With Marks & Spencer's profits plunging, the store stands accused of losing its touch. What touch? asks James Sherwood
TWO OF fashion's institutions have been much-maligned this week. Linda Evangelista raised suspicions that she was pregnant during a catwalk appearance in Portugal. She wasn't. And Marks & Spencer, the Peggy Mitchell of the British high street, was accused of losing its touch. Profits are down 23 per cent for the first six months of 1998 and shares fell 10 per cent to hit a five-year low. M&S chairman, Sir Richard Greenbury, said, "It's a bloodbath out there," referring to UK retail rather than Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon.

Melodrama aside, this is Style Police not NASDAQ. We can only talk about Marks & Spencer's merits as a frock shop. Is it supplying what we, the hip kitties of Britain, are demanding?

"If you are a fashion stylist or a student who has hours to spend searching for one item, then you will find it in M&S," says Lorna V, editor of Time Out's Sell Out section. "Mind you, you could say that about any store. I often think men who are dallying around a lot must think women have no imagination, because we all wear the same underwear." Any discussion about M&S will always come down to the nation's drawers. But the store has been promoting itself as a serious proposition for fashion. M&S was the first to employ "consultant" designers Betty Jackson, Julien MacDonald, Paul Smith and Ghost's Tanya Sarne to pep up the high fashion content of what was essentially middle England and middle-of-the-road clothing. Debenhams went one further by naming its guest as designers Ben de Lisi, Pearce Fionda, Jasper Conran and Maria Grachvogel.

Angela Buttolph, the "Fashion Victim" on Channel 4's She's Gotta Have It, says, "Frankly, I'd send someone to buy my underwear in M&S but wouldn't be caught dead in any other branch than Marble Arch. I'd be bulk-buying this season's 100 per cent cashmere for under pounds 100 and elbowing Japanese tourists out of the way to make sure I got the last grey cashmere sweater. But apart from underwear and cashmere, Fashion Victim would bypass M&S as a fashion store."

Strike two against M&S is availability. This season, the mags all shot at least one M&S piece that got it right - a neat pair of pinstripe slouch pants or a grey empire line maxi dress. Now you try finding these pieces in your local branch. The M&S seasonal stockpile is so vast some of us just can't be bothered to wade through myriad items in offensive colour ways to find the one grey item left on the rail, which is inevitably a size 23. Trying to be all things to all people will inevitably disappoint. If you promise high fashion pieces to young customers and don't deliver, then you've lost another customer to Oasis or Dorothy Perkins.

The key selling point M&S always had against high street rivals was quality. But even that is in question. There's a lot of variation in the make-up at M&S. In some cases it is overrated. Because the stock is so vast, you tend to find a piece you really want and then the size is unavailable. And that's a problem. Arguably, M&S has been busy with its foray into contemporary interiors, which Lorna V says is excellent. Or trying to corner the gourmet pre-pack meal market, which Fashion Victim swears by. Again, this is M&S trying to be all things to all people. Maybe they need to get back to basics where fashion is concerned.

M&S prides itself on providing us with our basics. A couple of years ago, it was chic to admit you bought your basics from M&S. You'd hear hip young mums boasting about buying an extra pack of 10-12 year old white T-shirts for themselves and spending the VAT on Tequila. Now we buy our basics from Gap. Gap works because it is a US import, it is a young label in the UK and because the label is accepted along with Carhartt and Dockers as a funky label to be seen wearing. Nobody under 40 and of sound mind would buy their khakis or denims from M&S.

So is Style Police dancing on the grave of St Michael? Not a bit of it. M&S has always had the right ideas, but smaller, younger companies have always been able to copy and carry them through more quickly. M&S underwear is, was and always will be a solid gold design classic. For the big white shirt, the 100 per cent cotton T-shirt and the silk viscose cardi, M&S is king. But the scatter technique with "high fashion pieces" - selective stockists, short runs and nervous publicity campaigns - is not going to cut it.