As part of Drapers’ 130th anniversary celebrations this year, we brought together some of fashion retail’s biggest names for a series of unique one-on-one interviews.
Here, Dunelm product director Fiona Lambert finds out what her friend and former boss, Drapers Lifetime Achievement award winner George Davies, loves about the industry.
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Drapers travelled to the Cotswolds to join fashion supremo George Davies and his friend and former colleague, Fiona Lambert, at his picturesque countryside home to discuss how he created some of the UK retail industry’s biggest brands, overcoming adversity along the way.
Davies launched the first Next stores in the 1980s, George at Asda in the 1990s and Per Una at Marks & Spencer in the 2000s. His fourth brand, GIVe, failed in 2010 after just a year, but his latest venture, FG4, is rapidly expanding in the Middle East.
Lambert started her career working with Davies at Next before joining him at Asda to launch the first supermarket fashion brand in 1990. She went back to Next, before returning to George in 2007 as brand director, overseeing the design, buying and quality of clothing in Asda stores and on George.com. She became product director at homewares retailer at the start of 2017.
Davies, who won the prestigious Drapers Lifetime Achievement award in 2003, is known as an outspoken commentator on the UK retail industry whose influence stretches far and wide.
Fiona Lambert: We first met when I applied to Next as a designer and pattern cutter in 1985 – it was the most exciting place to go and work. I was very fortunate, because you were incredibly hands-on, and I got to spend a lot of time working with you, and seeing your passion for the customer and the very high standards of design. Certainly as a young person in the company, it gave me fantastic opportunities.
George Davies: I remember meeting you because at Next there were no offices as such. I just loved the whole sense of design and retailing, so anybody joining me got to know me straight away. It wasn’t like ‘Come in and see the boss’; I was known as George by everybody.
The thing that’s important to me is when you get hurt, don’t try to hurt back, because then they have won
FL: Nothing went into the range unless you had seen it, so at all the selection overviews, you saw every garment and were very hands-on. I learnt a lot seeing that.
GD: We were very much a big team.
FL: How did you get into this industry, George?
Photographer: Benjamin McMahon
GD: I wrote to two places, Pilkington and Littlewoods. Littlewoods gave me an interview and an IQ test, because they were quite far ahead in those days.
I got the job and they asked if I could start on Monday. I was a bit cheeky and I said I couldn’t possibly start on Monday, I could start a week on Monday because I hadn’t had a holiday. Littlewoods was brilliant because they were tough.
After six months, every day I had to go to Liverpool and look at big stores like M&S and find out what they had in. In the afternoon they would question me on what I’d seen. They put me on the buying course, which you had to be selected by your boss to be on. I did all sorts of things to get selected. For example, I was a good golfer and some of the bosses played golf, so you could have a bit of a breakthrough with them. Keep them happy: let them beat you occasionally.
I will always remember after about three years I was appointed a buyer and they actually gave me a car: a new car! That was massive in those days and that was the start. I was lucky too in that I was doing boyswear and I used to get on quite well with the menswear people. They said, ‘George, you should come to Hong Kong with us.’ No boyswear people would usually go to Hong Kong. I went out there and, although Hong Kong was nothing like it is today, it was a tremendous learning curve.
What I have got is a great eye. This is not an intentional thing but if you wanted me to show you the centre of this room, I’d get it within the centimetre because I’ve got an eye. That’s what makes a difference isn’t it?
FL: Yes, definitely.
GD: The other thing is I love detail. They always say retail is detail and it is and that’s the difference.
At 18, I woke up one morning, before I went to university, and I had clinical depression
FL: Do you look back and think there was one turning point or one person that changed how you thought or what you did?
GD: I don’t think what affected me was an individual person but it was – and it still is – people. I’ll give you an example and it may not be relevant but it made me. When I was about 17, the local guys in Crosby knew I was a good soccer player. They said, ‘Why don’t you come and join Liverpool Ramblers?’ I said OK but I got blackballed because I’d gone to the wrong school. That was probably the first major setback. But when you get rejected, you either cave in or remember [what] adversity [is like], and that was quite a big moment for me because I had to recover from that.
At 18, I woke up one morning, before I went to university, and I had clinical depression. If there is anything I wouldn’t wish on my enemies it is that, because you don’t understand it. As I got older, I started researching it and understanding it. In other words, I did something about it. I wouldn’t tell anyone when I was younger but I went on ITV when I was at Next and I spoke about it, and that’s half the battle.
