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George Davies is comfortably ensconced in a deep-seated, cream leather chair, his newspapers laid out before him and a glass of pink champagne in his hand. He is 67, a short, stocky figure with a craggy face that suggests joviality as well as the darker signs of his renowned and volatile temper. “I don’t do this all the time, so don’t pretend I do,” he says good-humouredly as he takes a sip of champagne. Given that we are 41,000ft above the Alps on our way to Verona in his private jet, it is odd he should worry that the champagne might appear an extravagance, as opposed to the aircraft.
That he is in a position to joke about his expensive tastes at all is a testament to Davies’ particular talent: knowing what women want to wear just before they do. Lots of women. In the past three decades, he has earned his place as one of Britain’s most successful fashion designers – a self-made man who has created, one after another, three huge high-street brands. And he has done it while battling almost every boss he’s worked with.
He created Next in the 1980s, George at Asda in the 1990s and Per Una at Marks and Spencer over the past decade. He has dressed two generations of British women, his brands selling – by his own estimate – £54bn-worth of clothing or more than 5 billion items. He has been married and divorced three times, recently parting from Fiona, whom he got together with in 1990; he has seven children – two of whom he has seen only once in the past decade – and has suffered episodes of severe depression as well as a benign brain tumour. He has amassed a large fortune, built a barn in the depths of the Gloucestershire countryside, moored a yacht in Turkey and acquired a fleet of fast cars.
And now Davies is gearing up to do it all again. In October, with the help of his second-eldest daughter, Emma, he is going to launch his fourth brand and try for his fourth hit in a row. He is calling it GIVe, a play on George IV. “It is going to be affordable luxury. We are not trying to do the basics. That’s why we are using the best Italian fabrics,” he explains, sipping champagne as he runs through the list of factories and design studios we will visit over the next two days.
Once again, he is staking his reputation on an instinct about what shoppers want. “I love women.” He says it all the time. “I am as in touch with my feminine side as you can be without being gay,” his face creasing up in laughter.
“He is outstanding,” says Archie Norman, the former chief executive of Asda. “There are all these kings on the high street, but George has done three decades of that. He was a really early pioneer of what you see now. He saw from the early days it was right to source from low-cost suppliers, everything he did was in-house and it was very fast. Early Next was very fast fashion.”
At Next, Davies invented the blueprint for womenswear retailing, offering the customer a total concept in which she could kit herself out head to toe – finding a skirt to match the blouse, or a bag to go with the belt. Standard practice in the industry now, this kind of merchandising was revolutionary 25 years ago, when stores were piled high with different types of skirts or dresses but never offered co-ordinated looks. “They would probably hate me saying it but I think I was quite a few years ahead of Zara,” says Davies. “I saw Zara many years before they came here and I think I influenced Zara, not the other way round. That sounds pretty arrogant doesn’t it? But I do believe they were influenced by what we did.”
In the late 1980s, he spotted another gap. “I knew that for women with babies, the high street was changing. You couldn’t park easily any more in towns... so I thought, give them something where they could park easily and put their kids in the trolley.”
“Everyone thought it would be impossible,” says Norman, who ran Asda when Davies was creating the George brand. “He grasped the fact it had to be value and he understood that because it was a supermarket it had to be a brand name, not Asda.” The George brand now has annual global sales of £2bn, and shopping for clothes in supermarkets is a way of life for millions of Britons.
But it was his next venture, Per Una, that made Davies rich, netting him £125m when he sold the Italian-inspired label to Marks and Spencer in 2004 as part of the retailer’s efforts to stave off a takeover by private retail entrepreneur Sir Philip Green. “It was absolutely fundamental in the resurgence of the core appeal of womenswear,” says Roger Holmes, the former chief executive of M&S who signed Davies up in 2001 to bring the Per Una range to Marks. “Put in the context of the value it created from saving the company as a whole, it was creating billions of profits for shareholders.” Did it save the company? “Yes, I don’t think that overstates the case.”
The confidence and sureness of touch that have characterised Davies’ decades of professional success eluded him in his youth. Growing up in Merseyside, the child of a solid but unambitious father and a very domineering mother, he struggled with feelings of inferiority in his early teens which ballooned into depression proper when he was 18. “I woke up and it was like I was outside my brain,” he recalled. The depression passed, but when it hit once more at university just a couple of years later, Davies was forced to drop out and return home. It was an ordeal he would have to face again in his adult life.
“When I had it really bad, I felt I had to, really had to, do something about it and I found someone in London, a clinical psychiatrist,” he said on Desert Island Discs in 2006, recalling another dark period in his late forties, after he was sacked as chairman and chief executive of Next and his marriage to his second wife, Liz, collapsed. “I went there every two weeks for two years and – touch wood – I got through it and I think it had a lot to do with my childhood and a chemical imbalance.”
Davies now takes two pills a day to manage his depression. He is so concerned not to miss a couple of days that he gets Viv, his secretary, to fax a prescription to his hotel in Verona when he realises, once his jet lands in the orange setting sun, that he has left his tablets in a bag back at his Gloucestershire barn.
