George Davies’ next move

George Davies’ GIVe has had a fair amount of pre-launch press. Not only has it had a huge push in partnership with Grazia, but The Guardian, The Mail, The Telegraph and The Express have all given over column inches to the new brand which launches tomorrow. So what’s it all about? Aimed at the 30+ market, I had high expectations for something along the lines of Reiss, Whistles or COS. Fashion-forward but not overtly sexy or fierce. In fact, having had a taster, it’s nothing like those labels. It ticks the trend boxes (tweed, coccoon, red) but this is fashion for the middle-England market – the John Lewis, M & S, possibly Debenhams customer. But wait! Don’t go yet…

The backstory: George Davies is the man who launched Next in the ’80s, an aspirational mail order brand that in the beginning charged customers £3 for its hard-back catalogue, complete with real-live fabric swatches inside. It was as significant then as Net-a-Porter is now. Post-Next, Davies set up George at Asda, the first brand to bring fashion to supermarkets. Tesco and Sainsbury’s soon followed his lead. Most recently, Davies launched Per Una, a phenomenally successful brand he sold in Marks & Spencer stores (and eventually sold to M&S for £125 million. Kerching!). I confess I’ve never *got* Per Una. Unlike any other high street label, it has its own unique handwriting which involves colour, detail and shitloads of embellishment. Whatever the trends, there is always a long bias-cut skirt, a nod to the Chanel-esque tweed jacket and a lot of textile interest. It’s as far removed from understated COS as you can get.

Per Una was so successful that Davies probably thought, ‘why am I selling this through M&S, I should set up my own stores’, so he has set up GIVe. The GIVe stands for George the fourth (it’s his fourth venture), the ‘e’ stands for e-commerce and the ‘give’ is also because 5-10% of yearly profits will go to charity. As well as having its own ‘handwriting’, much like Per Una, (in fact, GIVe’s design director is Emma Trayner, Davies’ daughter who also oversaw design at Per Una), the GIVe philosophy is also about giving customers what they lack elsewhere: service. George Davies understands his customers, it’s one of his major strengths. As well as understanding that the 30-50 year old customer has a womanly shape (hence the kicky skirts) and likes being ‘fashionable’ without being fashion, Davies is flagging up customer service. Staff aren’t shop assistants but trained ‘style advisors’ and there will be on-site alterations available in all stores. The store layout is uncluttered and nicely-lit and rather than bunching all the sizes available in a particular style on one overflowing rail, there are hidden storage areas behind sliding wall panels so stock is readily available without spilling onto floors. Also, as size can be considered an issue for bigger customers, GIVe has labelled its sizes in roman numerals (I is a size 8, II is a size 10 up to VI which is an 18) to sidestep ‘the stigma of having big sizes on labels’. I’m not convinced by this – I give it six months before they revert to standard form.

More exciting are the high-tech touch screens that let you scan an item if it’s not available in your size and order it online to be sent to your house the next day. For me, the retail concepts – instant alterations, speedy shopping, the easiness – are more appealing than the design of the clothes (tailoring, ruffles, always a corsage or ten) but then it’s not aimed at me. As my friend G, who has spent a lifetime styling ‘real women’, pointed out, “it’s wearable fashion that the ordinary woman can wear. It’s for those women who want to dress heavy hips and curves with a bit of a fashion flourish and know they can wear the same thing next week and next year. It’s got enough fashion interest, but it’s easy.” To the untrained eye it may look like Per Una mark two but according to the PR, the crucial point is it’s not governed by price. Where Per Una has price constraints, GIVe is allowed to set its price-point higher to reflect its Italian fabrics and quality. It’s not designer prices but ‘affordable luxury’ as Davies puts it.
Where does this all leave me, in the right age-bracket but not the tailoring type? GIVe may not be a store I’d shop in – although I did spot a very nice shoe – but Davies is unarguably influential. Give it a year and we may well see copycat instant alterations, instore-online shopping and American-style service all over our high streets. I’ll pass on the faux fur coat for now, but an improved in-store experience is something I’d be happy to see.