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Cool? It has all the verve and style of a Saga holiday

I CAME to the Guildford branch of Marks & Spencer to save it, not bury it, annoyed that the once-worshipped institution has become common whipping boy for spiteful fashion writers.

After all, in the age of image and hype, enough forecasts of doom can guarantee just such an outcome.

M&S's troubles are painful for those of us raised to aspire to Marks when tackier neighbours were frequenting C&A. And more so for those who depend on the store's bizarrely comprehensive range of bras. Only M&S offers a double A cup when other stores point the meagrely endowed in the direction of the kiddies' vests.

But in deepest Surrey yesterday, clearly the provision of a near-inverted cup size might possibly not be enough to secure the future of the chain.

A store so recently praised for "cool" now seems, in Guildford at least, to have all the verve and style of a Saga holiday. The majority of women (and most customers were female) flipping through the racks were - or were fast approaching - Saga age. Vanessa, on her lunch break, was unusual, being only 34. She glided through the reds, yucky greens and washed-out blues that dominate the store without buying any clothes.

Outside, past the dull display of six identical straw hats and the collection of skirts and tops in "crinkly viscose", she explained why she had paused only to finger and reject.

"There is just nothing inspirational different or individual," she said. After its brief flight on the crest of fashion, she claimed M&S was returning to the old fogy image of her childhood, when to say something was "a little M&S" was to issue an insult. A little M&S equalled the fetching airline skirt with an elastic waistband, and the trousers you wished your mother, chasing quality not labels, had not bought you.

The High Street here is dominated by new smaller clothing chains with soft lighting and music to put you in the mood to buy, but Guildford's M&S clings to display's as plain as Jane and banks of harsh strip lighting.

"I prefer more individual stores which offer a little panache," said Vanessa. "It is the same with all my friends. I think M&S needs to start again from scratch. Everything has become so bland and aimed at an older market."

But even loyal "oldies" complain. "A year or two ago it became to fuddy- duddy, even for me," said one woman of 70.

Lesley Bull, 57, a secondary school teacher, agrees that the past two years have seen the greatest decline. "I am a granny," she said. "But I don't want to look like one, I want bright not dowdy colours."

The old M&S quality, she warned, was flagging alongside its reputation for fashion. Her daughters - aged 26, 29 and 31 - now favoured Gap just across the road from Marks.

But Mrs Bull has not yet lost the M&S habit. "We still go in," she said. "But we come out now with one or two things when we used to buy much more."

For Louise Bradburne, 23, a law student, M&S now means undies. Other High Street stores and smaller trendy chains have stolen the rest of its clothes. M&S, she says, became frumpy just as competition turned shark- like. "With shops like Karen Millen, Jigsaw and Gap opening up all over the country there is just more competition."

M&S, she suggested, should look and learn.