LIZ JONES gives her fashion verdict as M&S is poised to snap up Jaeger

This is a match made in heaven. While Marks & Spencer has, over the past few decades, managed to kiss quite a few frogs — collaborations with Sex and the City’s Patricia Field and It Girl Alexa Chung for a start — it looks as though this latest mooted coupling, with British heritage brand Jaeger, might last not just past the honeymoon years, but even to a happy ever after.

It emerged last week that M&S is ‘on the verge’ of a deal to buy Jaeger, which collapsed last autumn, put into administration by its Dubai-based billionaire owner, Philip Day.

None of the remaining 63 stores will be saved, but M&S could buy the brand name and its stock to sell instore, but predominantly online.

A quality warm coat now that it’s snowing! Hurrah!

It emerged last week that M&S is ‘on the verge’ of a deal to buy Jaeger, which collapsed last autumn, put into administration by its Dubai-based billionaire owner, Philip Day. Pictured: Jaeger at London Fashion Week

After the shock announcement in November that M&S had posted a pre-tax loss of £87.6 million for the first time in its 94-year history (in large part due to the pandemic, which hit Marks hard as its website is so down-market and old fashioned), this latest liaison is like going on a date with a promising man only to find he loves cats, cooking and sorting the recycling.

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Jaeger. To my mum’s generation, it was aspirational; luxurious but, above all, safe.

A Jaeger coat was my mum’s ‘best’: I remember how soft the wool was, how it smelled, how it made her look: she literally stood taller. It was there for the most important milestones in life: a wedding, a funeral, a job interview, a black-tie dinner.

Enter its portals — and oh, how I miss its flagship store on Regent Street, closed four years ago — and simply state your occasion, and a sales assistant would guide you through the rails and ensure you left with something perfect.

Jaeger opened its doors in 1884, founded on the principles of Dr Gustav Jaeger, who believed wearing wool and other natural fabric next to the skin promoted health. It had a heyday in the 1960s and 1970s: smocks, patent leather coats, lace dresses, and even a label called Young Jaeger.

It was worn by the likes of Audrey Hepburn and the Duchess of Windsor, no less.

In November M&S had posted a pre-tax loss of £87.6 million for the first time in its 94-year history

In November M&S had posted a pre-tax loss of £87.6 million for the first time in its 94-year history

But the brand fell out of fashion by the 1980s and was facing closure when it was bought by Harold Tillman in 2003. Tillman is the antithesis of Philip Green, though he too has thread for veins.

He began his career on Savile Row, becoming a millionaire by the age of 30. I interviewed him in his office about his plans for the brand.

He was always immaculately dressed by Savile Row: a razor-sharp suit, colourful tie and pocket square (he was chairman of the British Fashion Council for five years).

I asked him what made Jaeger unique: ‘We want the woman to shine, not the clothes.’

He was forward-thinking, too. He regretted the fact Jaeger stopped manufacturing in the UK in 1982. He wanted to change all that.

But it didn’t quite work out.

I think the beginning of the slide for Jaeger came when it tried to ‘do a Burberry’, ie, go high fashion, and attract the twentysomething stick insect.

I attended its first catwalk show in 2008 during London Fashion Week. Tillman had hired not only Belinda Earl as chief executive (the woman who gave us Designers at Debenhams, and would go on to be snapped up by M&S; fashion is nothing if not incestuous), but a celebrity stylist from Vogue in the form of Lucinda Chambers; a big-name designer in Helen Storey; supermodels; Sam McKnight as hairdresser; and celebrities on the front row.

The show alone must have cost millions. It got great press, but the core customer felt betrayed.

Jaeger opened its doors in 1884, founded on the principles of Dr Gustav Jaeger, who believed wearing wool and other natural fabric next to the skin promoted health

Jaeger opened its doors in 1884, founded on the principles of Dr Gustav Jaeger, who believed wearing wool and other natural fabric next to the skin promoted health

None of the remaining 63 Jaeger stores (pictured) will be saved, but M&S could buy the brand name and its stock to sell instore, but predominantly online

None of the remaining 63 Jaeger stores (pictured) will be saved, but M&S could buy the brand name and its stock to sell instore, but predominantly online

They wanted something smart for a christening, whereas the shaggy goat hair bomber on offer would probably make the baby start screaming.

I was gifted the star look: a mustard wool greatcoat I wore for a decade. So, the quality was there, hopefully is still there. But herein lay another problem. At that point, Jaeger was selling coats for £1,900, dresses for £400.

Sensible shoppers retreated to the Shires, while fashion addicts simply thought, ‘I could spend less in Prada.’ Even though this was the beginning of the financial crash, Tillman was optimistic because Jaeger was privately owned and, ‘We don’t have to make huge profits to keep shareholders happy.’

But Jaeger’s dire figures were not helped by the shoring up of another of Tillman’s heritage brands, Aquascutum.

He started to pull in his horns, closing small, provincial stores, thereby overlooking the well-heeled, provincial woman — the brand’s most loyal customer — in favour of huge stores with high footfall in places such as the Westfield shopping centres in London.

Jaeger never did attain cool status, which, personally, I was thankful for. There are myriad cool brands. Jaeger was never worn by celebrities, unless you count the Duchess of Cambridge and Sarah Brown.

Great for the Middle England mum who didn’t want harem pants, but Jaeger’s ambition was an expensive experiment.

Without the bling of a great collection of bags and shoes, and despite lots of fiddling (resurrecting the original logo, a 125th birthday collection revisiting classics, sub brands including Jaeger Black and Jaeger London), the brand struggled in the difficult ‘middle’ market: not cheap and fast enough, and not ‘luxury’ enough either.

Tillman sold up in 2012, stepping down as chairman, but retaining a 10 per cent stake (the terms of the sale are contested to this day).

This was the final nail.

My review of a store under new ownership in 2013 had the following: ‘Designer prices, but no ambiance. Filthy carpet. Poly suits for £400. A sub brand called Boutique, though no young woman would shop here.’

Even more damning, and this bit was just like standing in the middle of M&S Marble Arch, arms full of clothes, wailing for a non-existent sales assistant: ‘Can you fetch a garment for me, as I’m in heels? Jaeger assistant: ‘I can’t leave my floor.’ Gah! And so it went, onwards and downwards.

But this brand-new, late-in-life romance between two of our most cherished brands won’t come a moment too soon; I hope neither gets cold feet. And that, together, they can both recapture something of their glory days.

These are the most challenging times either brand has faced. Nostalgia alone won’t cut it. What will is a mantra, once heard at Jaeger, for quality over style. For clothes that are classic. That last. That will see you through hard times.

I worry, too, the price points will make Marks customers baulk, but the details have yet to be ironed out, so let’s wait and see.

Just before lockdown, I paid a visit to M&S’s Harrogate branch, having not stepped inside for a couple of years.

I was shocked. It was all ‘made in China’, the designs more garish, the fabric more itchy than before. Overstuffed rails crammed with lumberjack jackets, velvet embellished smoking jackets, elephant pants, ‘Mom’ jeans, sequins more at home in Tesco, pumps with leopard heels; hell, they can’t even get knitwear right!

As I stood next to yet another hideous scratchy jacket, with plaid, faux leather duffel fastenings, a hood and a fake fur collar, I asked a shopper what on earth M&S could be thinking. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘You could always take the collar off.’

This is what gets me every time: the loyalty, the love we have for our great British brands.

When Marks stumbles, it’s as though it has cheated on us, but we always take it back. When Jaeger snubs us to chase after willowy young things, we’re prepared to forgive it.

I desperately want this new marriage to work. Perhaps, this time, it will.

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