He traces the roots of his condition to the childhood experience of being taken to visit an aunt who was schizophrenic. Going with his mother to the mental institutions where she was a patient made a deep impression and triggered “massive insecurity” that blighted Davies’s youth.
Friends with a gang of public school boys, Davies himself went to Bootle Grammar, where he was “something of a loner”. “I lived out in the country while most of the other boys were from Bootle, and some of them accused me of ‘speaking posh’ because I didn’t have a heavy Liverpudlian accent,” he says. “My mother had tried to rid me of my accent by sending me to elocution lessons.” He still talks with flat, open vowels.
Always there in the background, pushing him on, was his mother Mary, who lived until she was 93. “She was highly ambitious. She would protect me even when I was in the wrong and still can’t bear to hear me criticised,” he wrote of his mother before she died. “She wanted the best for me, and I’ve always been aware of not wanting to let her down in any way.”
When Davies returned home from Birmingham university in 1962, his studies to become a dentist cut short by his most serious bout of depression yet, his mother insisted he get a job. He joined Littlewoods as a 21-year-old management trainee. Starting out as a stock controller, it was here that Davies learnt the retail trade, finding out about manufacturing in the mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire, learning how to cut patterns, how to order and manage stock.
But by his mid-twenties he was restless again. “I began to look around the floor: one of my colleagues was a very nice guy, a shirt buyer, who’d been doing his job for 40 years. Of course, he had a good salary. But I thought to myself, ‘Is this all I want out of life? Do I want to look back and say, that’s the sum total of my achievement?’”
Later, he observed: “What depression does is it brings absolute fearlessness. Maybe that is why I have been able to do these things in my life.”
Despite being married to Anne and with two young children to support, Davies quit Littlewoods and set up his first business selling school uniforms by mail order. It failed and he went on to work for Pippa Dee, a fashion house that sold clothes at home parties. His reputation building, his big break came when he was hired by J Hepworth & Son, a tired menswear outfitter, to create a new womenswear brand. That chain was Next. Launched on February 12 1982, it was an instant hit and turned Davies into the darling of the high street overnight. He had spotted an opportunity and exploited it. “In the 1980s everybody was piling every inch of the floor with merchandise, so you saw nothing but product. There was M&S, which was good, old, traditional, boring but trustworthy and then the next level up was Jaeger. I just thought – it was really obvious to me – that the position was to have the feel and style of Jaeger but at the prices of M&S.”
He teamed up with a “madman genius” called Willy Van Over Dyke – a designer who had trained at Daks – for the tailoring (“probably the best pattern cutter I had met in the world”) and had Conran Designs – Terence Conran at the time was chairman of Hepworths – create the interiors. And what a run he had in the early 1980s, opening more than 150 stores, moving into menswear and home furnishings. By 1984, Next had annual profits of £13.4m; Hepworths had been £4m three years earlier.
But over-expansion and exuberance brought with it problems, and by 1988 Next was forced to admit its profits were declining. Privately, Davies was at war with David Jones, who was brought into the company in 1986 when Next bought the mail-order business he ran. Just days after the profit warning, Jones pulled off a boardroom coup and managed to get Davies and his then-wife Liz sacked. “For a man who had achieved something so bold and original in the Next concept, and who had been feted every day for the past five years by the retail trade, the business media and the City, it must have been absolutely sickening,” Jones wrote in 2005.
More than 20 years later, the two men have still not spoken since the night that Davies was summoned to the offices of Next’s lawyers, Slaughter and May, to be told he was fired. “I spent three nights after they did it to me trying to work out how I could kill these people and then after three nights, I thought to myself, ‘George, you’re crazy’. People do damage you, but when you get to the point where you can get your own back, it’s not worth it. You move on, but it sustains you for a bit.
“David’s culture was different to mine and I think my mistake was to let them on to the board. My mistake is that I think I can make love to everybody, not make love, but you know what I mean...”
Rather than love-ins, however, it has been battles that have punctuated Davies’s career as well as his personal life.
Last year, he and his third wife, Fiona, who worked with him at George and Per Una, divorced after 18 years as a couple. “I don’t blame Fiona one bit,” says Davies. “It was mutual. I am very difficult … I have got my good sides but I think to live with I am impossible. I am nutty, I am not insane, but I’m not…” he drifts off. “It’s just I think I’m nutty.”
This eccentricity makes him both entertaining and controversial. During one conversation, he rounded on Conran because the designer wrote a letter to Retail Week saying he was “fed up” that Davies got all the credit for being the founder of Next (a spat that was also followed up in the Evening Standard diary). Conran argued it was his design group that came up with the name and the concept. “Terence is a really sad old man,” said Davies, “and he doesn’t need to be that, because he has done some really fantastic things, but anyway he wrote into the Evening Standard and said it wasn’t me who did Next, it was him.
“I don’t want to seem like an angry old man, do I? I am not at all. Can I tell you how wicked people are? My second wife Liz ... I haven’t heard from her for like four years and who phones me to tell me about this [Evening Standard] article, but Liz? ‘I thought you’d be absolutely wild’,” he says putting on a mock posh voice. “I said, ‘Listen, I’m not going to be wild. I don’t want to argue about who owns Next.’”
