The Interview: George Davies. What George did next
George Davies is a household name, the man who gave us Next in the 1980s, George at Asda in the 90s and M&S’s Per Una in the 2000s.
Now he’s back, aged 81 - once again targeting womenswear and kidswear customers - with his latest brand, GWD, which launched at wholesale in the UK at the Pure London trade show at Kensington Olympia in February 2023, with the aim to supply some of the best independent boutiques, particularly in market towns. Davies tells us all about his colourful career and his new brand, which has an e-commerce website launching in the UK this September, alongside his daughter Melanie Davies, who is also the Managing Director of GWD.
George Davies is without doubt a living legend of UK fashion, best known for launching Next on the high street in 1982 and the Next Directory in 1987 – bringing fashion collections in to customers’ homes complete with fabric swatches, before going on to bring us the first supermarket fashion brand with George at Asda in 1990.
He sold the George brand to Asda in 1995 and returned to run the brand until 1999 – leaving shortly after Walmart acquired the supermarket chain - and then went about elevating Marks & Spencer’s fashion offer with the Per Una brand in 2001.
Davies quit Per Una in 2005 after a disagreement with Sir Stuart Rose, the then M&S Chief Executive, but returned to the company before leaving for good in 2008. He then launched his fourth brand in 2009, called GIVe, which stood for George IV, though the credit crunch at the time made trading out of several retail stores in prime UK locations, including on London’s Regent Street, challenging, and costly. Still, Davies came away from that unscathed, putting the business into liquidation two years later to focus on other more lucrative ventures.
In recent years, with his FG4 womenswear and kidswear brand, which he designed at his Draycott Business Village HQ in the heart of the Cotswolds – where he’s been based since his Per Una days - he’s been having a good time of it with a joint venture and several shops across Saudi Arabia.
That joint venture is now coming to an end, but in the last couple of years, GWD (which stands for George William Davies), has been another womenswear and kidswear brand that he’s introduced, initially to be an additional Middle East-focused business, primarily in stores in Kuwait and Dubai. Now though, it has been deemed the right time to introduce it to the UK market – with a wholesale launch at the Pure London trade show at London Olympia in February 2023, and a direct to consumer website business launching this September for AW23.
Davies has always been something of a trailblazer, most noticeably with the launch of Next in 1982. The stores were expertly merchandised through colour coordinated outfits and lifestyle stories, not product types such as blouses, knitwear and skirts shown separately, as had been the retail norm. The “total look” fashion concept was born.
The Next Directory, which was introduced in 1987 after Next acquired mail order company Grattan, was also revolutionary in the home shopping sector, bringing the same kind of in-store lifestyle merchandising techniques to colourful catalogue pages – with the help of top fashion photographers and models – making a once dreary mail order sector much more aspirational.
Quality fashion shoots and high level production were key, including fabric swatches to give customers a better idea of what they were ordering, while reducing the amount of returns. That was a trick Davies originally picked up while working for home-based fashion retailer Pippa Dee, which operated in a similar vein to Tupperware parties in the early 1970s, whereby a self-employed sales force of women would organise house party plan sales across the UK. Different colour swatches were introduced to limit the amount of pieces shown, but increase sales. Simple but effective.
The new much more online driven retail landscape is a far cry from Davies’ Next days and the task of opening and successfully running retail stores countrywide, a time still very close to his heart.
He said: “I launched Next on 12 February 1982 and I had, and have, a very different way of doing things from most entrepreneurs or bosses. I never had lunch in my private office or boardroom with the other directors, I went to queue alongside the workforce in the canteen.
“I also used to visit 80 stores a year, so I wasn’t like some kind of big boss in a smart office. I felt I had to, and that’s how I learnt about differences in what sold well in different locations. I actually bought a Twin Squirrel helicopter out of the business, otherwise I’d have never been able to visit so many stores a year. That was brilliant, they were great days, and I ultimately learnt to fly one – though it took me a while to crack it!”
