An (A)SOS for online fashion

Student Life

Nick Robertson knows what you like to wear. Actually, his 700-strong team probably dresses you. That’s because he is at the helm of ASOS.com, the online fashion website that receives 6.9 million hits a month, stocks 36,000 lines, has won 64 retail and e-commere awards, and has recently seen sales up 55 percent.

Those numbers tell you Robertson’s navigation of the tricky cracks in online fashion retail has been pretty successful. But Robertson is not a fashion man. He started off, at least, as an ad-man. In 1996, he co-founded a product placement company, Entertainment marketing. In the late 90s, the Internet beckoned. But at that time fashion was not the sweeping cultural phenomenon it is today (another story, but for all you cynical readers, the industry added £21 billion to the UK economy in 2009. So yah-boo-sucks to you.) “When do you remember the company from?” Robertson asks. An embarrassingly materialistic teenager, I started logging on when I was about 12 – i.e. 2003. “So you remember it as AsSeenOnScreen, then?” Yup. In his down-to-earth, pragmatic tone, Robertson explains how ASOS didn’t originate in fashion:

“In ‘97 Amazon launched, in ‘98 the Internet was starting to get interesting, and we were looking at ways we could include it with our marketing business. The original idea was a website that would be more sort of an information porthole, where you could type in a film name or a programme, and up would come the products and brands that in it.” Cue images of a fabulous Google-style machine bringing up the sort of film ephemera that makes one dream of being a set-buyer. Robertson continues:  “So if you typed in Mission Impossible up would come Oakley sunglasses. So that was the original idea, and it was all linked back to that original product placement business. That was where the name [AsSeenOnScreen] came from.” Robertson’s background in marketing undoubtedly shaped his capacities.

Fashion started on the sidelines: “When we got a little bit bigger – and literally I’m talking about five orders a day – we were told we needed this thing called a Buyer. And it just happened that the very first person was ex-Topshop, and she got the job, and she starting buying fashion bits for us […] because it was AsSeenOnScreen, she was buying fashion that was similar to the fashion that the celebs were wearing.”

Ah, the celebrities. Let’s remember that this was a decade ago, when the noughties’ cult of celebrity was nascent: I’m a Celebrity… was an inkling in the eyes of ITV producers, Robbie Williams signed an £80 million record contract with EMI and and Avril Lavigne was stilll popular. AsSeenOnScreen began to ride on the swell of rampant desire for celebrity imitation: “Back then it was things like Kylie’s pair of black trousers with a zip all the way up the front, and we managed to find a pair that looked like that. Atomic Kitten were hot in those days, so we found a one-sleeve bandeau top thing. We were drawing a comparison between fashion and the celebs wearing it.” The company began to place pictures of the celerities on the website, with look-alike clothes available for purchase alongside. I mention the massive marketing phenomena that was – and to an extent still is – the ‘get the look’ approach in popular media. “The irony was we were doing it end to end, you know, finding a product, putting it next to a celebrity and selling it.”

A few years later, the fashion part of the business was taking off at speed, but a name change was in order. “You could never imagine a fashion website called AsSeenOnScreen cos it took too long to type, so we changed the name to ASOS.” (From the horse’s mouth, it is ‘ASOS’ not ‘A-S-O-S’.) “We bought asos.com for about $500 off some Greek bloke, and went from there.”

But hasn’t the cult of celebrity died a little? Emulation is arguably less attractive than the Identikit style of the early noughties. Robertson himself points out that “what was powerful in 2000 is less relevant today”. So has there been a conscious move away from celebrity-inspired fashion?
“Rather than a conscious move away, as we brought in more lines, fewer of them were directly linked to a celebrity […] The ASOS magazine has pictures of catwalk models and style icons and celebrities, so it’s not that we’ve moved away from it – we’ve just made it more relevant for today.”

Today, the website is fresh and relevant. Offerings in the ‘Boutiques’ section range from tiny vintage stores in East London, “who might not have the power or nounce to leverage the Internet” on their own, to ethical labels and designer names. The product range is vast, but well organised enough so that when the number of ‘items’ in the ‘dresses’ category reads 839, I don’t shut the browser. The typography is sufficiently ‘cool’; ‘street style’ images line the pages. It’s a long way from selling clothes on a Kylie comparison.

Robertson admits “I’m probably the least fashionable of all the people I employ”. Although he might not know, to use industry-speak, what will be ‘hot’ in six months’ time, he knows 350 people who do. Buyers and merchandisers make up half of his London-based team: “They are aged 20-30, and are absolutely focused on designing or buying fashion for 20 year olds… they’re coming and plying their trade here as opposed to on the high street.”

Can we, then, compare ASOS to a high street retailer? “It really is exactly the same as a high street retailer now. We have a big internal design team who travel the world, go to all the shows, getting inspiration from all the Tokyos of this world. It’s their job to identify what they think the trends will be.” The website’s neatly segmented areas certainly mirror the pavements of the high street.

With the company regularly seeing double digit sales increases, has Robertson ever considered moving ASOS from the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) to the main London Stock Exchange?

“We have…” Robertson hesitates. “In reality, we’re quite a big fish in a small pond, and we like that. If we moved to the main market then we’d be a much smaller fish. We’d prefer  to concentrate on making the business better.”
It’s obvious Robertson is passionate about his product (he doesn’t miss a trick, using all opportunities to mention one aspect or another of the dynamic business.)

There’s a bit of corporate jargon – “recycling’s going to be a big trend moving forward” – but essentially, with ASOS Robertson has created a successful business by cutting out a clear pathway for itself in online retail.  It knows what its customers want; it knows it wants it quickly (order delivery takes two days or less, and is free) and it knows that a lot of online customer loyalty comes down to price.
The brand now has a cache that was perhaps missing two years ago. I won’t be surprised if ASOS is seen on lots of (computer) screens for a long time to come.

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