Fashion improvements and in-store changes helped Marks & Spencer post an increase in clothing like-for-likes in the fourth quarter, chief executive Marc Bolland maintained.

The retailer reported clothing sales up 0.6% like-for-like and 1.3% in total in the period to March 29.

Bolland told Retail Week that the M&S Collection, which was relaunched six months ago in an enhanced in-store environment, was evidence of an encouraging direction of travel.

“We had positive growth in M&S Collection. That’s important. That part of the business has grown very well over the period,” he said.

Since launch towards the end of the fourth quarter, an M&S Collection floral lace dress worn by model Alek Wek in the retailer’s latest Leading Ladies marketing campaign has been a bestseller, said Bolland, and 2,500 have been sold.

Within the clothing category, M&S reported that womenswear specifically “continued to strengthen, delivering a good like-for-like sales performance during the quarter.”

“We are encouraged by womenswear, which is showing clear signs of improvement and performed ahead of clothing,” Bolland said.

However “a highly promotional market” affected margins. Over the full year the general merchandise gross margin will be down approximately 20 basis points – more than analysts had expected. Bolland said that M&S was less promotional than the market overall.

Shore Capital analyst Clive Black said: “Despite distinctly dull trade we do see progress in the proposition, its merchandising and execution and we are encouraged by the comments on womenswear.

“However there is clearly a lot more to do for M&S to stem market share decline in ladieswear in the UK on a sustained basis.”

Despite the improvement in clothing, Marks & Spencer’s general merchandise business overall suffered an 11th consecutive quarter of like-for-like decline – down 0.6%.

M&S finance director Alan Stewart said it was important to note that the late timing of Easter impacted the home category, as did the soft launch of the retailer’s new website.

Marketing of the online offer was low-key while the transition was made. Home accounts for a higher participation in the online mix than it does in stores.