Why the new Per Una collection has finally persuaded me to shop at M&S

Marks & Spencer 
The Per Una collection at Marks & Spencer  Credit: Marks & Spencer 

It's April, which means there are a couple of things playing on my mind. Namely, is it acceptable to have a hot cross bun for breakfast yet? But perhaps more importantly, what do I want to wear now that it's slightly warmer, but could at any minute start chucking it down with rain?

Neither my kitchen cupboards nor my wardrobe were providing satisfactory answers to these woes, so I headed to Marks & Spencer in the hope of at least ticking the first one off the list (they really do do a good hot cross bun) but I'd planned to do an online Zara haul later to rectify the other issue.  

However, on my way to the food hall I found myself unexpectedly distracted in the womenswear department. Poking out of a rail, I spied a shirt dress, with a sage, white and cocoa floral print that I just had to take a closer look at. Slightly oversized with a longer length hem plus button down sleeves it was, well, pretty cool.

That's not a sentence you’d usually find me uttering in an M&S. But 20 minutes later I was heading to the changing room with it, plus a silk shirt, a midi skirt and a striped top and matching trousers all under my arm.

Of course, I’ve shopped in M&S before, but mainly for the sartorial essentials (tights and pants). When it comes to clothing there’s been the odd celebrity collaboration that I’ve dallied with - I’m still jealous of everyone who managed to get their hands on that Alexa Chung trench coat - but I’ve generally skipped past their own in-house collections, finding it all a little bit overly fussy or fusty.  

So it came as even more of a surprise when I realised that the new gem pieces were from the Per Una collection, a range that despite being targeted towards me (honestly, it was originally aimed for the 25-35 age bracket) I'd never considered shopping from before. Originally launched as a joint venture between M&S and fashion veteran George Davis (the brains behind Next plus George at Asda) when the first collection landed in stores in 2001 it aimed to be the cooler younger sister to M&S’s mainline collection. Three years later it was bought out by M&S under then-executive chairman Lord Stuart Rose, but fast forward to 2018 and with declining profits M&S were said to be considering scrapping the brand as part of a move to revamp its ailing clothes division. At the time a spokesperson said: “We’re continuing to review our sub-brands, some of which have lost their identity in recent years, in order to provide great value choices for stylish wardrobe essentials to our customers.”

Per Una at Marks & Spencer  Credit: Marks & Spencer 

In Per Una’s original heyday I was more of a Topshop, Miss Selfridge and ASOS addict, as, I suspect, were most of the target demographic. I wanted cheap tops I could wear to club nights and swap with my friends. We wouldn’t have been caught dead in M&S. As far as we were concerned it was for grannies and school teachers, not young women trying to impress each other. Per Una at Marks & Spencer was synonymous with floral print emblazoned t-shirts, ill fitting trousers and bold patterned dresses.

Instead of sacking off the brand, M&S has now employed a new womenswear design team. Jill Stanton, a former Nike and Next executive is now director of womenswear and kidswear whilst Lisa Ilis who’s worked at Crew Clothing and Cath Kidson alongside a stint with Stanton at Nike is now head of womenswear design. What’s clever about their first rebooted Per Una collection that landed in stores last Thursday (which, I later discovered, was entirely what I was shopping from) is that it is made up of pieces that appeal to me (a millennial) but they are also just as easily relatable to Generation X and even the Baby Boomers. Let’s not forget 54% of M&S’s core customers are over 50. Speaking to The Telegraph at a preview earlier this year, Stanton described the Per Una woman as “very put together, she really thinks about a head-to-toe look and definitely isn’t shopping from her floordrobe. It’s really pretty and feminine with lots of print but we want it to be enticing across the ages." Whilst I can’t guarantee that half my wardrobe doesn’t regularly find itself on my bedroom floor, there are plenty of items I’d buy for myself as well as my mum and even my younger sister.

Per Una at Marks & Spencer  Credit: Marks & Spencer 

The new collection comprises high quality staples, easy dressing, nothing too clingy and nothing too short. It's 80 simple separates featuring an earthy colour palette with the odd print thrown in for good measure. Prices start from £12.50 for a sleeveless top and sizes run from a UK 6 to 24.  It’s clear the design team have looked at the spring/summer 2019 runways that had myriad boho offerings, but they’ve adapted it for the average woman on the British high street rather than an imaginary waif wandering around Woodstock. An embroidered blouse in burnt orange comes with frilled shoulder whilst another features billowing sleeves with teeny tiny lace inserts. Skirts feature tasseled belts whilst a rust hued dress comes with ruched short sleeves.

There are also plenty of easy pieces like slouchy wide-legged trousers, buttoned down shirts and scooped neck t-shirts. Gone are the tacky catchphrases in cursive fonts, in their place abstract designs or sketches of plants. The more military inspired section is perfect for making up the core of your summer wardrobe with loose not ill-fitting khaki coloured shorts, and even a shacket - that halfway house between a shirt and jacket - that you’ll be grateful for when BBQ afternoons turn into late evenings where you're still sipping wine in the garden. Most of the collection is made up sustainable pure cotton which is also a bonus and something other high street stores would do well to take note of.  

Per Una at Marks & Spencer  Credit: Marks & Spencer 

Of course, it’s a particularly tough time for the high street and M&S has been notably struggling for several years now. Most recently, sales in clothing and home slid by 2.4% in the 13 weeks to 29th December and in January the closure of 17 stores was announced. Whilst, there has been some relief with clever collaborations such as a curation of Holly Willoughby’s must have pieces that sold out in record time or partnerships with a string of influencers, it’s refreshing to see an entire collection that is overall quite strong. Most refreshing of all is that it is selling without the need for any celebrity or influencer endorsement. In fact, in less than a week M&S have sold over 30,000 pieces from the new collection. That printed dress (£45) that initially caught my eye is doing particularly well.

It goes to show, the fact you can wear it with trainers and a jumper now and then come summer just pair it with flat sandals is really appealing. It also goes to show that a design team that are aware of little tricks like this, rather than just creating with one season in mind are also critical in a tough high street market with a consumer that is looking for even more value for money. And the fact that you can pick up a packet of hot cross buns at the same time? Well, you don't get that at Zara do you?


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