Chic it usually is, Liberty it ain't

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The Independent Online
The Contemporary Collections floor at Liberty it ain't, but M&S can be relied upon to provide fashionable clothes that women want to buy, and buy they do. It is rumoured that the Marble Arch store in central London alone brings in about pounds 1m a day. The queues of women at the check- outs are testimony to that, their trolleys loaded with clothes, shoes and lingerie.

German and Arab tourists expect easy, affordable basics when they go but legions of British women know something more. When the catwalk dictates clothes in shades of chocolate, aubergine and olive green such as a velvet slim-fit shirt, a sheer devore-effect top or a fluid jersey tunic with matching trousers, they know they can go to M&S and not break the bank. Ask any fashion editor to throw open the doors to her wardrobe and you will find Marks & Spencer clothes nestling alongside those from Calvin Klein and Dolce e Gabbana. Alexandra Shulman, the editor of Vogue, said that her favourite item last season was an M&S "shantung" shirt.

Five years ago the store was regarded as one of the most unfashionable places to shop, women were reluctant to admit where their T-shirts and jumpers came from. But the image of the store has been transformed with the help of an aggressive design initiative and designers such as Paul Smith and Betty Jackson.

But its strong push to capture the younger more affluent market has caused the company no end of trouble. Last year it was accused by Liza Bruce, a swimwear designer, of copying one of her ideas. The swimsuits looked nearly identical, the main difference was price: Bruce's cost pounds 120, the M&S version, pounds 21. Ms Bruce has since gone out of business. Jeff Banks, a fashion designer and presenter of The Clothes Show television programme, also accused the company of copying a distinctive pocket design. The store agreed to pay a six-figure compensation sum. Marks & Spencer has since set up a pounds 1m fighting fund to combat claims that it has copied designs. Despite this the company goes from strength to strength.

The news that it will employ 2,000 more staff to improve customer care does not mean you will have assistants breathing down your neck (there will never be a high pressure selling strategy in store). It simply means there will be more stock on the rails, a full range of sizes on offer and a faster route through the check-out and back on to the street.