M&S pins hopes on the George Davies fashion formula

Analysis: A range of M&S clothing for the 25-35s has been created by the high-street design guru. Will it work, asks Nigel Cope
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The Independent Online

He built Next into a high-street icon in the 1980s. And he developed the George range for Asda which became the first credible clothing range offered by a UK supermarket. But can he save Marks & Spencer, the wounded lion of British retailing?

The "he", of course, is George Davies, whose long-awaited Per Una clothing will be launched in an initial 30 branches of M&S on Friday, with plans to extend the collection to a total of 90. Per Una, which means "for one woman", is supposed to be cutting-edge trendy. And the prices are supposed to be as cool as a pair of tea-stained jeans. But if the range doesn't kick-start Marks & Spencer's dwindling sales, then Luc Vandevelde, the M&S chairman, could find himself out of a job.

Roger Holmes, M&S's managing director of UK Retail, was sounding confident yesterday: "Luc is just as enthusiastic as we all are about this, though it is just part of the recovery. What our customers were telling us is that we needed to get the core, classically stylish ranges right first and we have been promoting those new autumn ranges heavily with the 'Perfect' advertising. The other element was at the more fashionable end, which was going to be more of a challenge. George has unique credentials to deliver that."

At M&S, George Davies's task is quite narrowly defined. His brief is to create a fashionable range of women's clothing aimed at the 25-35 age group. He has total control of sourcing, merchandising and the supply chain, as well as control of the look of his concessions, which will each be 2,500sq ft in the largest M&S stores. The collection will account for 10 per cent of M&S's womenswear space, although Mr Holmes said this may be extended in the spring.

The idea is that if Mr Davies can wow the younger generation it will leave M&S to concentrate on its core "classically stylish" customers in the older age groups. Few beyond the fashion press have yet seen the Per Una range but those who have seem impressed. The Daily Telegraph liked the catwalk influence combined with what it saw as prices that screamed "buy me". There are flared denim jeans at £59, long-sleeved T-shirts at £25 and black wool-mix overcoats at £99. None of this seems particularly cheap, so they had better be good.

The 300-piece collection is arranged in a series of mini-collections including black suiting, denim, military tailoring and sparkle stretch separates. The goods will be sourced from 90 suppliers from Hong Kong to central Europe. A key strength is meant to be speed of reaction, with goods set to make it from design idea to shop rails in a few weeks, rather than the months the creaking M&S bureaucracy has usually taken.

Analysts and other retail experts are divided on the chances of success. Richard Hyman, head of Verdict, the retail consultancy, is optimistic. "This range is very important to M&S. There have been many initiatives in the past which were hailed as the group's potential saviour but they were never going to be. This will be a different proposition. One thing about George is that he may not be very good at running a publicly quoted company but he is the best in the business at putting ranges together. He's done it before and he can do it again."

Mr Hyman adds that it is important that the Per Una merchandise will be in a separate part of the store in a separate environment. He also says that securing the loyalty of this younger age group is vital to the longer-term prospects of M&S, which has traditionally struggled with more fashionable ranges.

"It is stating the obvious but the Per Una customer of today is the 'classically stylish' customer of 10 years' time. M&S needs to foster loyalty and attract and retain these shoppers."

Oddly M&S has not put any advertising behind the launch, though Mr Holmes says this was Mr Davies's idea. "George said he never had to advertise any of the businesses he has created. We have been counting down the days to launch in the shop windows and we know it will generate lots of press coverage."

But some City analysts are uncertain about Per Una's impact. One leading retail analyst, who asked not to be named, said: "The issue is whether it will cannibalise M&S's existing sales. I believe it will and there is no question that they will make less money out of his [George Davies's] clothing than they will out of their own." Mr Holmes denies this, saying the margin is the same and that Mr Davies's contract is a "simple, normal supply deal. He is set up as a supplier to M&S and we buy from him as we would any other." Even so, it is hard to believe that Mr Davies has not screwed a fantastic deal out of M&S.

Nick Bubb at SG Securities says: "What's good for George Davies isn't necessarily good for M&S. Prime space at the front of the store is bound to take a bob or two. But whether he will work with Yasmin Yusuf [the head of design at M&S] to integrate it into the rest of the range is debatable. I think it is unlikely to make a big difference to M&S. It is just too small."

Other analysts are also sceptical. "The idea that Per Una will inspire people to come in and buy other M&S clothing is absolute nonsense," one says. "There has not been a problem with M&S footfall, anyway. It didn't fall at all in the first year of the problems and has only fallen marginally since. It is not the people, it is the product."

One former M&S executive is also doubtful on the longer-term impact. "I think it will give Marks a welcome boost. But that's not the issue. The problem is what is M&S going to put either side of this range. And there will be no co-ordination with M&S's other ranges. They will look like chalk and cheese." In the long run the problem may be that M&S has not learnt the basic lesson: that the retail market has changed and that it can no longer cater for shoppers from 18-80. As Nick Bubb at SG Securities says: "They seem to want to get the young people back in again, which means they are trying to be everything to everyone. That is normally a recipe for disaster."

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