Marks & Spencer: is there a “dream hire” who can fix its fashion?

Marks & Spencer
Holly Willoughby's endorsement led to a sell-out denim range

After less than two years Marks & Spencer recently announced it is parting ways with its managing director for clothing, home and beauty. Jill McDonald’s appointment raised a few eyebrows at the time due to her lack of fashion experience. She had previously held positions at Colgate-Palmolive, British Airways, McDonald’s, and was chief executive of Halfords before taking the M&S role responsible for womenswear. You could say she was more spark plugs than Sparks card.

The company is putting a brave spin on it with chief executive, Steve Rowe, saying: “Jill was brought in to establish a strong platform for the transformation of the Clothing and Home business. She has achieved that; she leaves with my thanks and good wishes for the future.”

Rowe now takes responsibility for the division which, arguably, contains its most important category, womenswear.

“Womenswear is the pivotal part of their business, including food. It always has been and always will be,” says Richard Hyman, strategic adviser to retail boards. “Womenswear generates the footfall and clothing still generates 75% of the profit. Clothing has become the cash cow that is financing buying things like half of Ocado,” he says.

Womenswear is central to the Marks & Spencer’s business. It is what helped it grow to be one of the UK’s biggest and most profitable retailers. So, is it time for a star hire with a proven track record in fashion to put some of the sparkle back into this retail giant or is it just too big and complicated for any individual to have a real impact? And would any worthy candidate touch it with a barge pole?

Eric Musgrave, former editor of Drapers and fashion industry consultant, says, “Whenever I go into Marks & Spencer, the customers are mature women of 55-plus or even 60-plus. I am sure they attract younger customers, but not when I am in the stores.”

“I would suggest that M&S needs to hire an experienced womenswear professional who is herself aged 45-plus. M&S would be silly to chase a young [25-35-year-old] customer when there is a massive potential to sell more to their existing core market,” he says.

Fiona Lambert
Fiona Lambert: former Next and George executive – would she be a dream hire?

As far as a dream hire goes, I’d suggest Fiona Lambert. She is in her early 50s and has spent most of her career with Next and George (oddly, two stints at each).

She is an ideal M&S person – a vivacious, trim and informed woman who likes fashion. She is like Kate Bostock, who was the last good womenswear leader at M&S,” says Musgrave.

Paula O’Connor, Stylist & Former Fashion Director, says: “To me there’s always been something safe and familiar about M&S. It offered quality clothing with longevity, but has recently lost its way.

“It’s a big ask, we want everything… the luxe feel of Joseph, the modernity of Zara, all catering for all size ranges and ages and, to complicate things further, the future shopper is more aware of the fabrics and sustainability they’re buying too,” says O’Connor.

J Crew
Could Jenna Lyons inject fashionability into M&S?

“A bit of consultancy from someone with the kudos of Jenna Lyons, as an example, or anyone that has great awareness of stylish brand building could breathe new life. Everlane tailoring/denim could be a good model and Max Mara also comes to mind here,” she says.

“Getting a star striker when you’re playing without a defence or a goalkeeper is missing the point.”

RiChard Hyman
Strategic adviser to retail boards

“There isn’t a dream hire,” says Hyman. “The challenge for M&S isn’t to do with one person, it is far more systemic. It goes to the core of what their offer is. In my opinion, the strategic direction and priorities are all wrong. Food and clothing are quite different business with different challenges,” he says. “Getting a star striker when you’re playing without a defence or a goalkeeper is missing the point,” says Hyman.

Stephanie Melodia, Director of Bloom, a full-service agency focused on delivering effective and efficient marketing for start-ups in the technology, beauty and fashion spaces, says: “Marks & Spencer is a British heritage brand that lost its way on the fashion side in trying to appeal to too many audiences – particularly chasing after a younger, millennial market, resulting in alienating their core customer base; a married female, suburban-dwelling baby boomer, called Karen.

M&S would be wise to look at poaching a fashion executive either from one of their rivals, Next or Primark, or fill a more technological gap in looking to an online giant like Amazon, Asos, or Net-A-Porter,” says Melodia.

