It has been several cheap sexy clothes years since M&S-watching became a national sport. As a country, we have a soft spot for the brand that we think of as quintessentially British (though one of its founders, Michael Marks, was originally Polish — thank God for immigration). We all grew up wearing its pants and socks, and receiving its pyjamas on Christmas Day, eating its really superlative chocolate biscuits and Percy Pigs. And so, long after the company’s womenswear sales first floundered — more than a decade ago now — we’ve all been rooting for Marks & Spencer, waiting for news of a collection that would help it to compete on the fashion front with the trend-focused likes of Zara. It may be time to tweak the conversation.
This week’s preview of the brand’s spring/summer 2018 collection — plus a capsule of kimono-inspired eveningwear launching online today, produced in collaboration with Graduate Fashion Week award-winner Claire Tagg — was in line with what we might call the new normal. It highlighted M&S’s season-after-season strengths — underwear, outerwear and cashmere, for example — and other areas in which the brand just can’t quite crack the winning formula. More on those later.
If there is one clothing department you’re loyal to at Marks & Sparks, it’s likely to be underwear. The team behind this must be a truly well-oiled machine: for spring, bras, knickers and lacy one-pieces are as pretty, flattering and well-constructed as ever. Bralets have proved such a hit that the brand will now offer them up to a G cup, with hidden structure underneath to provide support. The Rosie Huntington-Whiteley line, now celebrating its fifth anniversary, is M&S’s most successful lingerie collection to date — “We estimate something like one in 50 British women owns a Rosie bra in the UK,” says Soozie Jenkinson, who heads design in the department. For spring it will now include a full-cup shape and robes in soft modal fabric. I wonder if they all say a group prayer each day that Huntington-Whiteley never gets bored with bras.
A pre-preview recce of a London branch on Monday reminded me how strong M&S’s cashmere offering is: at its heart is a round-neck Autograph jumper available in 12 colours for ￡75 a pop, with a host of other styles available. For spring, I learnt yesterday, they’ve introduced a long, grey M&S Collection cardigan (￡85) that looks deliciously comfortable, like something you would put on the moment you got home and refuse to remove. It even has long sleeves with thumb-holes, which are a godsend for flimsy types like me with perennially cold hands.
The design team have picked up on the trend for shirting, and that’s reflected in some useful pieces that would work equally well for the office or the weekend: one neat blue pinstripe M&S Collection top is cleverly gathered and draped at the collar (￡27.50). An Autograph shirt in the same stripe flares from the waist with a hem that dips at the back (￡39.50), and a crisp white V-neck blouse is pulled in by a sash (￡39.50).
Outerwear, as always, includes some well-priced corkers. I like a knee-length coat in a large red check (￡79). A cropped leather Autograph jacket (￡249) is reversible: olive green on one side, navy on the other, and modern in its collarless, clean style. A black-and-white gingham trench coat has been given pleasing proportions: broad lapels and a generously wide belt, all the better to give the effect of a small waist (￡89). There are also strong accessories for next season, in particular a cross-body navy and teal satchel (￡29.50), a Jackie O-ish top-handle pink bag (￡29.50) and a pair of white pointed mules with a chic V cut-out at the front (￡25).