Focus: Knickers to M&S!

What's all this nonsense about 'saving' Marks & Spencer from Philip Green? He's welcome to it, says the IoS's design expert, Stephen Bayley. It even fails the ladies' underwear test
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The Independent Online

'No, no, no, no, no. I mean, like, no. Really," is what my 17-year-old daughter, her voice rising in panic, said of Marks & Spencer's clothes. Then I asked what she thought about the food, surely that's not bad? In a gesture of conciliation she admitted, "Well, some friends' parents have it, but it's mediocre. I can think of better places." Only the imprudent would generalise from a sample of one stroppy teenager, so I decided to extend my research with some legwork.

'No, no, no, no, no. I mean, like, no. Really," is what my 17-year-old daughter, her voice rising in panic, said of Marks & Spencer's clothes. Then I asked what she thought about the food, surely that's not bad? In a gesture of conciliation she admitted, "Well, some friends' parents have it, but it's mediocre. I can think of better places." Only the imprudent would generalise from a sample of one stroppy teenager, so I decided to extend my research with some legwork.

The very existence of Marks & Spencer on the smart King's Road illustrates the store's dilemma. There is no Prisunic on Paris's avenue Montaigne, nor is there a WalMart on Rodeo Drive. In Chelsea its deficiencies are more glaring than they might be in Oswestry, but Marks & Spencer is here because local matrons form a substantial part of its customer base. They relish a lack of excitement. The dilemma is that in serving dowagers rose-print twin-sets, the Miss Sixty and Zara crowd are inextricably alienated.

So I looked around. A reliable test of retail competence is how much merchandise you would steal. Using this coarse methodology, it took a while before kleptomaniac palpitations claimed me in menswear. True, you can never have too many good socks and, I know this is faint praise, but Marks & Spencer does socks very well. Eventually, I found a biscuit-coloured linen suit in the Inspired-by-Italy range that caused a flicker of consumerist lust. But then I thought of the toxic shock of the label: Marks & Spencer has a deterrent effect in matters of style. And you know that it would not quite fit and you would look cheap. Fashionable labels I can do without, but I can do without unfashionable ones too.

I looked at the other merchandise. There was grim evidence of retail desperation in a promotion called "Ideal gifts for Dad", which included binoculars and a wind-up radio, these apparently not Inspired-by-Italy. Own-brand toiletries looked like products from Halfords, but this version of "Dad" may not mind smelling like car shampoo. "Dad" is big at Marks & Spencer, King's Road, at the moment: the windows are dedicated to him because it is Father's Day on 20 June. "Dad" appears in football strip, eyeing with cupidity what they are pleased to call "pressies". These include a giant water pistol and a mug. Clearly, the target "Dad" is not Inspired-by-Italy either, but is a drooling moron. And they say you should respect your customers. Inside, a poster says, "We are looking for visual merchandising advisers to work in our stores." If any visual merchandising "advisers" are reading this, get in touch this minute. You could name your own price.

At about the time Marks & Spencer began its hurtling descent into the present muddle, Marcus Sieff, the godfather of M&S, published his guide to retail, On Management (1990). Here are revealed fundamental strengths which, unexamined, mutated into weaknesses. "It is essential for a business leader to get good, accurate information," Sieff tells us. Such a pity that his managers did not read his book. The cosy long-term relationships with suppliers left Marks & Spencer out of sync with the swifter dynamics of fashion. Interior design was ignored: even the Oxford Street flagship store felt like a Bucharest convention centre of the Ceausescu era. Management either did not see or looked away.

There was the unworldly Derek Rayner, there was Richard Greenbury, aloof, know-all and boorish. Roger Holmes's garbled metaphors revealed a confused mind: the managing director deposed last week spoke of milestones that would drive sales.

And the best idea Holmes had in the run-up to this week's crisis was lowering prices. Melancholy testaments to this philosophy of impoverishment - "seasonal clearance up to 50 per cent off", "buy one get one free" - litter the stores. These undermine confidence - consumers realise that shops whose only offer is a vulgar bargain are philosophically bankrupt. Discounting fatally erodes preciously acquired brand value. Akio Morita, the founder of Sony, said "We are selling diamonds." The consumer thinks so too. John Ruskin has advice. "It is unwise to pay too much, but it is worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money, that is all. When you pay too little you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought is incapable of doing what it was bought to do." I am afraid my linen suit would not rate bella figura on the via Babuino.

