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Asos.com

After making its name with celebrity-inspired styles, etailer Asos.com tells Lauretta Roberts why it has a lot more to offer than just copycat clothes

Asos.com is the online fashion retailer that copies celebrity styles to sell at cheap-as-chips prices, right? Well, it does do that (and very well, as is happens). It also sells a broad range of high street brands squarely targeted at consumers who take their style tips from the likes of Heat magazine and its derivatives. But be prepared to revise your opinion.

Asos’s latest move seems set to put the etailer, which former advertising executive Nick Robertson launched in 2000, on the favourites list of every fashion-lover in the UK. Buoyed by the success of its premium denim offer, which includes Rock & Republic and Siwy, and its luxe accessories range from big hitters such as Miu Miu, Chloe and Gucci, Asos has decided to take its fashion offer firmly upmarket in a fully revamped online sales environment.

From now on, shoppers will find a selection of collections from designer bridge brands including Manoush, Antik Batik, Paul & Joe Sister, John Smedley, J Lindeberg, Pinko and Stella Forest, which will be sold from the new Asos Premium area of the site. It is also one of only two online fashion retailers (the other being my-wardrobe.com) to have secured the new Twenty8Twelve collection, by actress Sienna Miller and sister Savannah, seeing off competition from designer etailer Net-a-Porter.com in the process.

The decision of Twenty8Twelve to go with Asos provoked a reaction of “surprise” from at least one national newspaper’s fashion editor, but Robertson, now Asos’s chief executive, makes it sound like a no-brainer. “We said ‘we have 1.3 million registered users we can email; we distribute 400,000 to 500,000 magazines each month; we place full-page ads in Grazia … ’ and they said ‘alright, you can have it’.”

To further underscore the etailer’s fashion credentials, several brands have not only granted it the right to sell, but have produced exclusive collections for Asos. Womenswear brand Sara Berman has created a range of dresses, and Baugur-owned edgy designer label PPQ has reissued some of the most iconic designs from its archive for exclusive sale on the site. In addition, Stateside uber-stylist Patricia Field is back with a specially designed collection following her successful tie-up with Asos last year on a bag seen in the film The Devil Wears Prada, on which Field was the stylist.

The killer question is whether Twenty8Twelve will sell. Last year the average basket value at Asos was £42.80. The Sara Berman dresses, for instance, are priced around the £250 to £300 mark, while Twenty8Twelve ranges from about £75 for a top to £350 for a leather jacket. Retail director Robert Bready is unfazed. “It will sell,” he says. “If we can sell a £1,200 handbag, we can sell these collections.”

Asos’s experiment with designer accessories and denim has given it the confidence to move upmarket and has increased the average age of the site’s users. Its customers are now split 50/50 between the 18- to 24- and 24- to 34-year-old age groups. “Rock & Republic jeans cost up to £280 and they sell. Customers trust us to deliver good product,” adds Bready.

On top of that, Asos has already experimented with directional designer fashion and it has flown out of the door. Last month it opened a section on its website dedicated to the Laden Showroom, an East End-based showcase for up-and-coming designers. The showroom itself, based at Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, houses 47 designers, of which Asos took on eight to launch the operation. After five days it had made sales of £50,000 with the average price per garment of between £40 and £70. “Where else would these designers get that kind of exposure?” asks Robinson.

While this move will no doubt have the likes of Net-a-Porter and My-wardrobe.com looking over their shoulders, it should not be seen as a move away from the etailer’s core market of celebrity-driven fashion. It’s more of an expansion, says Bready, who adds that it is about offering a “good, better, best” proposition in branded and own-label product, and in every segment that it operates, from lingerie to beauty and footwear (which is about to get a boost from The Shoe Studio brands Bertie, Nine West and Pied a Terre) to fashion. In short, Asos wants to create afully-fledged online department store.

Its own-label range, which is where the etailer made its name copying celebrity styles, comes in a mainline where “going out” dresses sell for about £35; and a Luxe collection, with dresses that hit the £65 mark. The latter are made from better-quality fabrics, such as silk, and feature hand-sewn embellishments including sequins and real crystals. Many designs in the range are named after celebrities and are merchandised with pictures of stars wearing the dress that inspired the Asos version.