But he does argue, all the time. “You have to recognise he doesn’t like working through organisations and you have to make it happen for him,” says Norman. “He falls out with people not because he is ungrateful or pugnacious, but he has clear ideas about what he wants to do and he doesn’t know how to handle compromise.”
Davies is unrepentant: “I am stroppy and I do take people on. The bigger they are, the better for me.” He revels in his own awkward streak. There was the time he called Roger Holmes at 3am in a rage because he felt M&S was messing about with some of his stock. Then – “this shows I’m a nutcase” – there was the time when he fell out with M&S over the amount of money they were clawing back from him at Per Una for returns. “I was absolutely pissed off. I thought, I am not working for nothing. So I go to the warehouse and there were these blazers and I get a black blazer, pack it perfectly into a black box with a black ribbon and put in RIP and sent it to Luc [Vandevelde, then chairman of M&S] and inside I wrote, ‘Bye, bye. That’s the end’. Of course, all hell broke loose.”
The most recent of his rows to make the papers was in 2005 when Davies quit M&S in a fit of pique the very day that the retailer announced its best sales figures in two years. His resignation letter landed on Sir Stuart Rose’s desk just as the executive chairman was about to tuck into a celebratory plate of smoked salmon for lunch. While the two eventually patched things up – Sir Stuart later downplaying the row over the timing as a “lover’s tiff” – Davies quit Per Una last December. Billed as an amicable split, relations seem strained. The two men have barely spoken since, although Sir Stuart did send Davies a letter to which he never replied. “I would normally never not [reply]. I am very good on manners, I just feel, there was a, um…” Rather uncharacteristically, he clams up.
When I ask Davies if he rates Sir Stuart as a retailer, the entrepreneur chuckles to himself and then doesn’t say a thing for what feels like an age (in reality it is 50 seconds). “I suppose I would answer that by saying it is probably one of the biggest jobs in the world of retailing and it has got lots of different pressures because of the history and I think that it is not whether I rate him, it is whether any one man can get M&S.”
He is carefully picking over his words rather than just rattling on as he normally does. “I think it is more and more difficult to have a one-brand store … I suppose the question I would have is strategy. I think the strategy has to change and those are massive decisions.”
Having worked with Hepworth for Next, Asda for George and M&S for Per Una, this time Davies is going it alone with GIVe. He will open a half a dozen or so shops and stock his 150-piece collection of “affordable luxury” in a handful of department stores. As we walk along the cobbled streets of Verona in the morning sun, Davies, dressed in a light Armani jacket, white and pale-blue striped shirt and slacks (Armani again), says he is “still very concerned about the risk”.
“Today is going to be interesting because this is the first time we are going to see some garments,” he says as he picks through the rails of one of the Italian stores he wanders into, always on the lookout for inspiration.
As we drive to a workshop and showroom near Verona, where Davies will see the first prototypes for his new collection, he grows nervous. “This is a big day,” he announces from the front seat. “Are they ready, Fiorella?” he asks his trusted Italian assistant, who also worked with him at Per Una. “Have you seen them, Fiorella?” By now he is firing questions at her. “Is good good enough, or should they be more than good? Fantastico?”
“Yes,” she replies. “They are really, really nice.”
When we enter the showroom, Davies, who has been chatting all morning, goes quiet. He folds his arms and puts one hand over his mouth. A look of deep concentration comes over his face as Emma walks over to the rail where 30 or so winter coats and jackets are lined up ready for inspection. She tries on the cape with the diamanté buttons, then flits over to the black wool coat with the knitted collar. She is thinking out loud, saying what she likes and what doesn’t work. Davies looks on. “You don’t say much,” I venture. “I never do,” he replies, “I’m taking it all in.”
Forty minutes into the session, Davies’s mood appears to be worsening. As lunch arrives, he waves away the wine and opts for Diet Coke.
“I’m thinking that Fiorella’s trousers don’t go with the coats too much,” he says, a little crossly. His souring mood puts everyone on edge. “It’s throwing me slightly because both the girls have jeans on, and I am dressed properly. I want to see them shown off properly. I am not criticising you,” he says, turning to Fiorella. “If I had a pair of gum boots on today it would look a bit odd.”
Some black dress trousers appear for Fiorella and the atmosphere improves. Davies swings into action. He wants to leave the brown and purple Jacquard jacket, change the bow on the back of the tuxedo jacket to a tie, and have more classic buttons on the cape. The session continues for more than three hours, during which he goes off and calls his property man to talk about possible store locations.
When he returns, Davies seems more relaxed again. He wanders over to an open door, steps outside and lights a cigarette. “I wasn’t tense, honestly,” he says. “The art of it is to get so far and then you have to narrow down. There is no point in having an offer of six coats if they all compete with each other. They have to do a different job, that’s called ranging and that’s the bit I like.” Relaxed once more, he grabs my hairbrush and starts preening in the mirror in preparation for some photographs. Then he asks to see some of the pictures we have already shot. “Looks good, that,” he says as an image flashes up on the laptop. “The shirt’s good isn’t it?”
Elizabeth Rigby is the FT’s consumer industries editor