“I am very fond of John Lewis, but . . . ” So began a comment under an FT article about the British department store chain last year. That sense of fondness with reservations sums up how many customers feel about the retailer, which has seen its national treasure status take a well-documented dip, as well as tens of millions in financial losses, in recent years.
So how to reignite residual affection into something a bit more dynamic, how to make it just “I love John Lewis”? That’s one of the challenges faced by the brand’s first director of design for fashion, Queralt Ferrer, who started this year. She joins the employee-owned business two years into a turnaround strategy dubbed the “Partnership Plan”, aimed at reaching £400mn in profits by 2025.
When I meet Ferrer and commercial director Kathleen Mitchell at the brand’s press day in September, Mitchell seems confident about supercharging the retailer’s existing “reasonable” price points with “emotional style”. “There’s the logic of is that good value? Is that a fabric I want to wear? But then there’s do I love it? Is it going to make me feel great?”
A major part of Ferrer’s remit is to boost the existing in-house ranges: John Lewis & Partners, And/Or, Kin and the value range Anyday. Spanish-born Ferrer was the womenswear design director for Inditex-owned Massimo Dutti for 17 years, and design director for womenswear, lingerie and beauty at Marks & Spencer before setting up a consultancy in 2019 and childrenswear brand Five of Us in 2021. She led and oversaw design and development for the John Lewis & Partners autumn/winter 2022 womenswear collection, and from spring/summer 2023 onwards she will do the same for all in-house brands across womenswear, menswear and childrenswear.
As we walk round the rails in One Marylebone, a Sir John Soane-designed church turned venue for hire, Ferrer explains that her approach is “not about chasing the latest trend any more. We select the trends that we think are relevant for our customers.”
For womenswear this season, that means tailored jackets in suiting fabrics, velvet and tweed, wide trousers and jeans, boyish striped shirts and bouclé coats and “shackets”. The leather Mary Jane shoes and Gucci-esque loafers look more designer than the £55-£89 price tag, and, importantly, are actually comfortable.
There are a few prints, such as the green floral high-neck midi-dress worn by Queralt at the press event with a belt over the top, which is a bestseller. Taken from an archive pattern that has a hint of William Morris, the £59 dress isn’t hugely different from the array of floral midis on the high street, (the British woman’s love affair with the floral midi hasn’t waned apparently) but it’s made from a heavier, more flattering viscose fabric and looks more expensive, especially teamed with a blazer.
The vibe is quintessential John Lewis, tastefully contemporary with a dash of fun, in the Hush/Boden/Albaray space that seems to have struck a chord with the middle market. Blazers with matching trousers come in a deep bottle green and the hot pink hue popularised recently by Italian luxury brand Valentino. Seemingly, the John Lewis customer likes colour and Ferrer says “we really believe this pink is the colour of the season”.
For men in the John Lewis & Partners range, neutrals prevail, such as an oatmeal and navy-blue cashmere Breton jumper and terracotta cord overshirt, while tailoring reflects the casualisation of workwear with softer construction, longer jackets and higher waists on trousers.
The men’s suiting — whether a casual cord suit (jacket £150, trousers £70) or a navy suit in super 100s wool (£260) — seems like the strongest part of the in-house offer. While the women’s bottle-green suit fits well, it is in a mix of viscose and polyester; it would be good to see a similar range of affordable tailoring for women in more luxurious fabrics. A pair of men’s chinos with a high waist and pleated front stand out as being subtly stylish, and signal a return to more elegant trousers.
Designing for a department store poses the challenge of creating a broad appeal without overly diluting its identity. Asked who the core customers are, Ferrer says: “Our customers are busy, they potentially have children or they don’t have much time, so they will come to us to give them solutions and because they trust what we deliver. We are working on quite consistent styles that can appeal to a younger customer as well an older one.”
She says the creation of her role is “about having design at the front of our mindset, respect for product and design. Most of the ranges are designed in-house and it’s an amazing luxury to have 45 designers for our own brands.” Accelerating own-brand ranges also increases creative control. Ferrer has signed on more European suppliers to help shorten lead times and enable the brand to react to customer tastes. Sales of Queralt’s John Lewis & Partners womenswear collection, launched at the start of September, are up 38 per cent over the same period last year.
New services such as clothing and accessory rental, (where customers can borrow items such as a Roop handbag for £6.76 for four days or a “cottagecore” dress from O Pioneers, £53.53 for four days), tie in with the retailer’s Partnership Plan to diversify revenue streams, expand rental resale and recycling, and reach net zero carbon by 2035.
Ferrer seems confident about the role of the department store, even though other British institutions such as House of Frasers and Debenhams have entered into administration over the last four years: “John Lewis is a trusted, heritage brand and that’s something unique. I think [the department store] is still super-relevant, and I’m passionate about that curation . . . I think we’re in the right place. Because of the cost of living [crisis] it’s hard, but we are offering very good quality for a very good price.”
Carola Long is the FT’s deputy fashion editor
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