Marks & Spencer's problems have external and internal sources. From the outside, the middle-market has disappeared and no one is quite certain where it has gone. When the BMW 3-series outsells the Ford Mondeo, what can Marks & Spencer mean? The internal problems are more severe still. A stultifying complacency characterises Marks & Spencer.

When I last ate in the executive dining room, a fascinating schism was revealed. While customers on the shop floor were being offered a Cajun Chicken Pizzatilla, senior staff munched ancien regime Scotch eggs and pork pies and felt smug as their cerebral arteries hardened. They were actually in another world ... and it was not a good place to be.

The old headquarters building on Baker Street had a positively Soviet feel, its lobby touchingly full of desperate hopefuls, some clutching a tray of eggs, others knitwear samples, each knowing that a supply contract could make their fortune. This power had a corrupting effect on management.

Once I was among such hopefuls, not with a tray of eggs, but a handful of communications ideas. Commerce is culture, I told them. Use the windows creatively. Make the displays more challenging. Get smart lighting. Flatter the customers, give them the sense of access to a privileged secret. Guide and advise, don't condescend. Separate the identity of the store from the merchandise. Develop relationships. Don't sell knickers where you sell sandwiches. Like every other creative consultant - and there were many - I was ignored.

Like a plodding dinosaur blinking at the distant asteroid storm, Marks & Spencer has made spasmodic attempts to avoid extinction through a series of revivals of mixed quality and achievement. The Per Una range may have its charms, but it is displayed in an uncoordinated and artless jumble like an Old Kent Road charity shop. Vittorio Radice's Lifestore furnishing concept is interesting, but essentially a diversion from the aching fashion problem. In addition, no one seems to understand it.

Marcus Sieff insisted: "It is crucial for top management to use the products they produce," but Radice embarrassingly outsourced the furniture for his own office. The "normal woman" advertising campaign, bravely attempting to avoid stereotypes, demonstrated a truth better disguised: Marks & Spencer's customers have huge arses.

Marks & Spencer has been badly damaged by serial ineptitude, clumsiness, and timidity, failings going back to the Eighties. The company bought Brooks Brothers, a Manhattan institution, for $750m, yet instead of developing this interesting brand for British customers who might appreciate Marks & Spencer pricing but would prefer to snip St Michael labels out of their cotton Oxford shirts, they ignored it and lamely sold it on at a loss. A fatal, but misunderstood, infatuation with America remains.

The recent Blue Harbour leisure clothing line lets someone from Manningtree look like someone from Amagansett, but not very much. Surely Marks & Spencer is the last place on earth selling boat shoes? And these salt'n'spume-stained tokens of the preppy life are adjacent to geriatric slippers with - God help us! - anti-bacterial coating. Buying stuff like this would make you suicidal.

Womenswear makes you feel even worse. Artlessly cut jeans accentuate a mature woman's shortcomings, ruched shorts drain sexual allure from every wearer, a floral print swimsuit is a cargo-cult Pucci copy, but with none of the energy, and makes your granny look, and feel, second best.

A female adviser tells me the nighties are vile. And then there are women's toiletries: Rose Moisture Rich Foaming Bath Cream is an example. Like its sister product Forget-Me-Not, this mephitic glop is packaged using marketing data apparently sourced in Reigate c1967. Like big airlines which still persist with the quaint gentilities of Club Class catering when we are all on Ryanair or have our own Gulfstream V, Marks & Spencer preserves a mythic stereotype of its customers which is located in a remote suburban past.

And the funny thing is: this is a strength on which to build. Not everyone wants to dress in Dolce & Gabbana, especially not everyone in Oswestry. John Pawson is a brilliant designer, but I am sorry, Vittorio, not everyone wants to live in his style of luxurious austerity. It is about time someone went out in search of the middle market. Sir Thomas Browne mournfully wrote "'Tis too late to be ambitious ... our time may be too short for our designs ..." Well I am not so sure. It is certainly very late, but Marks & Spencer has money to spend and the new management has ambition to cope.

New managing director Stuart Rose will need more consultants. If he chooses to ignore this job application, I have another recommendation. I bumped into Willie Landels, one of London's media aristocrats, a Venetian editor, art director and painter of immense style and character. I pulled a face and said I was on my way to Marks & Spencer; "Awful,eh?" Willie replied: "No, not at all, my dear boy," pointing to his navy trousers, striped shirt and black loafers, although conceding his Nehru jacket was made by his tailor. Willie Landels shows what can be done with style, taste and bravery. Now Stuart Rose has to do the same.

There are a lot of grey pounds out there. Offer well-considered staple products and elegant environments in which to buy, and plenty of people will be saying "Yes, yes, yes."

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