One of the best-known United Kingdom chain stores selling its own-brand merchandise, Marks & Spencer (M&S) made a substantial contribution to the democratization of fashion in the twentieth century: the provision of competitively priced, quality clothing. Before a downturn in the company's profits at the end of the 1990s, M&S's share of the U.K. clothing market stood at 14.3 percent with a turnover of £8.2 billion and nearly 300 stores in Britain alone.
The company's founder, Michael Marks (1863-1907) was a Jewish immigrant who left Bialystok in Russian Poland in the 1880s for England and began work as a licensed hawker selling his wares in the Yorkshire countryside. Marks then opened market stalls selling a diverse range of household and personal items, all at the uniform price of a penny (1d). Marks went into partnership with Tom Spencer and together they formed a limited company in 1903 (hence Marks & Spencer). By the eve of World War I, there were more than 140 branches of the Marks & Spencer Penny Bazaar Chain.
The Launch of Clothing
During the interwar period, with the declining importance of market stalls, shops became the preferred retailing outlet. Influenced both by a fact-finding trip to the United States, and by the increasing demand for ready-made clothing from a working-class market, Michael Marks's son, Simon Marks (now leading the M&S business), concentrated on building a direct relationship with U.K. clothing manufacturers and cutting out the wholesaler in order to reduce prices and have greater control over the quality of goods. At the head office (London), a Textile Laboratory was established in 1935, followed by Merchandise Development and Design Departments in 1936 to improve the quality and design of garments. By 1939 the company was selling excellent quality underwear and an expanding range of clothing for men, women, and children.
Following World War II, M&S's emphasis was on retailing easy-care and stylish clothing manufactured from the new synthetic fabrics (for example, Nylon, Terylene, Orlon, and Courtelle). More focus was placed on design by employing designers as consultants, such as the Paris-based Anny Blatt in the 1950s (for women's jersey wear) and Italian Angelo Vitucci in the 1960s (for menswear). The company began a major phase of international expansion in the 1970s by opening stores in Europe, Canada, and later Hong Kong. For a short time, it acquired the well-known Brooks Brothers chain (1988).
Marketing and Advertising
In 1928, M&S registered the St. Michael brand name, probably the company's most successful single marketing decision. For the next 70 years, only goods with the St. Michael label would be sold in M&S stores. Advertising in the modern sense began in the 1950s. For a short time in the 1990s the company used supermodels to sell its clothing. The optimism of the early to mid-1990s and the praise M&S received for the quality and design of its clothing ranges at this time soon disappeared in the context of competition on the high street from companies with narrower and more clearly defined markets such as Gap and Jigsaw on the one hand, and the discount retailers such as Matalan on the other.
Led by chairman Luc Vandevelde into the twenty-first century, and with the injection of design talent into womenswear via George Davies's Per Una range (launched autumn 2001), Marks & Spencer made a substantial recovery. Nevertheless, it is the opinion of some that "however well the company does, it will be a long time, if ever, before it regains its past reputation for unassailable excellence or is, once again, regarded as the benchmark of retailing standards" (J. Bevan, The Rise and Fall of Marks & Spencer, p. 262).
Bevan, Judi. The Rise and Fall of Marks & Spencer. London: Profile Books, 2002. Good on the particular circumstances leading to Marks & Spencer's fall in profits at the end of the 1990s.
Rees, Goronwy. A History of Marks & Spencer. London: Weiderfeld and Nicholson, 1969. Good overview of Marks & Spencer's early development from a business history perspective.
Worth, Rachel. "'Fashioning' the Clothing Product: Technology and Design at Marks & Spencer." Textile History 30, no. 2 (1999): 234-250. Concentrates on the clothing aspect of the business with particular focus on the role of design and technology.