Interview: Doing it the George Davies way
PUBLISHED: 16:12 21 April 2015 | UPDATED: 16:12 21 April 2015
George Davies made style affordable and desirable in the UK. Since 2011 he's been doing it in the Middle East, now he's brought his new brand home
George Davies is a retail colossus. When the high street consisted of little more than Marks & Spencer, Littlewoods, Jean Jeannie and Etam at one end, with Country Casuals and Jaeger at the other, in 1982 along came Next, pioneered by George and bringing a breath of fresh air onto a tired high street.
It was brilliant for me, wanting clothes that didn’t make me look either like my mother (adorable though she was) or a 1980s rock chick (not a good look working for a firm of solicitors).
He spotted a gap in the market that has since been filled, time and again. After six years at Next, in which time he also launched the hugely successful Next Directory, he was ousted in a boardroom coup, but other big retailers weren’t about to let this huge talent go to waste and he began working with Asda designing a range of clothes to sell in its superstores. At that time, no supermarket was selling its own clothing range.
“Before I launched George at Asda, a market research company said: ‘Why would people buy clothing when they are shopping for food’,” he says. I’m guessing the research company was run by men, a breed George says he doesn’t really understand even though he is one, and they evidently don’t understand him either because for parents of young children, the George at Asda range delivered time and time again, within three years becoming bigger than Marks & Spencer’s children’s wear.
He sold out from Asda after five years and went sailing in the Med with his children. That was until he got a phone call from Marks & Spencer. Holed up in port at Gibraltar, he decided that the white knuckle ride of design and retail was far superior to being cooped up on a boat and he returned to the UK to do the deal which launched Per Una. “When I arrived, the Marks & Spencer clothing range was tired and dull,” he says. When George took over, it once again became OK to shop for women’s clothes in M&S, and we did in our droves. He sold the Per Una brand to Marks & Spencer but remained a hands-on designer until 2008.
He’s also designed leisurewear ranges for premier league football clubs such as Liverpool and Arsenal.
So what’s next for this retail success story?
Since 2011 he’s been launching a new brand, FG4, this time in the Middle East and earlier this year he introduced it to the UK, taking the unusual route of launching through exclusive fundraising events.
In March, seven local schools, from Stratford-upon-Avon down to Cheltenham and Banbury invited young models to strut their stuff on the catwalk along with teachers and parents. It’s the first time ever a major clothing brand has been launched in this way.
Why? Well, he’s lived in the Cotswolds for over 20 years, near Moreton-in-Marsh. His design studios are here too. ”I started my career in my teens, selling clothing and school uniforms directly to schools. With the UK launch of FG4, I’ve gone back to my roots in a sense, I’m getting back in touch with customers by taking my collection on the road and into schools across the country.” The ticket money for the evening goes to the schools, as do a percentage of any orders taken on-line that relate to that schools event.
He’s also passionate about supporting good causes, locally in the Cotswolds, nationally and internationally, including in Turkey, Sri Lanka and Tanzania. “It’s easy to give money, but it’s more important to give yourself,” he says, and he puts his money where his mouth is, giving his time as well as money to support causes he believes in.
FG4 began thanks to a phone call from the chief executive of one of the Middle East’s biggest franchise companies, Alhokair Group. “The Adam children’s clothing business had gone into liquidation and they had 40 stores to fill. For me it was return to what I’d done at George at Asda and even before that when I worked in children’s wear for Littlewoods,” says George.
It was also a way to get back into retail in a meaningful way. “To launch a brand you have to have 30-40 stores otherwise it’s not going to be cost effective to work with suppliers or manufacturers.” The new brand was so successful that he launched a ladies’ wear range a few months later. But how on earth do you know what a Middle Eastern woman likes to wear when she’s swathed in an abaya? “I spent a lot of time there understanding the market and had meetings with 300 women in just two days,” he explains. “I didn’t want to design for women without understanding their lives. They need to be covered, there are a lot of religious festivals and of course huge differences in temperature.” He also says there are no changing rooms in Middle Eastern boutiques, apparently women have to buy the goods and then find a public convenience in which to try them on. “One of the reasons we have done so well in the Middle East is because we’ve designed for them, not designed it in the UK and then exported over there,” he adds. The first few FG4 school fashion shows have gone so well that George is now considering opening up retail outlets in the Cotswolds, and is already looking for premises in some of the area’s more successful towns. But he bemoans the lack of car parking. “The traditional UK high street isn’t dying because of internet retailing,” he says. “It’s dying because towns were never really planned for car access. That’s why I was smitten by Asda’s out of town retail strategy. People don’t buy online because they always want to, but because it’s much easier to order and have it delivered the next day.”
George loves retail and would, I think, dearly wish to open up FG4 as a chain of high street stores starting in the Cotswolds. He loves the small, independent fashion retailers that litter Italian towns and cities (in fact he loves Italy, spends a lot of time there and has made sure he has a little bit on his doorstep here by co-owning the Italian restaurant Prego, in Broadway). He hates homogenised shopping centres where independent creative retail has been forced out because of high rents.
He’s got nothing to prove, but no reason to retire. In fact, with seven children, retirement isn’t something that’s mentioned once in this interview. “I need to do things I enjoy,” he says. “When I talk to students at the George Davies Centre for Retail Excellence at Heriot-Watt University, which I do frequently, I tell them not to worry about what they do, just make sure they enjoy doing it.”