The thing that’s important to me is when you get hurt, don’t try to hurt back, because then they have won. If it changes you, then they have won. You know what happened to me at Next [he was ousted from Next, which he had run since founding it, in a widely publicised coup in December 1988], but that’s what people do. I’d never have left Next, because I loved it. But then you have to get off your backside and say, ‘What am I going to do?’
I was in quite a good position because I had built a good reputation, and then out of the blue I got a phone call from Geoffrey Carr, who was the development director of Asda. He asked me to come and look at some Asda stores with him. The first one I went to was in Harrow and I couldn’t believe it because I’d never been out of town with Next.
I said, ‘I’ve got to find out which part of the world does the best out-of-town clothing offer,’ so we went on a week’s trip to America and I saw it all. There was a small grocery chain called Stew Leonard’s in Connecticut, which did best out of town. So I did my research, you see.
The first store I launched [with clothing] was in Wimbledon. I always remember one of the do-gooders who think they know everything about retail said, ‘Who would think about buying clothing from a supermarket?’ It was so stupid. Anyway, I proved them wrong.
One of the quotes I remember from you is “There’s no such thing as can’t,” and I use that one now
FL: You certainly did. It is interesting that you talk about adversity in the beginning because one of the quotes I remember from you is ‘There’s no such thing as can’t’, and I use that one now. What is your favourite thing about working in the industry?
GD: I love the pace of it. It’s getting the sales through every night at 8pm and looking through every store, seeing if it is high or low. Every day is important. When people buy, they are making a comment on you. If you find something you really love, instead of it being a job, you’re working at your hobby, and that’s what I say when I talk to university students: ‘Find something you love, don’t worry about the money.’
I started GIVe, which didn’t work and I know why: it didn’t come naturally. If you force things, it won’t work. And then something happened that sparked a good idea – FG4. I got a call saying, ‘[Kidswear chain] Adams has gone bust. We’ve got 40 stores in the Middle East – can you do it?’
FL: It was a bit of serendipity, then?
GD: Yes definitely.
FL: What drives you to keep going?
GD: My mind. I got burgled recently here and now I can clearly see a massive gap in the security business and I’ve got an idea. That’s how it has been my whole life in retailing – you have got to think ahead of the consumer to see those big opportunities.
FL: You have certainly disrupted the market at Next, Per Una and George at Asda, and beyond. Who do you see as disrupting the market today?
The high street can’t compete [with etailers]. It used to be convenient but it’s not convenient any more
GD: It would probably have to be Asos for leading online. It builds on the kind of thing that I did with Next Directory. I don’t like online shopping. My brain doesn’t work that way; I like the visual store environment. Online orders come in a plastic bag and look a mess. At Next we started delivering on hangers for that reason because I like things to be just so.
FL: Digital is certainly disrupting things. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the industry?
GD: It is very simple. When I started at Next on 12 February 1982 there were 10 million registered vehicles on the road and today there are 48 million. Cities and towns haven’t been designed with that many cars in mind. In Saudi it is different because every mall has been built with a car park underneath. I think women really would prefer to see garments but online is the next best thing. The problem is that because towns and cities are run by local councils, the high street can’t compete. It used to be convenient but it’s not convenient any more, which is why the likes of Asos and Boohoo are cleaning up. But the problem then is the amount of returns – it can be up to 50%, which is very wasteful.
I firmly believe that more women should be running retail businesses
FL: We’ve talked about when we worked together – how do you think you get the most from people?
GD: I always feel I’m more of a coach than a manager and I will always get my hands dirty. Never be worried to learn from people who have a lot less experience.
FL: One thing I know about you is that you have some interesting views on working with women and on women in the industry. Can you tell us a bit about that?
GD: I love working with women and I don’t often like working with men. When I was at Littlewoods, I was on about £3,000 a year and there was a girl doing the same job as me on £1,000, which I don’t like. Then when I moved to [home-based fashion retailer] Pippa Dee, there were 15,000 women holding parties, which was a phenomenal business. That underpinned my belief in working with women. Of course my mother was very strong and now I have five daughters (and two sons). I firmly believe that more women should be running retail businesses. It is getting better but there is a danger that they start behaving like men to get there. Women have got to be tough but also keep their feminine side. Women have definitely got more ‘all roundability’.
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George Davies on creating some of UK retail's biggest brands