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Anyone who reads the fashion press will know last week was a big one for M&S. Alexa Chung launched her new clothing collection inspired by rediscovering our Archive - over 30,000 customers pre-registered to shop the M&S & Alexa Chung range. Alexa explained, ‘I found the future of M&S in the past’. Customers are loving it – over 20,000 pieces sold on the first day alone – my personal favourite (like many shoppers) is the Harry blouse. But what is this Archive that Alexa rediscovered, referred to by some as the “big fridge”? 

The M&S Archive is our permanent exhibition (‘Marks in Time’) and storage space (“big fridge”) in the Michael Marks building at the University of Leeds. We established the Archive in 1984 to celebrate 100 years of M&S, it moved to purpose built premises in Leeds in 2012 and today our collection contains more than 70,000 items from 1884 to the present day – from business papers to food packaging to adverts to garments of all styles. The exhibition space explores how M&S has led the way in innovation, quality and service. 

I like M&S noticeAs the Company Archivist I lead a small team of three as we continue to collect, catalogue and make available all kinds of records from M&S’s past and present. Every year members of the public kindly send us incredible items which we add to our collection, along with records transferred from throughout M&S relating to current developments and innovations.

Sharing the Archive with colleagues is really important to us – last month 63 long serving employees were recognised for their combined 1,790 years of service and the Archive stand at the celebration event gave them the opportunity to reflect on changes over the years – especially to the uniform! And as well as Alexa our Archive inspires colleagues too, the space is popular for team days and research projects. As we move forward as a business we’re often inspired by our past – from prints to patterns to processes – there’s lots to be discovered at the Archive. Recent team visits have found archive inspiration for in-store merchandising and marketing, while vintage patterns will be contributing to beautiful home ranges for 2017.

dressesMy team and I also spend a lot of time welcoming our guests. Each year our Archive receives over 17,000 visitors – from children who enjoy learning about innovation, sustainability and food technology in our school sessions to university students getting stuck into original archives in our reading rooms to members of the public with an interest in social history or love of all things M&S. We also hold a series of events – earlier in the year I hosted a talk on Utility Fashion during World War II and I’m looking forward to our latest vintage fashion show next month ‘Dressed in Time’, as well as a beer tasting we’ve got scheduled for the summer! We also get out and about in the local community – our reminiscence sessions and resource packs are particularly popular with care homes and day centres helping people with dementia. 

For those who can’t visit the Archive in Leeds we’re also working hard to make our collections accessible online with our online catalogue, our store locator with a history twist and our specially put together themed documents – this lingerie doc runs through the history of the M&S bra from our first sales in 1926 to today where 1 in 3 women wears an M&S bra.

As an archivist, working on the collections of a company so rich in social history is an absolute pleasure – there’s nothing better than sharing with a loyal M&S customer their memories of the brand or introducing the history to our younger customers. Anyone interested in the Archive can find out more at www.marksintime.marksandspencer.com and follow us on twitter @MandSHeritage and of course for those in the area do come and see us, we’re open Monday – Friday and entry is free!