Return of the fashion maverick

The high-street guru who was ousted from Next in 1988 has come back in a new set of clothes to share a dream with Asda. Patrick Hosking finds out why; profile
GEORGE Davies sits back in the tea room of Brown's Hotel in London's West End and reflects on his roller-coaster career since he was humiliatingly kicked out of the Next fashion chain. He adjusts his George tie, shoots the cuffs on his George shirt, shifts around in his George trousers, assures me his underpants are George too, and apologises for the brown brogues, which for some reason are not.

Davies is a walking advertisement for George, the clothing range he has developed for Asda over the last six years. And not just in the flesh: his distinctive, rugby prop-forward's features currently appear in the TV commercials for Asda. He is being lined up as the high-street guru for Fashion Week, which begins on Friday.

George Davies is back. His name may still be hissed contemptuously by some in the City, but on the catwalk and the high street his renaissance is almost complete. The George range is winning plaudits where they matter - in women's magazines. And the excitement is filtering through to the Asda cash tills. Sales of George clothing have grown to more than pounds 200m a year.

Asda accounts for about 40 per cent of clothing sold in super- markets. Davies has blown a raspberry at the conventional wisdom that clothing cannot be sold to shoppers intent on butter and baked beans. He has persuaded them to fork out, not only for basics such as socks and knickers, but also for suits, separates, overcoats, baby wear and swimming costumes.

Davies hopes to double sales within three years and longer term, the sky's the limit. "There is nothing to stop Asda becoming number two to Marks and Spencer," he says. Asda, which owns the George name, is delighted with the relationship and is thought to be looking at strengthening it. That could mean buying up the main merchandising and sourcing business, George Davies Partnership.

It is all an age away from Christmas 1988, when Davies was ousted from Next in a boardroom coup. After seven years of growth, Next had over- expanded suicidally. On Chelsea's King's Road alone, there were seven branches. Some stores were not bringing in enough to pay the rent. It was a disaster in the making. Davies, with his gung-ho, some would say autocratic, style, was the obvious fall guy. Soon after he left, Next came within a whisker of collapse, its shares plunging to just 7p. But after serious surgery, it has recovered strongly - its shares now fetch 398.5p.

He refuses to be drawn on the Next days. "All I can say is that in 1982 I and my colleagues started a brand that took the Eighties by storm. Despite what everyone might say about us, that brand is still a very strong brand."

After his expulsion, along with a reported pounds 2.5m pay-off, he was inundated with approaches. Asher Edelman wanted him to join him in a bid for the Storehouse Group. Venture capitalists approached him about mounting a rescue bid for Next. Smaller retailers queued up for his fashion expertise.

"I started getting a feeling for large-scale retailing," says Davies. "But I couldn't emotionally go back and do another Next." A link-up with a supermarket group had been in the back of his mind for years after Sir Ian Maclaurin, chairman of Tesco, approached him with a view to a joint venture with Next. By April, he had signed a consultancy agreement with Asda.

But six months later, the ghost of Next returned. He lost any will to work and had to take four weeks off. "I'm not ashamed that I went through a bad patch," he says. "I lost the zest. It was delayed shock. Of course it hurts you. You try to wrestle with the criticism." Eventually, he dragged himself back to work, and never looked back. His company GDH, the holding company for all his interests, employs 120 people. He owns 80 per cent of it, his colleagues the other 20 per cent. Asda has a 20 per cent stake in George Davies Partnership, the main subsidiary which does the sourcing, merchandising and marketing of the George range.

He has had his failures. Xtend, a mail-order venture launched with great razzmatazz, went into receivership in 1994 after 18 unhappy months and was sold to Kleeneze Holdings. But George Davies Partnership made a pounds 2m bonus last year as a result of its profit sharing arrangement with Asda.

According to Archie Norman, chief executive of Asda since 1991, "When I arrived, there were mixed feelings about GDP. But I felt it was a huge advantage for us. George is a real talent for us when it comes to product and merchandising. He loves product, and when you go to GDP you feel that crackle in the air. He's been terrific for us, and we've been terrific for him, too."

No one disputes Davies' intuitive feel for what customers want. Another colleague commented: "When I first met him, I half expected a market trader type. But his depth of knowledge is amazing and he has a great eye. He's abolutely passionate about clothing. He has a dozen ideas an hour."

However, that same passion has sometimes carried him away. John Richards, the stores analyst with stockbroker NatWest Securities, followed Next throughout the 1980s. He recalls Davies telling him in 1984 that if he extended the chain beyond 200 stores, that would kill it and he would not allow that to happen. Four years later, Next had far exceeded that limit, diversifying into everything from jewellery to florists to interior design. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

Richards remembers: "He was a maverick and impossible to work for. I should have known the writing was on the wall when I was trying to arrange a meeting with him through his secretary who said she could never get hold of him."

Ten years on, Davies remains as passionate about retailing and as vague about the bottom line. All he will say about the group's financial performance is that it is reaching targets. "I love the people in the stores. They're the front line."

George William Davies was born in Liverpool and went to Bootle Grammar School. His father was a manager in a local pie factory. His mother he once described as "a real dynamo, always behind me". He chose a dentistry course at Birmingham University because it demanded the lowest A-level grades, and dropped out anyway, taking a job at Littlewoods on Merseyside as a stock controller for socks.

Short, stocky and strong, he loved football. He played for the English Universities and had a trial with Liverpool FC. "Bill Shankly rejected me," he says, mysteriously adding that he was glad he was not accepted. He carried on playing football until he was 38.

He joined Pippa Dee, a party plan group selling ladies' fashion in the same way Tupperware is marketed. He learnt there that there are few limits to the way fashion can be sold. "We had 13,000 girls selling party plan three times a week." He is dismissive of critics who say the customer won't accept such and such: "What stops you doing things is you, not the customer."

In 1981, he was headhunted by Sir Terence Conran, chairman of the ailing Hepworth's menswear chain. It was renamed Next and one of the most influential and most copied retailing formats was born.

Davies today is enjoying the fun as much as ever. But he says he is less obsessional and insists on making time for his sprawling family. "I think I was very narrow in my Next days." He is married, for the third time, to Fiona, with two boys, Barnaby and - characteristically - George, aged two and four. They live in the Cotswolds, an hour's drive from GDP in Lutterworth, Leicestershire. His second wife was Liz Davies, a key colleague in creating Next and now design director at Mothercare. Two of the daughters from his first marriage now work at GDP. Emma designed the latest newborn range; Melanie is the director in charge of menswear. He has seven children and is due, in three weeks aged 53, to become a grandfather for the first time.

He makes sure life is less hectic. Now he occasionally takes three-day weekends and holidays. And the trappings of wealth are less ostentatious: the chauffeur-driven Bentley and helicopter have gone. He drives a five- year old BMW. His idea of leisure is playing with his children and retreating to his Cotswold studio to design tables.