In need of just a little love: PROFILE: St Michael

PROFILE: St Michael Tattered and torn by plunging profits, Marks & Spencer is trying to win back our loyalty. By John Walsh
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If the women's clothes shops that occupy our city streets were actual women, what would they be like? Kookai would be Baby Spice in a frilled fuchsia-pink blouse, French Connection a thirtyish urban girl in All Saints combat trousers, Jigsaw a PR executive in a floaty skirt en route to Henley regatta, Next a City bond dealer in a serious black suit, Debenhams a fortyish matron from Haslemere crammed into a Jasper Conran frock for a Surrey wedding, Marks & Spencer a ... but hang on a sec. Who is Marks & Spencer these days?

Until recently, it was pretty clear. She was a dependable frump, conservative, unadventurous, wary of self-expression, a no-frills librarian in a square- cut, below-the-knee skirt. She was the Norma Major look. She had no time for parties or personal trainers; she was comfortable in neither the boudoir nor the boardroom. Like the serried ranks of beige cotton sweaters that define the look of her 294 stores throughout the UK, the key word for M&S was "plain". Plain as in decent, honest-to-goodness, and plain as in Jane.

Now look what's happened. Marks & Spencer has just embarked on a colossal makeover. On Tuesday, it unveiled the company's autumn/ winter 1999/2000 collection with a slew of almost-fashionable clothes (cunningly named "Classics and Basics") and a series of advertising images that seemed to portray a bizarrely miscegenated nuclear family at a group therapy session: fashion editors across the nation gazed in puzzlement at the cool, shaven-headed black dude playing with the adorable freckle-nosed urchin, the cheesily grinning young mum in a fleece jacket rubbing noses with her trendy daughter in a fur ruff. Some noticed that the company had signed up the white-haired veteran model Carmen dell'Orefice, put her in jeans and trainers, and photographed her in a wacky, young-at-heart stance.

The old dame kicking over the traces! Is that how Britain's largest retailer wants to be seen from now on? If the marketing department is to be believed, everything is going to change. The in-store design, untouched in what seems like decades, will be re-thought; that leadenly dull, eastern European utility look replaced by Patrick Demarchelier photographs. A new customer services initiative this autumn means that M&S shoppers will be accosted by "people greeters" with otiose remarks about the weather; while "queue helpers" with radio headsets will patrol the aisles in case you've forgotten a no-fat yoghurt or multipack of knickers.

More crucially, the clothes will be different, and the way they are marketed. Because, after years of a caution that has sometimes seemed to border on paranoia, M&S is diving into the churning surf of fashion trendiness. The trends in question may be a few months old but they're interesting ones: angora shrugs and croissant bags and kitten mules, beaded mohair tops and cowl-neck leather jackets. It has even got pashmina scarves in a dozen colours, a snip at pounds 99 rather than the pounds 250 charged in smarter shops. For the first time, it will capitalise on the names of the designers behind the St Michael label. There's talk of M&S catwalk shows in the autumn. There's even talk, for the first time ever, of a TV advertising campaign.

If all this image-burnishing suggests a company in the throes of a shuddering nervous breakdown, you can hardly blame them. For M&S has just survived the most horrendous year in its history. In April the annual figures showed a drop in pre-tax profits (from pounds 1.16bn to pounds 546.1m) of 41 per cent, a catastrophic plummet, as alarming as it was unforeseen. "In 45 years of retailing," said the recently retired chairman, Sir Richard Greenbury, "I've never seen the figures go from good to bad so quickly." The new chief executive Peter Salsbury laid off 290 store management staff on 11 May, having already removed 200 buyers at head office and 31 senior executives. The bloodletting allegedly saved pounds 10m - but what was that compared with the millions the chain was losing from customer disaffection? The awful fact was plain: the British buying public had ceased to love Marks and Sparks.

