Why are the tills ringing again? Penny Robinson, womenswear product director, thinks it is because the clothes appeal to classic dressers and the fashion conscious. 'For example, we are careful not to go overboard on the Seventies at Next. We do have flares, wide trousers and long cardigans in the range, but customers can put them together in the way they want, either very Seventies or very classic.'
She is convinced that, more than ever, women value clothing that is versatile. 'One of our best sellers is a navy wool blazer, which can be dressed up to look smart or dressed down with a pair of jeans.'
Greg Tufnell, menswear product director, notes a similar trend in men's clothing. One of the reasons that suit sales are losing ground to jackets and trousers is the versatility of the jacket-trouser combination: they can be worn at work as well as at the weekend.
Next was the star of high-street fashion through much of the Eighties. The firm brought to the mass market good-quality clothes at affordable prices. But its reputation suffered a heavy knock in the late Eighties when the company over-expanded. A bitter boardroom battle led to the sacking of the founder, George Davies, and years of restructuring.
Now all that is history. In recent months, Next has returned spectacularly to form. Last year's financial figures were among the best in the clothing retail industry: sales up by 18 per cent, profits tripled to pounds 39m. City analysts, a hard breed to impress, were delighted.
Next shops are definitely looking better these days, although, as with every high-street retailer, it depends on which ones you visit. The Next store off Piccadilly Circus, central London, is disappointing: too small to display a reasonable range of clothes and likely to impress only the tourists.
The two-storey Next in High Street Kensington, however, shows the company's clothes at their best. A bright Madras check shirt ( pounds 29.99), sandwiched between piles of simple black stretch trousers, hits the eye the moment you enter the shop; it makes the statement that this is a shop to interest the classic and the fashion-forward woman. Other winning items include denim and chambray shirts and dresses, and a lively looking range of canvas and straw bags. For smarter dressing, the outstanding buy is the double- breasted blazer ( pounds 89.99), Next's best-selling jacket.
Upstairs, the menswear section is equally impressive. The blue and blue- black range of jeans is among the best
in the high street: a genuine match for some of the cult continental brands, although, at pounds 29.99 and pounds 34.99, selling for half the price. Polo shirts and striped cotton T-shirts come in eye-catching colours: the in-house design team at Next is strong on colour. Viscose-linen jackets, selling for pounds 79.90, look strong for summer. Although suits are taking a low profile in menswear these days, the grey single-breasted pure new wool suits at the top end of the price range ( pounds 285) are tempting.
At a fashion show in London last month, Next previewed an exceptionally strong autumn collection (in the shops from the end of July), including long-line charcoal cardigans, chocolate leather jeans and navy marine jackets for women, and chunky rib sweaters, brushed cotton plaid shirts and canvas duster coats for men. It is adding a 'petite' range of clothes for smaller women in sizes 6 to 14, and baby sleepsuits and all-in-ones to the childrenswear range.
Another change for autumn is the merging of the ranges sold through the shops and through the 'Next Directory'. Henceforth, you will see the same clothes in the shops and the home shopping catalogue; another welcome move from a company that is providing the rest of the high street with a shining example.
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