Ashley Ali plans to make his “celebrity appeal” fast fashion brand bigger than Boohoo – but is in no rush to do so.
“I want to provide a champagne lifestyle on a lemonade budget,” declares the 34-year-old founder of fast fashion etailer MissPap, Ashley Ali, when Drapers visits its warehouse and head office in Burscough, West Lancashire, earlier this month.
“I want to give our customers a product that has the characteristics, look and feel of the catwalk – something that has that celebrity appeal without having to pay £200. Knock off a zero and pay £20: that has been my vision from the word go.”
MissPap is one of several fast fashion etailers based in the north-west of England to explode on to the market in recent years. Following in the footsteps of Manchester powerhouses Boohoo and Missguided, the business targets 16-to-24-year-old women whom Ali describes as “celebrity influenced and impulse led, and want to see it today and wear it tomorrow”.
Despite tough competition from its rivals, MissPap has taken a fair share of the market. Since launching in 2014 it has gone from a one-man-band to a team of 75, and boasted a turnover of around £24m and EBITDA of £2m in 2017 – all without receiving any outside investment. In 2018 alone, the company launched a US website, a concession in Topshop in Liverpool and a separate standalone beauty website called Glamify.
I had no intention of doing what I’m doing today
The origins of MissPap date back to 2003, when Ali was a first-year law student at Liverpool John Moores. He opened a Sunday clothing stall called Paparazzi in north Liverpool’s Heritage Market to make money while he was studying.
“At that stage I had no intention of doing what I’m doing today,” he laughs. “I’m not from a fashion background – I didn’t study it at university. It was a way to make money, and the plan was to go into the police as a graduate. I always wanted to be a policeman.
“I was made aware of cash-and-carry fashion wholesalers in Manchester through friends who had market stalls and small shops selling accessories. I’d go through the weekly fashion magazines at the time to get celebrity inspiration. I’d buy similar products, style them in the same way on the mannequins and sell them on the market – that’s where the name Paparazzi came from. I could invest £50 and make £100 in a couple of hours – it was an opportunity.”
Ali launched further market stalls around Liverpool and, in 2005, opened his first store, also called Paparazzi, in Skelmersdale, at the age of 21.
“It was just me. I used to buy the stock, do the windows, serve the customers, do the books, everything,” he recalls. Over the next few years, Ali opened 16 stores in the Liverpool area.
However, the entrepreneur could see the shift in consumer behaviour as footfall dipped and shoppers turned increasingly to online retail.
The last Paparazzi store closed in 2013 and Ali launched his online-only business, called MissPap – a more SEO-friendly take on the original name – a year later.
“The overheads for the stores were huge between rent and rates, footfall was declining, and I could see the potential of online. I couldn’t split myself in two [to make both online and bricks and mortar work], so I made the decision to close the stores. I could see online was the right way to go.”
Online, everything is different in terms of how you sell
Ali, sporting a pair of Balenciaga stretch knit trainers, jeans and a MissPap logo T-shirt, says the largest challenge he faced when relaunching the business was the shift from selling in store to selling online.
“The biggest hurdle at the beginning was getting the expertise I needed to run an online business,” he admits. “I hadn’t a clue.
“Online, everything is different in terms of how you sell. In store, it is all about presentation, location, ambience and customer service. Online, it’s about creativity, the right imagery, brand awareness, exposure and digital marketing. The only thing that’s the same is the product. The whole transition was bigger than I imagined.”
Ali relied on external digital marketing agencies and freelancers up until the beginning of this year, when all business functions – except for manufacturing – moved in-house.
“Everything happens right here in this building – from the design and buying to shooting imagery and picking and packing product,” says Ali. “To get to this point wasn’t easy. We went from a start up with zero turnover to a full team without any outside investment in four years. We are all organic – yesterday’s profit goes into tomorrow.”
At the heart of the business is trend-led product at low prices – most stock retails for less than £30, and the average price across the website is £20.
Around 60% of product is sourced from third-party importers based in Manchester, London, Paris, China and Turkey, while the remaining 40% is designed in house and produced in the UK by manufacturers based in Leicester.
