Next still weaves the same magic

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NEXT has had an enduring influence on British high street fashion and, through its directory, on mail-order shopping. Remarkably, and despite the ups and downs in the company's stock market rating, the formula has remained virtually unchanged.

Next produces clothes that are fashionable but classic, without being country. They are usually well made but very competitively priced.

This autumn, the signs are that Next has got the formula right again. There are the new masculine suits for women, but not too many of them; Next does not want to alienate women who find this look too severe.

The collection is balanced by elegant suedes and silks, designed to be worn in layers.

George Davies, the driving force behind Next in the 1980s, liked to call the clothes 'affordable collectables' - stylish clothes at accessible prices.

Competitors knew Next was a new approach to fashion from the very beginning, for Mr Davies chose to promote his new chain through the pages of Vogue. He was making the point that this was a ground-breaking shop that would bridge the gap between the up-market designer shops and the price-obsessed high street.

The co-ordinated and discreetly fashionable collection became the wardrobe of the 1980s. Mr Davies understood the importance of accepting lower margins in favour of volume sales. The original Next tailored women's jacket sold for pounds 49.99, but was of similar quality to a Country Casuals or a Jaeger jacket, respectively pounds 70 and nearly pounds 100.

Next introduced the same disciplines to the retailing of men's clothes and led the revival of the double-breasted suit. The old Hepworths chain, which was transformed into Next for Men, had offered customers poor-quality suits in up to 400 styles. Next reduced the choice to under 70 and concentrated on improving quality. For the 'New Men', the Next suit became a must.

More recently, it has strengthened its casual wear range, introducing soft-shouldered, unstructured jackets with notable success. Another strength is that the company designs all its clothes internally, rather than buying in designs or brands. David Jones, the chief executive, points out that this has given Next an advantage over many high street chains. In product terms, it has always had a clear view of where it is heading.

Next has made mistakes in fashion; no design studio is infallible. In the late 1980s, the company mistakenly tried to divide up its women's wear business, selling through shops called Next Originals and Next Collections.

But its reputation for quality and affordability was established; the experiment in sub-dividing its customer base proved unnecessary.

(Photograph omitted)