Next may be bigger than M&S – but I fear it”s sold its soul

Next may be bigger than M&S – but I fear it's sold its soul

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UPDATED:

06:58 GMT, 2 August 2012

The world was a very different place in 1982. Women were protesting against nuclear weapons at Greenham Common. We were at war in the Falklands. But there was one parallel to 2012 — High Street brand Next was flourishing, opening stores up and down the country.

The company launched seven stores from Harrogate to Eastbourne on its first day that year — February 12 — and by the end of July, there were 70 across Britain.

Today, it’s even more successful. Yesterday the company announced that in the six months to July 28, total sales rose by 4.5 per cent, despite the recession and gloom on the High Street.

Chasing trends: An outfit from the latest Next collection

Chasing trends: An outfit from the latest Next collection

Earlier this month it was revealed that, for the first time in history, Next was valued at more than its much bigger rival Marks and Spencer — 5.3 billion compared to M&S’s 5.1 billion.

Its impact when it launched three decades ago can’t be overestimated: there was no Zara or Primark or Reiss womenswear at the time. Philip Green had yet to revolutionise Topshop.

M&S was still very much the domain of old ladies. There was Laura Ashley, which sold retro Victoriana styles that was romantic, but not connected with fashion and didn’t offer anything you could wear to the office.

Next was truly revolutionary — the first High Street store that peddled the seemingly impossible: affordable luxury.

I remember that first collection as if it were yesterday: fresh-faced English model Jeny Howarth in a quintessentially British outfit of tweed jacket, a prim, buttoned-up shirt, and a great big dirndl midi-skirt, fastened with a leather belt.

There were chunky knits, too, ooh, and soft denim chambray and warm herringbone coats. It was heaven.

The brand was the brainchild of George Davies, a former dentist-turned-buyer for Littlewoods. He was pushed out of Next in a boardroom coup in 1988, and went on to found Per Una at M&S, and George at Asda, a brand which gave us the 99 men’s suit.

But his most brilliant move, after seriously good design, was the Next Directory, first published in 1988. This was as far removed from existing cheap catalogues as it was possible to get, like a great big glossy magazine that weighed a ton.

Spice up your wardrobe: The Geri Halliwell collaboration has proved a success for Next including her Union flag range of clothes and swimwear

Spice up your wardrobe: The Geri Halliwell collaboration has proved a success for Next including her Union flag range of clothes and swimwear

It was black, and came in a clear
plastic sleeve. It was beautifully shot, by the likes of celebrity
photographer Herb Ritts, and aspirational. And it launched the careers
of many top models, including Linda Evangelista and Yasmin LeBon; its
current face is 23-year-old U.S. model Arizona Muse, who certainly
doesn’t come cheap.

Whereas
these days, young women wander through endless shopping malls, or
browse sites such as Asos, the fashions inside Next Directory were about
luxury, about saving up and dreaming.
From
its launch, it quickly expanded. In 1984 it launched menswear, in 1985
homewear, but most importantly, in 1998, it pioneered selling fashion
online.

Today, you can
get what you want at a click of a button, and it arrives by 9am the
following day. No wonder Next is now the largest retailer in Europe.

As
well as good design, the concentration on dressing women smartly and in
good quality clothes for work — not just their holidays or nights out
as others focused on — was key to their early success.
Recently, however, it’s lost its way — which is a terrible shame for such an iconic British brand.

Who
would wear the high-waisted, pink-striped seersucker skirt with lots of
buttons in the current high summer collection (24)

WHO KNEW

Seventy per cent of clothes worn before 1850 were hand-stitched by the people who wore them

Like
so many other brands, Next is now all about dressing women for leisure
rather than work: the endless sportswear and jeans, the hoodies, the
shorts, the leggings and, oh dear God, the tacky partywear.

On the website, there is a department entitled Softly Sparkle for ‘Going out and occasion’ wear — all sequins and there’s even ostrich-effect sweaters (32).

It’s easy to mass produce these clothes cheaply: no seams, no darts, no clever cutting required.
In the Eighties and Nineties, there was a clearly defined Next ‘look’ — it did minimalism really well. I remember the oversized white shirts, the black waistcoats, the mannish trouser suits, the apron skirts.

