Former Sainsbury’s head of clothing Sara Bradley is to join Marks & Spencer as head of buying for M&S Brands within the womenswear team.

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The appointment came as a surprise because Bradley was preparing to join Asda as head of fashion arm George’s kidswear and menswear business. She had previously worked for Asda, with some of that time coinciding with M&S general merchandise supremo Kate Bostock, until leaving in 2008.

M&S chief executive Marc Bolland has identified the retailer’s exclusive brands as a key differentiator from rivals and a source of customer appeal. However, he said at last November’s strategy update that some of the sub-brands needed to be turned “from labels to real brands”.

Bradley, who had been seen as a potential successor to Fiona Lambert as brand director of Asda’s George fashion business, is expected to bring her buying skills to bear on delivering that objective. “We are delighted that Sara is now joining us,” said an M&S spokeswoman.

Bradley’s start date at M&S is to be confirmed, but it is hoped she may be in post in May. Bradley will report to Annette Browne, trading director, womenswear product direction and design.

Her hiring is the latest personnel change to M&S’s clothing business. At the end of January the retailer restructured the department, including fully integrating Per Una, the brand created by George Davies.

At that time, as well as Browne’s change in responsibilities, Scott Fyfe became trading director, womenswear merchandising and planning, and Andrew Skinner was named general merchandise merchandising director.

Bradley is the latest high-profile hiring by Bolland. It follows that of Laura Wade-Gery from Tesco as the retailer’s multichannel ecommerce executive director and Jan Heere from Zara-owner Inditex as international director.

At last November’s interims, M&S reported an increase in clothing market share of 60 basis points to 11.2%, when there was “growth across all areas”. M&S will issue a fourth-quarter trading update on April 6.