“The quickest way of doing it is using local manufacturers in Leicester, like many of our competitors. It comes down to the simple logistics – the quicker you want the product, the closer to home you need to make it,” he explains.
Ali says the in-house designed product is growing steadily and, as he recruits more designers, garment technicians and quality controllers, he aims for it to be 80% of all stock by 2020.
Our biggest USP is our speed to market
In a demanding market, speed in providing fresh product is key. MissPap uploads as many as 350 new products to its site every week, and Ali claims it is “the fastest in fast fashion”.
When MissPap buys from a wholesaler in Manchester, it can have a product photographed and selling online within six hours. On its own-design clothing, the turnaround from design to selling can be as little as 10 days.
“Our biggest USP is our speed to market. We understand our customers and we can reach them quicker than anyone else in the fast fashion market,” Ali says. “We have a lot of competitors, but because they are bigger than us, they are slower. If we grow to their size, we may need to adapt, so my biggest challenge going forward is making sure we keep this speed. It is all about turning things around quickly and giving our consumer what she wants first. If we can’t deliver the speed to market, we will sacrifice the growth.”
In July, Ali dipped his toe back into bricks and mortar when he opened the MissPap concession in Topshop in Liverpool, and, while further expansion may be on the cards down the line, he stresses there are no plans for a wider rollout in the imminent future.
“We went into Topshop to drive brand awareness and to get the product in front of the consumer. We’re showing consumers that we are confident in our product by letting them see it and try it before they buy and, as a result, we’re building their confidence in the brand. We are looking at other opportunities to [roll this out], but we need to build a retail team before we expand further.”
Emily Salter, associate analyst for retail at Global Data, says the Topshop concession gives MissPap a point of difference in a saturated market: “Young fashion retailers targeting the same customer base are very close to saturation point, as the number of retailers with similar propositions has increased dramatically in the last few years.
“One of MissPap’s features that makes it stand out from its online pureplay competitors is its Topshop concession. By stocking its range in physical stores, there is an opportunity for consumers to touch and test products, increasing brand trust and awareness, driving future sales without the huge associated costs of running permanent bricks-and-mortar stores.”
Nonetheless, MissPap remains primarily an etailer, and uses a strong online presence to build relationships with its shoppers. Its Instagram account has almost 1 million followers, and customers who tag photographs of their purchases with #misspapped have the opportunity to appear on the MissPap feed. Its account prominently features celebrities, such as models Jess Hunt and Olivia Culpo, wearing its clothes. The Only Way Is Essex alumnae Megan McKenna and Amber Turner both have collaboration lines with the brand.
The business has also trialled international expansion – it launched a US website in July. Ali stresses the US market is a “tiny” part of the overall business and he is focused on growing the core UK arm before investing heavily abroad in a few years’ time.
“Our biggest focus is on the UK. We need to learn, understand and grow as big as we can here and take as much of the UK market as we can before we decide to delve heavily in the US or any other territory. We do have revenue coming in from the US, but we are nowhere near ready to go international in a big way – we’re aiming to do that in 2022. We want to make sure we get our home market right first.”
Ali is cautious about expanding too quickly and not being able to meet demand from shoppers or slowing down the all-important speed to market.
“Our biggest challenge is coping with growth. We want to grow, but keep being nimble. We are looking at developing our infrastructure to scale to the next level, but we want to continue to serve the consumer with the same speed we had back in the beginning. I won’t allow us to lose that.
“We haven’t had any external funding and I realise to get to the next stage we may need to look at that, but I’m in no rush. If the right partner came along we’d look at it, but we don’t have to do it. We are in a good position where we have control over the business.”
For Ali, the future success of MissPap is dependent on continuing to build the right team around him: “We want to be seen as a key player across all elements of fashion and beauty. It’s all about having the relevant people at the right time. That is the biggest ingredient to the success of this business, having the right people with the same morals and ambitions, all working towards the same goal.”
And what is that goal?
“To take Boohoo and Asos off the number one spot,” he smiles. “We’re coming for you.”