I cannot tell you how many times I have written or read articles calling on M&S to do something radical with its fashion offering. You are possibly bored of reading them too. If the store is really going to overhaul its reputation as a faded favourite, then it needed to do more than finesse its ballet pump offering (though these are, as it happens, rather good). Something bold, brave and exciting.
Well now, I am excited. On Monday afternoon, the retailer struck a deal with Jaeger owner Philip Day to buy the heritage British brand. Although the stores are not part of the agreement, Jaeger’s rich archive is now in the hands of M&S - a partnership which, if executed cleverly, could be just what the ailing British high street needs to kickstart a revival.
The pandemic has decimated many brands which were already struggling and has proven challenging for many of those still holding on - M&S’s clothing and home sales fell by 24.1 per cent in the 13 weeks to Christmas.
Where UK labels were once a world-leading example of helping women to dress well without splashing thousands on designer buys, many style-conscious Brits now turn to the likes of Spain’s Zara, Mango and Massimo Dutti or Sweden’s Arket and Cos for their affordable but modern wardrobe updates over homegrown brands.
Jaeger, with a little love from M&S, has the potential to be Britain’s answer to these, and then some. Jaeger is like the Max Mara or Chanel of the high street, an assertion which might be surprising to anyone who has witnessed its slow demise in recent years. Founded in 1884 as Dr Jaeger's Sanitary Woollen System Co Ltd, the business soon gained a reputation for its use of natural fibres and comfortable, relaxed silhouettes. In 1919, it introduced the camel hair coat to Britain, a style which remains a staple in many women’s wardrobes more than a century on, an instant marker of good taste.
Jaeger’s wartime posters evoke the same nostalgic optimism (without the overuse-induced cringe) of Keep Calm and Carry On slogan; ‘Only the brave deserve the fair, and the fair deserve Jaeger’ was the tagline of one illustration showing a serviceman walking down the street arm-in-arm with a woman wearing an immaculate powder blue trouser suit.
It was when Jean Muir began designing for Jaeger in 1956 that the label’s real heyday began. Offering a slightly more sophisticated take on youthquake style, Jaeger has always stood for quality and elegance, dressing everyone from Marianne Faithfull to Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe.
Looking back at some of its advertisements from the Fifties and Sixties, the clothes look as good now as they did then - a cream cardigan with an oversized collar worn with vermillion trousers in 1956 might be considered ideal WFH attire today, ditto a cable knit jumper dress from a shoot featured in Nova magazine in 1968.
I have memories of visiting Jaeger with my mother and grandmother as a child in the Nineties. It was considered quite a treat compared with our usual high street jaunts - I still remember a sense of awe at the crisp chicness of all the clothes displayed as if they were in an art gallery and sitting in a very fancy chair outside the fitting room.
This new M&S deal will focus on selling Jaeger online, so that plush store experience looks to be a thing of the past but the label’s reputation for grown-up, understated design and great tailoring still has huge potential. Like M&S’s St Michael range, vintage Jaeger has become sought-after on resale sites like eBay. I found a beautiful camel pea coat last year which is better made and cut than anything I’ve seen on the high street in some time.
The dream for M&S is surely that with Jaeger, it can boost sales by enticing back shoppers who miss the elevated staples of its past (and for whom the Autograph line never quite cut it) while appealing to a new generation who crave beautifully-made pieces which could pass as the wares of minimalist-leaning designer brands. Jaeger has been accused of being a ‘twinset and pearls’ brand but with today’s fashion headwinds - where longevity and versatility are prized - that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
After dialling back its confusing array of in-house labels in recent years (farewell, Limited Collection), in the autumn, M&S began to introduce outside brands to its online fashion offering for the first time, mirroring Next’s successful strategy.
Nobody’s Child was the first addition, an innovative, dress-focussed label which manages to be at once eco-friendly and affordable - pretty floral frocks and blouses sell for less than £50. Then came a collaboration with Ghost, the brand which once epitomised effortless ‘90s dressing with its plain silk slips and has now diversified into tea dresses loved by Holly Willoughby and the Duchess of Cambridge.
Jaeger is the next step in the experiment. For M&S’s sake and, selfishly, my own wardrobe’s, I hope it works.