Why Alexa Chung shouldn’t play around with M&S fortunes

Iona Bain

When Alexa Chung was unveiled as the new saviour of Marks & Spencer’s fashion range earlier this year, commentators veered towards one extreme or the other; the majority of fashion editors and fan girls declared it the work of a style genius but some newspaper columnists said it was the end of good ol’ Marks & Sparks as we know it.

I reserved judgement until the results were out – the clothes sales in the second quarter of this year.

The results weren’t pretty. Clothes and homeware sales fell 8.9 per cent in what retail analysts described as an “absolute shocker”. This is all the more devastating when you consider the huge publicity surrounding Ms Chung’s collection. No surprise, then, that the store announced last month it was cutting around 525 head office jobs as part of an estimated £30m in cost savings.

M&S will tell you that its sales decline is indicative of a wider slump in women’s fashion sales. This may be partly true; retail commentators have seen a slowdown in sales across the high street due to Brexit (so soon?!), unseasonable weather, a lack of compelling new fashion trends and consumers opting for experiences over material goods.

Even if you aren’t interested in fashion, all this should worry you. M&S is a long-term stalwart of the FTSE 100 and shares in the retail giant are likely to be held in many investment portfolios up and down the land (possibly including your workplace pension). So the fact that shares are down about 7 per cent since the start of September will not gladden the heart.

John Lewis and Next have also seen profits and then shares tumble recently amid fears that customers simply don’t like the cut of their jib. It’s clear that John Lewis clothes are becoming too expensive for today’s customers and Next clothes are needing to be discounted more and more before we’ll have ’em.

Now it has emerged that sales figures from M&S for the third quarter, which should have been released by now, have been delayed until November…when Ms Chung is due to release her second collection.

Maybe M&S thinks the new collection will detract from bad news about sales, but I think it will only serve as a timely reminder of where it has all gone wrong.

I like to think of myself as the kind of customer that M&S is gagging for. I am in my late twenties with a degree of disposable income but not enough to go crazy in luxury boutiques or even the upper end of the high street. I am coming out of the fashion plate mind-set that characterised my teens and early twenties and I prefer quality clothes that will last for a few seasons, if not many years. I am not a fast fashion maniac – I am too busy to scour the high street and am actively looking for a store that could be a one-stop for me.

I have a complex but by no means unusual set of fashion needs; work-wear that will be both comfortable without being dowdy and fashionable without scaring the horses; fun casual wear that makes me feel great but is ultimately made to withstand dirty public transport, long walks and barrelling around town; eveningwear that is classy and alluring without giving away the farm. And of course, those perfect items that will go from day to evening.

I think it takes a certain kind of retail genius to understand these requirements. Clearly the folks at Zara have got it – that blue and white £69.99 tweed coat seems to be EVERYWHERE right now. It’s something that Gok Wan is actually doing very well at Sainsburys, which is possibly why its market share in high street fashion is rising. The clothes are very affordable and ticking a lot of the right boxes. But to be fair, Gok Wan did actually work as a fashion consultant and has spent most of his career refining other women’s style. Alexa Chung has mainly been perfecting her own. She dabbles in a bit of writing and presenting but is really best known for wearing expensive clothes (given to her) and having her picture taken at fashion shows and parties. It is not the pedigree of a gifted designer who can turn around an ailing retail empire.

It isn’t easy but it’s not as if M&S hasn’t got this right before. My mum tells me that, a generation ago, it was practically guaranteed that you could go into M&S and get all the must-have items at a reasonable price and made to a very high standard. It’s why the store is considered a national institution and has come to sit at the top of Britain’s fashion retail tree.

And the thing is that when M&S gets it right, it REALLY gets it right (or at least for me). As someone who wants to save money without looking frumpy or cheap, I have bought some absolute knock-outs (mostly in the sales rack actually) that don’t look too seasonal and can be worn pretty much forever if I keep looking after them. A bold red coat in an interesting cut, a draped polka dot dress in a navy and pink colour scheme, a slightly distressed white t-shirt; all these items have a tiny, stylish edge to them but not enough so that they scream FASHION VICTIM!

Only a few items in my wardrobe bought from vintage boutiques and elegant department stores give me more pleasure than my M&S finds – the majority of my other high street purchases just don’t have that same ageless aura.

Most importantly, all these items were made with high quality materials and designed brilliantly; the coat has a good lining, the dress glides over the figure and the t-shirt doesn’t crinkle or bobble after a few washes.

Sadly, this doesn’t happen nearly enough. I have lost count of the number of times I have gone into an M&S store and almost wept at the hideous, painfully trend-led, over-designed and poor-quality clothes on show. And I’m sorry to say that includes most of Ms Chung’s first collection.

Most of the clothes were laughably out of touch with what most women needed. Ooh great, a trench coat! Except it wasn’t actually waterproof and it didn’t come with a hood. So you couldn’t actually wear it on a rainy day. Soz about that. That will be £89 please.

Then there was the fluffy pink jumper, which was half acrylic. £30. No thank you.

The dresses were often far too short to be worn during the day by anyone over the age of 21 and 5”3 (if you can’t bend over even slightly in a dress without feeling like a porn star, what good is it?) When she did do a longer dress (Misty, £49), it was too lurid for 50 per cent of the female population and too frumpy for 100 per cent of the female population.

The slip tops (£25) are nice enough for the bedroom and a hot date, pretty much a no-no for every other situation I can think of.

Some of the pieces looked good, such as the Lydia gingham trousers, but frankly, I don’t think it should take Alexa Chung coming in to scour the archives to reach the stunning conclusion that gingham trousers are good for summer. This stood out as one of the few items in the collection that wasn’t here today, gone tomorrow (along with the cardigans and possibly the navy blazer). As for everything else…

Seriously, are YOU wearing pie crust blouses? Or are you likely to be wearing them next year? No, because they died out in the eighties with good reason!

Unlike the famous £69.99 Zara coat, I haven’t see any of the Alexa items on anyone beyond the summer months – I suspect most have been tucked away in the yesterday drawer, unlikely to see the light again.

M&S often wrongly assumes that all we want are knock-down versions of high-end fashion concepts that grace our catwalks for all of 30 seconds. For the most part, we don’t. Ms Chung is a stylish woman but is young, very thin and doesn’t do the kind of jobs or lead the kind of lives that we all know and love/hate/get on with.

She has simply gone into the archive and decided to bring out what she thinks looks good, based on her personal opinion. It is not a timeless collection that caters to our needs; it is an expression of her personal preferences, nothing more.

A recent Daily Mail article explored exactly why Zara is doing so well. It is constantly in touch with thousands of stores all over the world, watching which items sell the most in each location. Staff are encouraged to report street style, complaints, praise and key buying data from every single store. So the key to Zara’s success is finding out what women are buying…and making more of it.

Zara understands that most of us want to look current but only up to a point. The public will always decide what will penetrate the fashion mainstream and most importantly, what will stay there for the long-haul. If something refuses to go out of style regardless of what the fashion mob says (skinny jeans, ballet flats) it’s usually because the items in question are attractive AND practical.

We want to look AND feel good. And we don’t think that should involve spending lots of money or compromising on quality.

I think M&S will finally grasp this but only after repeating the Alexa Chung experiment and getting the same results again and again; an initial publicity frenzy followed by absolutely no change to long-term sales whatsoever. Albert Einstein would have said this is the definition of madness; let’s hope M&S gets sane before it lets Ms Chung play any more with its archive.

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