Monday, 28 May 2018


I know…from art to retailing requires a leap of faith.

I’ve just been to the Monet exhibition at the National Gallery. The 70 paintings there would sell for over $1 billion yet he found it hard even selling his work until his mid-40s when sales took off with vivid Mediterranean coastline paintings which Americans loved.

Claude’s story matches that of most artists that we now rate as great with only a few becoming truly rich from their endeavours whilst young enough to enjoy it. Most relied on finding a sugar daddy or patron but the market itself was harsh. Yet they carried on tirelessly and in the case of Monet painting the same scene at different times of the day when the lighting was different.  In painting Rouen Cathedral he sat in a ladies changing room of a department store opposite the cathedral, ladies curtained off of course, and painted dawn to dusk.

Artists in general are not especially commercial, entrepreneurial or productive…they just carry on doing what they do regardless always trying to get better. For them quality beats cash any time. Money merely seems to be inconvenient (mostly by its absence.) And a century after they die their work (like ‘Nymphéas en fleur’) can sell for $85 million.

But it isn’t money you think about when you think of Monet, it’s the light, the colours the sheer joie de vivre.

And that’s what’s missing from M&S - retail bellwether, housewives’ favourite, the Monet of underwear. Unlike Monet its value is declining.  Unlike Monet it is no longer notable for its light, colour or joie de vivre. It’s about to depart the FTSE 100, close a dozen or more stores and ‘unify brand and culture’ (I really wish that I knew what that meant). The iron hand of Archie Norman, the man who saved Asda 27 years ago is Chairman. He is a McKinsey trained heavy who seemed short on small talk when I met him.

For years M&S has been a bit like the Brexiteers chasing new business in young markets unknown to them but “representing huge, yes huge and incalculable opportunities”, rather  than focusing on their core old market of loyalists– around 20 million of them. Instead it keeps on going hopefully after the deaf, dumb and blind kids like millennials who would rather be seen dead than in M&S. Because M&S is like grandad doing the twist.

M&S matters because when it does things well, like much of its food, like cashmere, socks, underwear or cords it does them rather well. When it flirts with the unknown it’s sorrowfully irrelevant. I shall watch its strategy of downsizing and trying to find an authentic voice intriguing but without much hope. M&S has stopped learning it seems.

Monet kept on learning. He has colour and energy. His pictures are timeless. M&S is not. Tom Peters said “you can’t shrink your way to greatness”. On that Monet and I (but not M&S) agree.

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