For years the nation and the store chain had a relationship like no other. In the Sixties, M&S transcended its status as a shop and became iconic; it stood for a certain stodgy brand of eccentric British decency, like the Albert Memorial, the Proms or the Queen Mother. To criticise M&S for being old-fashioned was pointless. It was the nation's secret necessity, the underwear drawer of the realm. It still is. British women buy their knickers at M&S at a rate of a million a week. Forty per cent of all brassieres bought in the UK carry a St Michael label. The Queen, Baroness Thatcher, Ffion Hague and Sophie Rhys-Jones all shop there. When Victoria Adams- Beckham was asked for her wedding list, she told gift-buyers to give them "vouchers from Selfridges and Marks & Spencer" as a coded guarantee of her fundamental good sense. The company has always been seen as reliable, trustworthy, high quality and super convenient - you could, famously, always return merchandise and get your money back. But as the high street clothes shops became increasingly sophisticated, and signed up premier- league designers to create "diffusion ranges" of their catwalk triumphs - Jasper Conran at Debenhams, Hussein Chalayan at Top Shop and Liza Bruce at Dorothy Perkins - M&S refused to join in. Perversely, although they have employed top names including the fashion uber-meister Paul Smith, Tania Sarne of Ghost and the award-winning women's wear designer Betty Jackson as consultants, they never used their names as a selling proposition by identifying which garments they had designed. Shoppers grew disenchanted with the range. "The thing to remember about Marks," a woman friend told me, "is never buy anything patterned or everyone'll know you got it from there. And there's something depressing about the range; I mean, if I ever find myself pausing at the elasticated trouser department, I'll know it's all over. But for must-have stuff - like T-shirts and vest tops and work shoes - they're good and cheap."

It was on that assumption of quality that the company traded for far too long. The shop interiors stayed blank and off-putting. The in-store signs and labels became increasingly curt and unseductive. "Cotton" one sign would announce in front of a display of 200 shirts. "Gift" said another, inscrutably, beside a horribly packaged bubble bath. Another said, laconically, "Tie pounds 15" - until you wondered if the lamb portions in the food department were announced with a sign saying "Meat". Prices briefly flirted with the "pounds 6.99" mode before reverting to the typically brusque "pounds 7". The company never advertised on TV or in the newspapers. Only lately was the concept of putting changing rooms in more than its flagship shops taken up; it assumed that, if you could bring it back and change it, why bother trying it on? The rows of tweed jackets and charcoal-grey trousers in the gents' department seemed never to change; they just hung there, like worsted body bags, waiting to enshroud another generation of clueless, style-less victims.

How did the designers feel? Brian Godbold, former design director of M&S, now a consultant, describes the frustration of the creative marketeer. "When I joined the company, 20 years ago, the prevailing wisdom among senior management was: `Good goods sell arse-upwards'. It thought that if the merchandise was good enough, it would sell anyway. My designer friends in those days, like Ossie Clark and Bill Gibb, said: `You're mad to go near a chain store'; but what's happened to chain stores in the past two decades has been phenomenal."

Godbold is buoyant about the new management. "Peter Salsbury's management style couldn't be more different from Sir Richard Greenbury's," he said. "Ideas are allowed to come up through the system, decisions are taken in a much more open way. There's a big change in the way people work. It's accepted that, even if you have a good product, you must have other things too. We didn't realise how important service and interior design are to the package. We recognise it now; we're back on track and feel positive about the future."

The question, of course, is whether the nation wants its former plain friend back in a new, post-makeover, beaded-mohair, people-greeting guise. "We used to try to please everyone with the same garment," said Sheilagh Brown, the women's wear design director. "Now we're targeting a huge collection of different customers and identifying them, not by old-fashioned methods such as age and income, but by attitude and taste." The danger is that Marks will fall between two stools: suddenly too trendy for the classic M&S lady customer looking for a pair of discreetly tailored linen strides; and insufficiently trendy for her daughter, who can get a much cooler wardrobe up the road at French Connection.

But one can only marvel at this creaking old dowager of the retail aristocracy, as she takes her first faltering steps, on her zebra-print evening shoes, into the world of marketing, advertising, interior design and perceived value. She would do almost anything to have us love her again. Will she succeed?