Frump-free M&S steps on to the catwalk

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Eager to prove that frump has been banished from its repertoire, Marks & Spencer threw a glossy fashion show yesterday, as the high street's invasion of the catwalk continued.

Held in a suitably edgy disused building in south-west London, the first model strutted down the black lacquer catwalk in a Marie Helvin-esque Eighties-style swimsuit. Clearly the high street chain had next spring/summer's must-have trends firmly in mind.

A crisp nautical theme (smartly cropped white trench with elegant navy trousers) was followed by a more elaborate Frida Kahlo sequence of full appliquéd skirts and embroidered jackets. In stark contrast an ethereal white showing bore naïve broderie anglaise finishes and a home-baked Fifties-look preceded svelte Forties-style cocktail dresses nodding to the recent success of designer Roland Mouret.

The zeitgeist is for the high street to have high fashion pretensions. Last September, Topshop strutted on to London Fashion Week's official runway; this month a tornado of shoppers nearly took the roof off H&M Oxford Circus clambering to get hold of Stella McCartney-designed wares. And in March an event called High Fashion will see 20 high street stores putting on catwalk shows at London's Olympia.

From a marketing point of view it makes sense. "It's an obvious outcome," says Tamar Kasriel, market analyst from the Henley Centre. "A whole range of people now buy from the high street as well as high-end designers, so the high street is talking to the same person that is being targeted by Prada. It's savvy to use the same method of communication."

These events however aren't shillings and pence to put on, but rewards can be reaped in terms of sales and brand perception. M&S's television adverts with Twiggy, Laura Bailey and Erin O'Connor have been instrumental in stemming haemorrhaging fashion sales figures. Topshop's London Fashion Week junket resulted in an estimated £3m (in advertising worth) of column inch and glossy folds coverage. And H&M's empty shelves speak for themselves in terms of Stella turning a coin for them.

It's important though that when these collaborations are undertaken they are between the right bedfellows. The wrong partnership shows a lack of appreciation for customers and tarnishes both brand and sales.

This is where M&S is getting it right with its "Your M&S" campaign. And this catwalk show is all part of the chain's ongoing turn-around strategy. "The catwalk show is absolutely about saying that we aren't 'frumpy' any more," said Kate Bostock, M&S's design director, who is attempting to reel back customers aged between 35 and 45. And Ms Bostock's take is not to go too far over the fashion edge.

Nodding just enough to the catwalk direction with dresses baring puff hems and empire lines, there was also a balance of basics (T-shirts and knits). "Over 40 per cent of what was shown was mainline M&S," Ms Bostock said. "Catwalk trends are incredibly important. But at the end of the day it has got to be commercial and flattering, and fit into the lifestyle of a fashionable grown-up woman."

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