This is the suede skirt that saved Marks & Spencer

British bellwether high-street retailer Marks & Spencer just posted its best sales performance in nearly four years.

Its sales for the three months to March 28, grew 1.9%. General merchandising sales, which include women’s clothing, increased by 0.7% on a like-for-like basis over the quarter.

A 0.7% increase in sales doesn’t seem like a big deal but this is the first time M&S has reported an increase in sales after 14 consecutive quarterly declines.

M&S was once the default clothing supplier to the entire nation. Now it engaged in a years-long fight to shake off its legacy of peddling grandmother-style underwear and plain, dowdy clothing.

And its change in fortune seems to be all down to one piece of clothing for changing brand perception. This suede “Autograph” skirt, which costs £199, and it isn’t even available yet to buy:

The group said in a statement that “our Spring/Summer ranges have been well received by customers, as evidenced by strong improvement in customer research scores, as well as great fashion press coverage, including that of our iconic suede skirt.”

You could say that is an understatement. The mid-length suede skirt isn’t even available in the shops. M&S is basically claiming that advance interest in the skirt drove more shoppers to discover the rest of its Autograph line.

It is so sought-after that M&S dedicated an entire webpage to it. You have to register to even get the chance to buy it. M&S’s Instagram feed is dedicated to frequent suede skirt updates.

Some famous or influential people seem to have gotten their hands on the skirt in advance. (A cynic might suggest that M&S’s PR team helped them.)

“The moment Olivia Palermo stepped out in our Autograph suede skirt, £199, at New York Fashion Week, we knew it was going to be one of this season’s most in-demand pieces,” said M&S on its website. “When Alexa Chung also wore it a few days later, we knew something really special was about to happen.

It helped that M&S also cottoned onto the power of social media. It used Instagram to drum up even more interest during London Fashion Week. Here’s a photo from Ali Hall, the editor of Look magazine:

A photo posted by Ali Hall (@missalihall) on Feb 22, 2015 at 5:52am PST

And another:

“M&S boss Marc Bolland’s cost-cutting and investment plans are showing signs of bearing fruit. Dealing with the brand’s legacy problems will take much longer – but the return to growth after such a long decline will give him the breathing space he needs to drive through more changes,” saidPaul Thomas of the retail consultancy Retail Remedy.

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