Expansion plans: comfort-first clothing brings M&S back into fashion

Expansion plans: comfort-first clothing brings M&S back into fashion

Marks & Spencer’s showcase of new autumn looks is both a back-to-school moment in the British fashion industry calendar and a bellwether of which catwalk trends will successfully translate to the mass market.

But this season’s hero pieces are not designer-lookalikes in the vein of 2013’s sellout pink coat, or celebrity favourites such as 2015’s as-seen-on Alexa Chung suede skirt. In 2021, the stars of the show are colourful tracksuits, quilted coats and non-wired bras.

“Anything with an elastic waist” flies out of store right now, said the company’s womenswear design director, Jill Stanton.

In the shoe department, heels are being sidelined in favour of flats. The head of design, Lisa Illis, said: “Women are buying comfortable boots, trainers and sandals – ‘proper shoes’ are much less important than they were.”

Fashion has been a problem area for M&S in recent years, but the store is hoping that consumer appetite for comfort heralds a turnaround, by playing to its strengths. “Our ethos has always been that we don’t have one ‘comfort’ line. Everything we do is comfortable,” said Soozie Jenkinson, head of lingerie. Soft “bralettes” are available up to a K cup. Even partywear emphasises a more relaxed approach: a pair of black velvet evening trousers have a button fastening at the front of the waistband, but a stretch panel in the rear.

Lockdown store closures hit hard at a brand that was lagging behind on the shift to online retail. A successful partnership with Ocado has accelerated a transition to a food-first model, and fashion has been removed from the shop floor in many stores. But in a sign that M&S is now taking online fashion seriously, it is hoping to become the first high-street retailer to offer same-day delivery.

Where clothes are still on shop floors, racks of prosaic “basics” – now so cheaply and widely available online that they are almost impossible to turn a profit on – have been replaced by “more compelling, colourful clothes”, says Stanton.

“The racks and racks of black trousers that you used to see in stores are gone now. Store colleagues are telling us that shoppers come in and say, ‘I’ve forgotten how to get dressed!’ People come to us because we make fashion easy for them, and they want comfortable clothes, but not boring ones – it used to be that 50% of our knitwear was sold in black, grey and navy but now it’s only 25%. Orange is really popular right now.”

Key pieces include brightly coloured tracksuits, styled for post-lockdown public-facing wardrobes with hiking boots and tailored coats instead of slippers, and an olive puffer coat with “onion” patterned quilting. Stiff, pricey tailoring is out and shackets and sleeveless knits are presented as easy, inexpensive wardrobe updates. “£15 is a key price point for us now,” said Stanton. Sweatshirts and joggers, seen as building block of the modern wardrobe, are all £15. Prices go up to £250 for leather pieces in the high-end Autograph range, “which we can do because our customer trusts that she is getting value for money. That £250 piece would be £500 somewhere else.”

Sustainability is seen as key to winning the loyalty of a new generation of potential customers. Printed dresses by the affordable eco-conscious brand Nobody’s Child have proved popular with younger shoppers, as have period-proof knickers, which will roll out from an online-only launch to 70 shop floors later this year.