It was a style of leadership that didn’t seem to fall well with other directors at Next, and Davies was fired “out of the blue” in 1988, only a year after launching the hugely successful Next Directory. “They got rid of me after three editions, which was quite unbelievable really,” he said, “but what it made me do was become totally independent. And that’s when I saw an opening and did the whole George at Asda range.” His thinking was that there were too many cars on the road, and not enough car parks in city centres, however, large supermarkets like Asda, with huge out of town sites and plenty of parking spaces, had a captive audience, as everyone needs to buy food.
Davies’ idea behind launching the Next Directory had also been forged after seeing the amount of cars on the road double over a short space of time, with parking increasingly becoming a major issue in UK towns and cities. Shopping at home brought convenience, but it was the short delivery period that was really a game changer for Next Directory. Davies said: “Back then, mail order companies were delivering within 28 days, but we delivered within 48 hours. That was a first and nobody got close to it. I even had my own delivery people. I employed people for each area, and we could get an order to them in just over 24 hours – they had the next 24 hours to deliver to the customers. That was ground-breaking.”
There’s no doubt that getting ousted at Next left a bad taste in the mouth for Davies, especially as he had to watch it grow and grow over the years. It was actually buying mail order company Grattan and launching the Next Directory which was what Davies calls his “downfall”, as the directors’ coup was led by David Jones, the man who came in with the Grattan deal. “He was the one that got me in the end,” said Davies.
To this day, Davies remains the hands-on type and there’s never a day that he doesn’t see all the sales for his business. “It’s all in the detail. When I see what is selling, and in which particular location, we can then align what product we are putting through where, so it’s more targeted. We tailor the ranges to what the demand is in any given location.”
There are no GWD stores planned as yet, though the website launch will indicate areas where the brand gets established the most, which in turn may lead to a store being considered if a certain UK territory particularly comes up as being a stronghold for GWD, in terms of customers and sales volumes.
Melanie Davies, George’s daughter who previously worked for the George at Asda and Per Una businesses, is also very much part of the current GWD business as its Managing Director. She said: “We launched the GWD brand in the Middle East in 2021 with womenswear and we’ve learnt quite a lot there. The market is different, though there are more similarities than there ever were before – certainly since we started out with our FG4 women’s and kidswear brand there in 2010 - as the culture is changing. Women now have more freedom and are embracing social media content. Being in department stores has also exposed GWD to a wider audience.”
GWD Creative Director, Amy Coward, added: “We launched GWD womenswear as a sister brand to FG4 in the Middle East. Being in department stores, namely Debenhams which a company called Alshaya Group own in the Middle East, meant we were getting all sorts of different customers, and more worldwide customers. Habits and styles have been changing rapidly over the last few years and become more Western. That’s why we now see it as an opportunity to bring GWD here. The ranges became more wearable for us, and the girls in the office were wanting to wear it, so it’s kind of evolved. We now think it’s right for the UK and it will bring something different.”
On the wholesale side, it’s mainly independent boutiques that are being targeted. “That’s where we got the real interest from at Pure,” said Melanie Davies. “Where we position ourselves on price is important, because its affordable. In the current climate, dresses priced at £400 from some of the designer brands, are not so viable. People aren’t prepared to pay that sort of money at the moment, as they don’t have as much disposable income.
“We work hard on getting the prices right. An average price of a GWD dress is £120, but we will have a starting price of £75. The brand features contemporary and sophisticated styling that’s elegant, flattering and easy to wear. It’s targeted at 35-plus ladies who like to dress up. A lot of the AW23 collection is dresses, though there’s also blouses, skirts and knitwear. The collection features beautiful fabrics and yarns, bold colours, pretty prints, intricate detailing and flattering fits. For future autumn/winter collections we will also introduce coats and more knitwear.”
George Davies added: “What we will have to do is a proper winter range, as we haven’t for years now. Places like Saudi Arabia never get that cold so there’s been no need to.”
Pieces that buyers have particularly picked up in the AW23 collection include the ‘Danni’ dress, an abstract floral print short-sleeved midi dress with an asymmetric waist, and the ‘Margot’ floral print mesh cut and sew dress, which Melanie Davies describes as “a real party piece”, with a full skirt and voluminous sleeves. Using more recycled yarns and sustainable packaging is also key to the strategy going forward.
