service her,” explains Harris, who also says that shoppable Instagram and the swipe-up function are both popular.

In an era where consumers are demanding authenticity, trust and reliability, now seems like the perfect time for Marks & Sparks to take centre stage

Of course, we can’t talk about Marks & Spencer without mentioning knickers. The jewel in the M&S crown and beloved by many (Marks & Spencer currently has 36% of the UK’s underwear market share), the underwear offering remains as strong as ever. This spring sees the launch of two innovations, the first of which is Cool Comfort Cotton. A pretty collection of bras and pants, Cool Comfort Cotton is made from supima cotton and has been engineered to keep you cool during those sweaty summer months. “This is modern cotton lingerie,” explains head of design for lingerie, Soozie Jenkinson. The second new launch is M&S Body, a minimalistic range of underwear that focuses on smooth lines, using raw and bonded edges for zero risk of VPL. I’ll be adding both of these to my shopping bag, as well as the new “Miami”-style knickers, which are cut high on the leg and have a V-shaped waistband and promise to have both comfort-factor and leg-lengthening abilities.


There’s no denying the fact that we’re in the midst of a tricky retail climate, with many established high-street brands taking the brunt of it. However, in an era where consumers are demanding authenticity, trust and reliability, now seems like the perfect time for Marks & Sparks to take centre stage. “I have grown up with and have always loved M&S,” said Willoughby at the launch of her first collection – as someone who shares her sentiment, I’m hoping that it does.


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Frankie Graddon

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