But in the summer of 2012 the Next look is the same as myriad other brands: colour blocking, lace, pastels, you name it, as its design team chase every catwalk trend in the hope one will stick.

Where once tailoring was key, now the cheap navy Next suit has become synonymous with all that is bad about the way women in lots of office jobs dress: a sort of synthetic, badly fitted, boring uniform, the kind of garb Cherie Blair used to wear.

While Next was once the friend of the working woman, it is now responsible for a pastiche of the look it pioneered.

The main problem with Next, as with so many of its rivals is that, come the late Nineties, it decided to sacrifice quality for profit.

I bought a leather tote from the very first Next Directory: it was 99 which, in those days, for someone on about 5,000 a year, was a fortune. But it lasted 20 years. Now, a leather tote in the store is 72. How is that possible Back in 1988, a wool jacket cost 59.99. Today, a blazer — totally synthetic, of course, despite coming from the ‘luxe’ collection — is 50.

Cheaply produced: Liz wasn't impressed with the 'softly sparkle' range she viewed on Next's website

Cheaply produced: Liz wasn't impressed with the 'softly sparkle' range she viewed on Next's website

But it’s working for Next — if not necessarily for us. Profits aren’t just up, they’re going through the roof at a time most retailers are struggling and many are closing.

In fact, profits have more than doubled in less than ten years —from 210 million in 2003 to 427 million this past financial year. Its estimated pre-tax profit this year is between 575 million and 620 million.

Of course all companies have to make money, but I take issue with the way the Next Directory (the autumn/winter and spring/summer editions cost 3.75, while the slimmer high summer and Christmas editions are free; 8.2million are published each year) pushes credit upon its customers.

Next calls interest a service charge: however you dress it up the current annual rate is 25.99 per cent. The company is ferocious in its pursuit of late payments, too. Nothing exceptional, I suppose, as Very.co.uk et al do this, too, but it reminds me of the main difference between then and now.

For that leather tote, I had to pay up front by sending a cheque and waiting for it to clear before receiving the goods. How quaint and slow that seems nowadays.

Profits aren’t just up, they’re going through the roof at a time most retailers are struggling and many are closing

But there is still much to celebrate. Sizes go up to a 26. The Geri Halliwell collaboration has proved a success, particularly her designs for swimwear: well priced, sturdy, and with good coverage for the fuller-figured.

It’s all too easy to look at the past with rose-tinted spectacles. When I ask my sister, who was a huge Next fan in the Eighties, for her memories, she says it was all a bit mauve, with huge shoulder pads, and those awful navy low-heeled Sloane Ranger pumps, the sort Princess Diana used to wear.

These days, at least Kate Middleton is a fan. She personifies who I think the dream Next customer should be, and where Next’s future lies in the next five years or so: wholesome, feminine, flattering clothes that are all about quality, not chasing trends and profits.

Ignore the cheap tat, the jewellery and, oh my God, the Next sale, and order instead a piece from a great initiative this summer: the 30th birthday collection.

Here you will find 30 classic pieces from the archives, such as a Crombie coat, and a trench — an item Next has sent out every year (probably for an ever-diminishing retail price) whether or not it’s in fashion.

FIVE PIECES FROM NEXT LIZ DOES LOVE

Pair these classic suede Chelsea boots, 55, with jeans or a skirt and bare legs

Pair these classic suede Chelsea boots,
55, with jeans or a skirt and bare legs

A well-cut, soft leather biker jacket, 160, (half the price of one in Reiss)

A well-cut, soft leather biker jacket, 160, (half the price of one in Reiss)

This sequin wrap skirt, 28, has hints of Dries van Noten

This sequin wrap skirt, 28, has hints of Dries van Noten

This patterned cardigan, 28, is very Sarah Jessica Parker

This patterned cardigan, 28, is very Sarah Jessica Parker

A great blazer for work, 50, which would complement skinny jeans

A great blazer for work, 50, which would complement skinny jeans