More contemporary silhouettes, great fabrics and keener price points all meant that the store my aunt was once a buyer for won me over.
So I was excited by the prospect of previewing M&S’s spring/summer collection. According to its data-crunching, customers are already shopping for parties and holidays in the sun.
Hearing that our leading High Street retailer is optimistic when it comes to summer fashion can only be a good thing, and its collections are intended to reflect this upbeat mood.
A great choice of breezy dresses is what we expect from M&S, and the best of the bunch this year is a collection of embroidered cotton styles that include a lilac dress (second from right) and pink two-piece (second from left).
A few weeks back I pitched John Lewis against M&S to see who was the new ‘darling of the middle classes’ and was surprised to discover that, when it came to fashion, M&S had upped its game
I particularly liked a black Per Una tie-waist version with a white stitched bodice that nodded to the Eastern European folklorique style of embroidery.
But many of the other dresses on offer were simply too flimsy and shapeless to be anything other than beach cover-ups.
Just because something is great for wearing on a two-week break doesn’t mean it should feel insubstantial. With the emphasis on sustainability, we need holiday clothes to last more than one season.
I’d have loved to see some crisp cotton shirt-dresses that you could team with heels or flat sandals, and belt at the waist if you wished.
M&S often seems to be fearful of shape, preferring instead to offer us comfortable, but unflattering, loose silhouettes. And this season is no exception.
There were some standout items, such as a beautiful crochet midi-vest dress and a floral-print cream satin trouser suit that could have come straight off the Dolce & Gabbana catwalk.
Blazer, £79; trousers, £79; and jelly sandals, £15
Crop top, £35; skirt, £29.50; and sandals, £59
Cardigan, £29.50; trousers, £29.50; and sandals, £59
But often, ‘standout’ was interpreted as garish and clunky — particularly in the truly appalling plastic jewellery in acid yellow, fuchsia and orange. Pure Abigail’s Party.
Colourful suiting has been a big story for some seasons, but with the exception of the rather lovely neon-green linen jacket with ruched sleeves (centre), this part of its range didn’t do it for me at all.
I believe M&S wins when it sticks to the classics. There’s a navy bomber-style jacket which is a terrific buy and will work brilliantly with tailored trousers, jeans and over a summer dress when chilly.
There’s a beautiful blouson-sleeved white-on-white cotton dress which ticks all the boxes for the perfect white dress.
And fashion’s wide-legged trouser message has obviously got through to the M&S shopper who is snapping them up eagerly. For summer, the store has bet on this style in a variety of denim shades (apparently its most popular denim is a light stonewash).
But my vote went to a well-cut khaki pair with a wide elasticated waist and turn-ups. Wear this with its delicious caramel suede biker jacket and you have the perfect stylish beige head-to-toe look which is very much in fashion now.
Blazer, £59; shorts, £25; and clogs, £49.50
Dress, £89; and sandals, £59
Purple patterned dress, £65
Blazer, £79; trousers, £59; slides, £29.50; and sunglasses, £15
Where M&S always strikes gold, though, is in its swimwear, lingerie and loungewear. This season’s swimwear was as strong as ever, while its Rosie Huntington-Whiteley collection goes from strength to strength.
There were some beautiful floral and lace bras and knickers that would suit all sizes, and a glamorous 1940s-style satin dressing gown.
My favourite pieces were in ribbed cotton, such as a black square-necked dress for just hanging around in (very Nigella). There was also a great black bandeau top, which can be worn alone or used to make deep plunge necklines more wearable.
It’s the stylish yet practical sophistication of simple pieces like these that show what M&S can do at its best.
But judging by the spring/summer display I saw this week, the store has got a long way to go to really hit the high notes when it comes to womenswear that is not just practical but desirable, too.