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How Next went from fashion outsider to high-street heavyweight

In high fashion circles Next is the brand that dare not speak its name. Though a fashion editor might profess their love for Whistles, or celebrate Zara’s ability to translate trends, or eagerly confess that they own Marks Spencer’s sold-out pink coat, Next is not mentioned.

Partly this is because the high-street stalwart does not doggedly chase column inches with celebrity endorsements or designer collaborations. Partly it is because the clothes are perceived rather harshly by some fashion insiders as pedestrian and lacklustre.

And yet the company’s chief executive, Lord Wolfson, has attributed much of Next’s current success to “buying in to new trends” and “taking greater fashion risks”.

Indeed, over the past few seasons collections have featured some designer-influenced pieces. The black check mesh dress that features in Next’s spring advertising campaign, for example, is practically identical to a piece by the US designer Lela Rose, worn by Cheryl Cole at the launch of The X Factor this month. Being Next, the dress is available exactly as the customer might want it – as a cocktail dress, a standalone skirt and as a 50s-style fit-and-flare dress. Elsewhere, a floral bomber jacket and an embellished rucksack reference two of spring’s biggest trends.

Next’s use of models with real kudos also speaks of heightened fashion nous. One of the most successful models in the world – the Gucci and Chanel campaign star Joan Smalls – currently appears on the website’s homepage. Arizona Muse, also hugely successful and a Vogue cover star, was the brand’s major face from 2011 until 2013.

But to suggest that Next is matching competitors such as Zara, Topshop and indeed Marks Spencer for the sort of white-hot, designer-inspired items that get fashion editors excited is to miss the point.

For the most part, the collection is still dominated by the stalwarts: office-appropriate tops and suits, smart-casual outerwear and smart high-heeled shoes. The website is even divided into sections including “tailored smart looks”, “the casual collection” and “going out occasion”. That approach completely contradicts current fashion wisdom that for the modern dresser, the lines between work, weekend and going-out clothes are becoming ever more blurred.

Really – though there are some style hits in the collection – this is a victory of efficiency and business acumen, not fashion. It is telling that MS has been steadily losing share in womenswear despite creating genuine excitement about key pieces such as the pink coat modelled by Karen Elson in its advertising campaign.

After the coat sold out, the chief executive, Marc Bolland, admitted that its stock had been limited, saying: “You do not want 40,000 of the same coats walking around … that is probably not the way to also create some of the stylishness”.

That kind of showiness just isn’t the Next way. Instead, Next knows its customer, sells her what she wants (including kids’ clothes and homewear) and its online operation is strong, efficient and reliable. And as it stands, Next – the quiet kid at school, who nobody ever really noticed – is overtaking its cooler, showier counterparts.

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