W hen I was at school in London in the 1970s, a favourite joke around the classroom concerned an Irish nun who went to the Mother Superior and declared she was pregnant. The Mother was horrified. “Who is the father?” she asked, stony-faced. “It’s a saint, holy Mother, so it’s all right,” said the nun.
“Show me this saint,” demanded the Mother.
The nun led her outside the abbey and pointed to the gardener. “He’s the saint,” she said.
“Why do you think he’s a saint?” an astonished Mother Superior asked.
“Well, Holy Mother, because he showed me his underwear. And it had his name on it. It said St. Michael.”
If you find this rather weak schoolboy joke at all amusing or, at the very least, get the punchline, then you are a person of a certain age who is familiar with Marks & Spencer.
Ah, Marks & Spencer! Or Marks and Sparks, as the Kinks called it in one of their 1960s anthems. Home of quality underwear and nestler of the breast. And purveyor of sleepwear and socks to entire generations.
You find Marks & Spencer all over the world now. There are Marks & Spencer shops in India (I’ve been to a very crowded outlet in Delhi’s Ansal Plaza) and in some parts of Asia (Thailand, for example), it is even regarded as a premium label.
But my memories of Marks go back to 1960s London before designer brands, before the big, trendy high-street retailers (Zara, H&M, Topshop, etc.), to an era where clothes came in three broad categories. They were made by faceless companies you had never heard of; they were made for you by fancy tailors; or they came from boutiques on King’s Road or Carnaby Street.
Marks & Spencer belonged to another category entirely. It only sold goods under its own label (in those days, that was very unusual) and that label was not Marks & Spencer: it was St. Michael—hence the poor, pregnant, Irish nun. The clothes were not expensive, but neither were they as cheap as, say, C&A. They had a reputation for quality, they lasted and they would never shrink.
In that era, every Indian who went to England came back with something from Marks & Spencer, either for himself or as a gift. Sometimes, this would take the form of shirts, sweaters or ladies’ blouses but, most often, it would consist of underwear. Indian women holidaying in London flocked to Marks & Spencer for their bras. I used to joke that each summer, you could meet every Indian visitor to the British capital if you just hung around the lingerie department of the Oxford Street store.
Over time, St. Michael became the one global brand that Indians learnt to trust. Whether it was a middle-class person on holiday who bought a shirt for himself or a millionaire who took his wife to Oxford Street to buy underwear, they liked Marks & Spencer.
In England, however, Marks & Spencer went through many changes. It moved into the food business with great success and despite its reputation for economy, the food was always overpriced and luxurious. As other retailers entered the same market, Marks & Spencer tried to rejig its image by becoming younger and trendier.
Sometimes it worked. In the mid-1990s, I had a long drunken dinner with Richard Greenbury, its then chairman, who spoke ebulliently of the chain’s prospects, on a visit to Delhi. But despite Greenbury’s borderline megalomania, profits slipped and the board sacked him.
Marks & Spencer then went into a downward spiral from which it recovered only briefly. As the new chains took over the high street and as old brands such as Debenhams began to revive, Marks & Spencer began to look fuddy-duddy and tacky. Staff was rude, the queues at the tills were massive and the merchandise was shoddy.
Last year, I heard that the group had fought off a takeover bid from Philip Green, the owner of Topshop and half the British high street, and had changed its image and its clothes. After many, many years I revisited the clothing department (though I had never given up on the food) and was surprised by the changes.
The St. Michael brand that I had known for much of my life was dead. Instead, clothes either bore the name of the store or came from ranges such as Autograph, Per Una and Vintage. Timothy Everest, the English tailor who dressed Tom Cruise for Mission Impossible , had his own men’s range. So did Nigel Hall, a well-known designer.
The clothes were inexpensive, but they seemed to be sturdily constructed. Almost on impulse, I began buying the shirts. A little later, I went back and bought a Timothy Everest jacket (a steal at £89, or about Rs7,100). I’ve been wearing those clothes pretty much on a daily basis this year and I have to say that while the shirts will not win any awards for originality, they look far more expensive than they really are (average price: £25-30)
So, funnily enough, I’m back to wearing the kind of Marks & Spencer clothes my parents bought me as a child. I’m still not wild about the layout of the stores and the ancient staff can be unhelpful, but hey, at those prices, who’s complaining? I’m less convinced by the image makeover. The women’s range is fronted by Twiggy, who may well wear such clothes, but the choice of Bryan Ferry as the face of menswear was distinctly dodgy—this is a man who used to get Hedi Slimane to customize Dior Homme suits for him. Can you really see him popping into Marks & Spencer to buy a £100 suit? (And now they’ve said they won’t renew his contract because of pro-Nazi remarks).
But I still enjoy the thought of wearing Marks & Spencer again. It fuses two Englands. When Tony Blair became Prime Minister, his spin doctors put it about that he wore Marks & Spencer suits. Both his likely successors (Gordon Brown and David Cameron) wear Timothy Everest (custom-tailored, of course). So, there’s a sense of old and new; of upmarket and downmarket; of class and classlessness; and of a vanishing London and a new England.
Plus, with the old label gone, no Irish nun will find her virtue at risk.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org