Robertson insists the etailer always stays on the right side of the intellectual property lawyers and adds that the recent spate of copycat cases - including Topshop being accused of copying a See By Chloe dress - are no reason to feel nervous. “Everyone is inspired by celebrities. The only difference between us (and the high street) is that we put a picture of the celebrity next to the clothes. I wouldn’t say our risk is any greater than any fast-fashion retailer,” he says.

Bready adds that celebrity will remain “at the heart of what we do”. And it is certainly at the heart of the etailer’s monthly magazine, which was launched last year and is now distributed to between 400,000 and 500,000 readers each month, making it one of the highest circulating monthly fashion magazines on the market (Glamour, for example, circulates about 550,000 copies per month).

The magazine launch was something of a full-circle move for Asos; it was titles such as these that inspired the business in the first place, and to add to its credentials it will soon be awarded an ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulations) certificate for the magazine.

To those who may sniff at this unashamed capitalisation of celebrity, Robertson insists Asos is only presenting fashion as it has always been presented. The difference, adds Bready, who joined Asos in 2005 from Arcadia, is that who or what qualifies as a celebrity has been downgraded. “Celebrities of the past used to be film stars, the original supermodels or the aristocracy. Now they are footballers’ wives or someone who has been on TV.”

Be that as it may, the formula works. Asos’s latest figures show annual sales of £42.6 million for the year to March 31, up from £19.7m last year. Menswear sales have now hit £20m, which was the turnover of the whole business just two years ago. Next year’s figures look set to impress again. In the last week of July, when most retailers were struggling amid the wet weather, Asos had its highest-ever sales week, taking 52,000 orders totalling £2.5m.

Robertson shrugs his shoulders as if he can’t quite believe it. “The bad weather seems to help, because people sit at work and shop online,” he says.

A recent report by etail research company IMRG backs this up. It showed that online sales in July had leapt from £2.34 billion last year to £4.2bn in 2007, as wet weather and the proliferation of super-fast broadband internet connections made online shopping more compelling than ever.

While Robertson likes to downplay this wet-weather success, there was more than just luck behind it. Bready and his team ensured the visual merchandising was appropriate to the weather (“if the weather was cold, we would layer up the summer dresses with leggings and a cardigan,” he explains) and Asos’s delivery service made a trip to the high street even less necessary. The next-day delivery service is popular with customers who want clothes for the weekend and are happy to pay a little extra for the service.

So, Asos has the own brand, the branded range, the upscale collection, the magazine and the audience. Surely all it needs now is the store? Robertson laughs, but says nothing. Was it such a stupid question? “No, but these things have a habit of coming back to bite you,” he explains. “I never say never, but not in the short term. We’re a bit busy at the moment.”

GOOD, BETTER, BEST: THE ASOS BRANDED OFFER

- Mainstream brands

All Saints, Calvin Klein, Chilli Pepper, Diesel, Firetrap, Fornarina, French Connection, Hudson, Ichi, Killah, Kitson, Lipsy, Miss Sixty, Pepe Jeans, Ted Baker, Ugg

- Premium brands (new for autumn 08)

Antik Batik, American Retro, B Store, DvB by Victoria Beckham, Edun, Eley Kishimoto, Gold Hawk, Just Cavalli, La Rok, Laura Lees Label, L’Autre Chose, Manoush, Paul & Joe Sister, Pinko, Serfontaine, Siwy, Somi, Stella Forest, Twenty8Twelve, Wheels & Doll Baby, United Nude

- Designer brands (accessories only)

Balenciaga, Chloe, D&G, Dior, Fendi, Gucci, Prada, YSL

- Patricia Field

The New York stylist has designed a dedicated range for the etailer. The 17-piece collection includes jumpsuits, dresses, tops, jeans, shoes and bags

- Sara Berman

The boutique brand has created an exclusive range of dresses, which will be available as part of the new Premium offer for autumn 08

- PPQ

The Baugur-owned label has reissued key pieces from its archive, including a red jumpsuit and dresses, for exclusive sale on Asos.com

- The Laden Showroom

The east London champion of up-and-coming designers has teamed up with Asos to showcase ranges from a selection of new labels, including Adele Laden, Nicki Pumpkin, We Walk and Soo Lee

Asos.com in figures

2000 - The year Asos, originally called - As Seen on Screen, launched

2 million - Number of unique users visiting the website each month

140,000 - Number of orders shipped by the website each month

4,500 - Total number of products featured on the website

200 - Amount of new products added to the website each week

1.3m - Number of registered users on the website

450,000 - Average circulation of Asos’s monthly magazine.

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