M&S pins high street hope on short, sharp strategy

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The Independent Online
MARKS & SPENCER has unveiled the weapon it hopes will put the store back into the nation's heart: its autumn/winter 2000 collection.

The "new look" collection, shown to a critical press yesterday and due to hit stores in August, is the first since the company reported a 41 per cent slump in pre-tax profit in January. Although Marks & Spencer is still Britain's largest retailer, and sells about 40 per cent of the UK's underwear, the company has admitted it has lost its way and is losing sales to new high street favourites such as Debenhams and Next.

The company has had a calamitous spring trading period but plans initiated earlier in the year to stop the rot appear finally to have been put into place - on the design front at least.

The new collection is stronger than it has been in recent seasons. Adapting the most wearable trends and colour palettes from the catwalks and reworking them in quality fabrics while keeping value-for-money price tags, could help the first phase of the retailer's rejuvenation.

A touch of luxury has been added to the collection with a selection of pashmina shawls, available in 16 colours and priced at pounds 99. Pure cashmere jumpers and a pure wool coat - both priced at less than pounds 100 - are also part of the collection.

Millennium party wear should also be a hit with sparkling silver pieces, Angora shrugs, beaded tops and streamlined embroidered dresses.

In the past, Marks & Spencer relied heavily on a fashion formula that became plodding and outdated, with collections that hardly changed from season to season.

Now it will switch to a formula of short, sharp packages which will be replenished every six weeks to achieve a fresher shop floor and inject some much needed excitement.

The company has also employed the services of the superstar photographer Patric Demarchelier, whose photographs of the collection will decorate stores to entice more fashion-conscious customers.

Some things will not change, however. Marks & Spencer has been criticised for not trumpeting the names of its consultant designers, which include Betty Jackson, Julien Macdonald and Matthew Williamson. All of them have worked on the new collection, but unlike the rival department stores Debenhams and Arcadia, which commission high-profile designers such as Amanda Wakeley and Jasper Conran and make the most of the kudos attached to such a move, Marks & Spencer is still keeping its designer names under wraps.

When asked if the company would consider rethinking this policy in the future a spokesperson said: "We've been working with designers for 15 years now.

"That's a very long time. We don't just want to have a knee-jerk reaction."

The collection unveiled to fashion journalists and analysts yesterday was flagged as directional - taking its inspiration from international catwalks - but pictures released to the press (such as the one above) emphasised a far more casual image.

M&S has been criticised for alienating its core customers, who value quality over high fashion, yet at yesterday's launch it bid for media column inches by showing "fashion forward pieces", which will only appear in the top 20 stores.

M&S has committed itself to more of a lifestyle approach, hence the shiny clothes and people on show. Models were carefully selected to represent the store's three target groups: "youth", "middle youth" and "third-agers".

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