2 weeks ago

Bright Sparks: 40 Years of Marks and Spencer in Ireland

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Marks & Spencer first opened its doors in Ireland on Mary Street in Dublin on November 13, 1979. More than 15,000 purchases were made on the first day of trading. Chicken Kievs (a brand new M&S product and a market first in 1979) and bottles of Asti Spumante flew off the shelves. Best-selling clothes were women’s blouses and iridescent denim jeans, men’s polo shirts, and towelling beach dresses (what anyone in Ireland wanted with a towelling beach dress in November is a mystery). In 1970s Ireland, M&S was exotic. There had been Marks & Sparks “tourists” travelling via Holyhead to the branch in Chester for years, and now it was all here, in Mary Street, for us to buy. 

Our love affair with M&S has continued ever since. Other British retailers entered and exited the Irish market but M&S stayed, winning over shoppers within striking distance of a store and many more who made the trip for the fabulous foodstuffs and fantastic woollies. (In 1988, a second store opened on Grafton Street with the third Cork store opening a year later; there are now 18 stores in the Republic of Ireland.) M&S was seen as a good employer of helpful, efficient staff, and innovation followed innovation to keep shoppers engaged – the introduction of quality furniture, celebrity collaborations (before any other brands were even thinking about it), the serving up of global food trends far in advance of other retailers. 

The proof is in the pudding: 32 million customers in 20,000 territories, 2,100 suppliers and 1,000 farmers and a long tally of awards, most recently the Business Working Responsibility Mark from Business in the Community Ireland. Greenpeace has ranked M&S top food retailer in sustainability terms (under the Plan A programme, M&S introduced all sorts of climate-friendly measures, beginning with the cloth shopper, again long before other retailers.) M&S won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Innovation for machine-washable tailored suits and for the Ready for Work programme which offered placements to the homeless. In 2014, the Marks & Start programme celebrated its tenth anniversary, having changed the lives of over 10,000 people including some with disabilities, ex-offenders and single parents, by giving them the confidence to find work. As part of the 40th Irish anniversary celebrations, M&S has partnered with Pieta House Resilience Academy to raise awareness of mental health in young people via a six-week programme covering everything from stress to bullying. 

Everyone has their M&S favourites – food, flowers, clothes, furniture, bedlinen. It’s the quality and sheer suggestibility of the offering which is so attractive. Cross the threshold with no idea of what you’re going to cook for dinner and suddenly inspiration comes. Pop in for a few treats, come out laden down with everything from avocados to za’taar, and a bouquet of fresh blooms.

For the classic dresser, Marks and Spencer is a gift. An online search for “black dresses” yields 66 results, from a simple crepe shift to an Isabel Marant-style dress with pin-tuck detail. White shirts, 27 items. This season, look out for elegant midi dresses, oversize wool coats, great courts and leather totes. Machine-washable cashmere, white T-shirts, white shirts, (Autograph cotton for work and M&S Collection Irish linen for summer) and silk blouses are all found in fashion savvy wardrobes. And it’s not just about great basics. With fashion veteran Belinda Earls at the helm for the last seven years, the adoption of runway trends has been fast and accurate, with quality a given. Cut and details across the newly streamlined Collection, Per Una and Autograph lines have never been so on-trend. 

A quick canvass of the fashion pack reveals how much they actually buy from M&S, each item prefaced with “Céline-like”, Prada-esque”. Fashion editor of The Irish Times Deirdre McQuillan wears the cashmere sweaters and raves about the shape and support of M&S swimsuits. Corina Gaffey is wearing a military-style coat by Autograph, and loves the new Victorian-style lace-up boots. Sinead Keenan singles out AW19’s print dresses, and used their high-heeled hiking boots on a recent shoot. All the stylists are on the Insolia shoe trail (look for the Insolia sign on the upper) – these are heels you can truly run around in all day. For men, The Gloss style editor Aislinn Coffey singles out a two-button suit, great Autograph shirts and silk ties, while Beauty Editor Sarah Halliwell lauds the breadth and quality of the beauty hall. 

We can’t overlook the underwear – 50 million pairs of knickers are sold per year; 45 bras sold every minute. It is amazing to think fittings were once carried out under coats on the shop floor – now personal shopping facilities are impressive; the Fit & Style service worth booking. 

Brexit may be happening but this is one British bastion we’re determined to hold onto.

Dont miss the in-store archive in the Grafton Street Store, which will rekindle memories of 1980s Ireland, and special 40th anniversary Percy Pigs.

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