Melanie Davies is excited to have a brand in the UK again, after only operating in other countries in recent years. She said: “It’s different having a brand in another country to having one here, but it’s good to be back. Per Una was very exciting because it took off unbelievably. I worked on the commercial side of the Per Una business, my sister Emma was on buying and design, and my younger sister Alex also worked on the buying and design side – so it was all a family thing. We’d all previously worked on George Clothing. That’s what we called it before it became George at Asda.
“With Per Una we did a lot of product testing, and that’s what we want to do with GWD. The way we’ve set up our manufacturing base, which includes Leicester in the UK, it means that on a lot of things we can get them back within two months. That’s where e-commerce is good, because we can test things more easily. In stores you need a full range of stock and if it goes wrong then it’s all dead money really, where as if we want to test something online, and only have say 20 units of it, then we can. Our manufacturers are quite prepared to do that if they know there’s a chance of a much bigger order.”
Though the main initial push is on GWD womenswear, kidswear is close behind. George Davies said: “We have currently got fantastic demand for our kidswear in Kuwait and surrounding countries. In fact, we’re streets ahead of everybody on kidswear there, and that will be important for the UK market too.”
Melanie Davies and Amy Coward believe there is a huge gap in the market for GWD kidswear in the UK, which they describe as “fun and bold”. Attention to detail is key, and prints and graphics are all designed in house. Coward added: “It’s coordinated fashion that makes it easy for people to put an outfit together” (a nod back to George Davies’ original Next concept).
Having initially launched GWD womenswear in Debenhams in the Middle East in 2021, which “took off extremely well”, kidswear followed in March 2022, sold again through Debenhams - though also about to launch in Mothercare stores - once again through the Alshaya Group in the Middle East.
Melanie Davies said: “That’s been phenomenal. We’re going in to Mothercare 36 stores imminently. That’s why we see a huge opportunity for the kidswear here. Next do a pretty good job on kidswear, and really they are the only ones at our kind of level before you start going up to the designer brands. We can offer something a bit trendier, with attention to detail and at the right price.”
Menswear may also be revisited going forward, as George Davies was approached at Pure about a possible partnership with another company, as yet unconfirmed, to work with GWD on a men’s range. It’s not an area he’s ventured into for a few years, but he said: “I used to do a lot of menswear, in fact it became massive with Next. Then I did menswear with George as well. It was only when I did Per Una for M&S that I concentrated on womenswear. But I know lots of manufacturers, so we will see.”
In the late 90s and early 2000s, menswear and boys wear were very much the focus of a side of George Davies’ empire, called S’porter, which is perhaps not so well known about. It was a first foray into casualwear for football fans, including for Newcastle United, Liverpool and Arsenal football clubs. Being from Merseyside and a firm Liverpool fan himself, as well as even having had trials for the club in the late 1950s when it was managed by the late great Bill Shankly, making apparel to sell to fans of the club was a particular favourite, but it was Newcastle United that kickstarted the S’porter business in the 1990s.
George Davies said: “I knew the Chief Executive of Newcastle United, the late Freddie Fletcher, because I had stores in Newcastle and surrounding areas with Next, and he wanted me to create a collection using Newcastle United as a brand. I told him I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do the quantities, as the manufacturers normally said you need to order at least 300 of any one thing. At the time Newcastle only had one club shop, and this was a new idea. I then spoke to some manufacturers and said I’d only be able to buy 30 or 40 pieces of each garment and, because it was football, they said they’d do it. Our S’porter business was born and I ended up opening five Newcastle United shops in the North East with Freddie, including at the Eldon Square shopping centre in Newcastle and the Metro Centre in Gateshead, and we did all of their mail order.
“I also had the biggest ever attendance at a fashion show I’d ever had because I persuaded all the top Newcastle players, including David Ginola, to model at a fashion show at Newcastle’s St. James’ Park stadium. That night 9,000 people turned up! We made everything from jackets polo shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts, T-shirts and loads of accessories, including the Newcastle scarves. From that, I then got Liverpool, Wolverhampton Wonderers, Rangers and Arsenal – going from a tiny club shop at the old Highbury stadium to the largest club shop in the country at the then new Emirates Stadium.” Perhaps inevitably, one by one the clubs ended up taking the fans’ apparel business in-house.