“One could also consider a more extreme tack, in tapping into new pools via their ‘Founders Factory’ connection, for example – however such fresh blood would either need to enter a truly shaken-up company culture with a framework that enables them to activate the change necessary, or at least have the tenacity to deliver in such a difficult environment,” she says.

As McDonald’s departure was announced, M&S revealed it had recruited Maddy Evans, Topshop’s fashion director. Evans will join in November, and, while not replacing McDonald, she will work with M&S women and childrenswear boss, Jill Stanton. She will be responsible for helping the retailer appeal to younger families and create more “million pound” product lines, the company says.

Christos Angelides
Christos Angelides

But, does anybody really want this job? Can M&S attract the people it needs? They’ve probably already tried. It was reported Christos Angelides spurned an offer from M&S to become CEO at Reiss after leaving Abercrombie & Fitch.

Someone even suggested former Burberry CEO and Apple retail supremo Angela Ahrendts, but she was, the second highest paid person in Apple, so it would almost have to be charity work for her. And another name in the frame is Peter Ruis, who originally started his career at M&S, made his name at John Lewis. He went on to become CEO at Jigsaw, and is now in charge of making Urban Outfitters’ Anthropologie’s international arm as big as its US business.

“Zara does very well with no public designer. Who is head of womenswear at Zara? I have no idea. Same with celeb collaborations – does Zara ever do them?”

Eric Musgrave

It’s fair to say the M&S clothing job has become something of a poisoned chalice, and does it even need a big name? Other successful fashion retailers are doing well without a star signing. “Success is all about the product,” says Musgrave. “Zara does very well with no public designer. Who is head of womenswear at Zara? I have no idea. Same with celeb collaborations – does Zara ever do them?” he says.

There are only so many summer dresses or pairs of jeans Holly Willoughby can sell, especially if there’s a problem with availability. Rowe cited a jeans promotion in February relating to Willoughby saying, “We sold out. We didn’t buy enough. And that led to us having some of the worst availability in casual clothes I’ve seen in my life.”

Marks & Spencer

“Not buying enough jeans? They’ve been selling jeans for generations, getting that right is called retailing,” says Hyman. “That’s a capital offence in retailing. Consumers seeing what they want, and they’ve run out of it, that is awful. It underlines how weak they’ve become, partly because they’ve outsourced so much of it,” he says.

“They seem too closed to the clever technologies that are readily available in the marketplace to help them eliminate these merchandising faux-pas (like Edited or Sparkbox, for example),” says Melodia. “Key pieces that sell out can cause further hype and create even more demand, if managed properly, and go back in stock within a sensible timeframe (before customers get angry),” she says.

You are bound to have a few bestsellers in a £4bn clothing business, but, overall it doesn’t have a clear definition of the brands it has and its offer. “As far as sub brands go, I am a great believer in Good/Better/Best as all the sub brands you need. All the many M&S sub brands in recent years have said to me: ‘They do not know what they are doing’,” says Musgrave.

In the last full-year, sales at the clothing and home division slid by 3.6 per cent. “Their strategy is for managed decline,” says Hyman. “I’m not suggesting they’re going to disappear, but the leadership team’s priorities are to lower costs. It is the single most important thing for them. When you cut costs, you impinge on ability to drive sales,” he says.

Musgrave agrees. “M&S is a frightened company that lacks the confidence of its own convictions. It has gone down the cheap (or ‘value’) route and has done it badly. It should never have gone there. It should be as aspirational chain – but it’s too late now,” says Musgrave.

“M&S needs to go back to basics and focus on the key fundamentals of the business, the key reasons their core customer base love the brand and why they have the loyalty they do,” says Melodia. “They need to clearly define this, clearly communicate this to all stakeholders, finesse their offering, and look after those core customers – not chasing after the shiny and new who are usually fickle and less loyal customers anyway.”

And they mustn’t forget the store environments either. “There is so much online competition that the store experience is key,” adds O’Connor.

It’s fascinating how a company blessed with the loyalty of the richest demographic of people in the UK – the Baby-Boomers – is obsessed with chasing a younger customer on price. This older female customer has been with them for a very long time and are younger for much longer. They still want fashion and have the deep pockets to pay more, especially if the quality dictates it. Marks & Spencer needs to reengage with these women and get them excited once more about their womenswear. Finding the right person to lead this charge is paramount, but do they even exist?