On your Marks . . . get hip

 

A woman with a gilt-chained Chanel handbag is watching as her new creamy leather coat is wrapped in layers of tissue at the cash desk, while across an expanse of blond wood, another woman, smart in a Hermes scarf, is standing before a huge mirror and listening carefully to advice from a black-clad saleswoman. If you sniff hard enough you could probably smell money, because this Grafton Street designer range, open only 10 days, has sold more than double its estimated sales figures in its first week of trading. As a retail success story, it's nothing particularly new, but what makes this particular nexus of designer clothes, plush changing rooms and ringing cash registers interesting is that it's part of Marks & Spencer.

Anybody who reads the newspaper business pages will be aware that recently, Marks & Spencer has become a chain store with more than a few weak links - profits dropped by some 53 per cent last year, which helped to take some £12 billion off Marks & Spencer's stock market value. In trying to explain the sudden loss in customers, critics in the trade have pointed to Marks & Spencer's failure to move with the times, to realise that customers expect more than the "pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap" philosophy that worked so well in the more economically depressed 1980s.

Autograph is Marks & Spencer's reaction, and the first signs seem to indicate that it's a good one. A store within a store, the Autograph range is sold in just 16 stores; 13 in the UK, and one each in Ireland, France and Germany. The work of five designers - Betty Jackson, Julien MacDonald, Katherine Hamnett and two unnamed designers - Autograph retails at a price that is just above the high street but far short of designer. In addition, the service offered to the Autograph customer is that of a boutique - sales assistants are always on hand to offer advice and check for sizes; fitting rooms are spacious and fitted with two lighting options, day light or night light; customers can make appointments, and clothes are wrapped in tissue and handed over with their wooden hangers.

Offering designer ranges at high street prices is not a new concept - Debenhams has long offered diffusion ranges by the likes of Jasper Conran, Maria Grachvogel and Philip Treacy; Tracey Boyd designs a range for Top Shop, and Whistles do one for Dorothy Perkins. Marks & Spencer itself was one of the first of the chains to start using designers as consultants, but the names were always kept anonymous. This time, however, the chain has given its five designers a huge degree of autonomy.

"With Autograph, the clothes are literally straight from the designer's sketchpad and into the store," explains Caroline Tatham, the London-based brand manager of Autograph. "We honour the original designs completely, even if we might feel, for example, that a skirt would sell more if it was longer." So far, trusting the designers is a policy that has worked - in Dublin, the first range designed by Betty Jackson for Autograph sold out within a week, forcing the store to bring in her second range ahead of schedule.

Ten days after Autograph opened on Dublin's Grafton Street, store manager Jacky Walsh, and Louise Hyland, manager of Autograph, are surprised and impressed by the huge level of interest in the range - to date, the volume sold in the Grafton Street store is second only to the Marble Arch branch, ahead of some 14 other stores in Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester. Customers extend across a wide age range, while Walsh estimates that her customers are an equal mixture of high-street customers buying designer clothes for the first time, and those who would normally buy designer gear going for something at a more reasonable price. Most of the city's other big retailers have been in, and Walsh, who worked for 10 years with Brown Thomas, has spotted several of her former customers. Interestingly it was not the cheaper pieces - a Katherine Hamnett cotton shirt for £45 or jersey top for £32 - which sold out first, but the Betty Jackson leather jackets and coats at £350 and £495 respectively.

Both are impressed by Marks & Spencer's unqualified support for the project and for the designers. Hyland describes how she and her staff were sent on a two-week course aimed at teaching the Autograph staff about the fabric, care, and origins of the clothes as well as how to advise their guests - not customers - on colour and co-ordination. As someone used to the shop floor, Hyland was surprised at how open the store was to the designers demands: "For example, Katherine Hamnett says she would never put sizes 16 or 18 out on display so neither do we in her section, and for the Julien McDonald range we put clashing colours like orange and turquoise together because that's very much the look of his collection. Normally Marks & Spencer would break the clothes up into a jersey collection or a turquoise story or whatever."

The pair both feel that the turnover in stock is a particular strong point of Autograph - at any one time there will be "stories" by four of the designers which will change at least every four weeks and often in only two. "The whole idea of the range is that people should feel that it's not going to be around for a long time and you're not going to see the same clothes everywhere. Once it's gone, it's gone," says Walsh. However, customers can check out an album to see which pieces still to come to the store will work with their new purchase.

The one questionable note in a well-researched and well executed package is that although the work of each designer is grouped together, there is nothing to tell the browser who that designer is - both Walsh and Hyland note that it is the question most customers have put to them. Caroline Tatham explains that this is to give Autograph greater flexibility as a brand name in the future - there are two more big names coming on board shortly, and others may come and go. "We didn't want to just cash in on a name, which we could easily have done. We wanted it to have a greater longevity than that."

Then there is the question of the anonymity of two of the designers, both of whom requested it as part of their individual contract. "Somebody like Betty Jackson is so established and well-known in this country that it could only complement what she does. A younger designer might not want their first exposure in say, Scotland or Manchester, to be as `that bloke who designs for M & S'."

The final question that remains is the one of whether Autograph will be the engine that manages to get Marks & Spencer's finances back on track. Certainly, the signs look good - Jacky Walsh reported an exceptional week across the Grafton Street store in the week Autograph hit the shelves.

However, the salvation of Marks & Spencer is more likely to lie in the ways in which the company can learn from the range. "People want better now; they want service and they want follow-through because that's what they're used to," points out Jacky Walsh. "The food at Marks & Spencer is second to none but in the past few years, the quality of clothes may have suffered . . . They were a bit slow off the mark. But now the whole ethos has changed, from the management down. They're willing to listen to our ideas, to the feedback we're getting from customers, and then, we're allowed to get on with it."