For someone who built his business and reputation through retail stores, it would be fair to assume that GWD stores are on the cards, but high rents and rates, as well as parking issues and local councils constantly carrying out road works make physical retail off-putting in the UK for Davies.
However, the keen businessman is still evident. On being told a shop in Libya has just placed a trial order for GWD and paid up front, Davies quickly worked out the currency exchange to sterling, and said: “I’m very good on maths by the way.”
Looking at growing GWD on Instagram and talking to influencers, bloggers and all the usual modern ways of establishing a brand, Davies will leave all that side to his trusted team, but when it comes to product design, quality control and the money, he’s still very much the man.
George Davies: The career of a fashion retail legend
1960s: Davies started as a graduate trainee at Littlewoods in Liverpool, working in stock control and then as a buyer of socks.
1972: He launched his first business, Schoolcare, a mail order company specialising in the supply of children's school uniforms.
1975: Davies joined fast-growing home-based women’s fashion retailer Pippa Dee as Product and Design Director. It operated in a similar way to Tupperware, with a self-employed sales force organising house fashion parties across the UK. He quickly became the driving force behind increased sales.
1981: Terence Conran, Chairman of Leeds based menswear retailer Hepworth’s, took on Davies to revamp 70 Kendall & Sons stores which Hepworth’s had acquired. It formed the blueprint for Next.
1982: Davies opened the first Next womenswear shop on 12 February 1982. Based on a “total look concept”, it encouraged customers to mix and match with a style, which encouraged them to buy more.
1984: Davies was made Chief Executive of Next and converted 50 Hepworth’s stores to the new Next concept, which became Next for Men.
1985: Next interiors was added to the retail business.
1986: Davies moved Hepworth’s headquarters from Leeds to Leicester where Next was based.
1987: The group bought the Grattan mail order catalogue company and launched the Next Directory, also adding childrenswear, printed as a hard back with high production values – designed to be a coffee table feature. In the same year, Davies also launched the Next account card.
1988: A turbulent trading period saw Davies sacked from Next in December 1988, following a directors’ coup led by Next Chairman David Jones, who had joined the company as part of the Grattan deal.
1990: Turning his attention to supermarket fashion, Davies launched George Clothing with Asda, designing womenswear, menswear and kidswear.
1995: Asda purchased the George brand, but Davies continued to run it.
1995: Davies founded S’porter, a company which produced complete clothing and accessories collections for football fans of clubs including Newcastle United (which he opened five stores with), Liverpool, Arsenal, Wolves and Rangers.
2000: Davies resigned from Asda following its acquisition by Walmart. At the time of the takeover, it was reported that the George Clothing brand was turning over £600m.
2001: Setting his sights on attracting a younger female customer to Marks & Spencer, Davies launched Per Una in September 2001. Within three years it was creating an annual turnover in excess of £230m and was over 10% of M&S’s total womenswear sales.
2004: Davies sold Per Una to M&S for £125m, but stayed on with the company until 2008.
2009: Davies launched his fourth fashion business described as “affordable luxury” for women, called GIVe (as in George IV), with the small ‘e’ representing the e-commerce side of the company, though it operated in 10 stores in the UK in prime retail locations, including one on London’s Regent Street.
2010: Through a joint venture with Alshaya Group, Davies launched FG4 womenswear and then kidswear for the Middle East market, with his daughter Emma Trayner working alongside him.
2011: The GIVe business was closed citing the credit crunch, tough trading times and large outgoings on its retail stores.
2021: Davies and his team, including Melanie his daughter, launched GWD womenswear in the Middle East, selling in Debenhams department stores run by Alshaya Group.
2022: GWD childrenswear was added to be sold in Debenhams stores throughout the Middle East.
2023: GWD childrenswear to launch in 36 Mothercare stores in the Middle East.
2023: GWD womenswear and childrenswear launched at Pure London for wholesale, with a UK consumer website launching in September 2023.