Manchester-based fast fashion etailer Missy Empire has a new headquarters and is primed for growth
“Give your customer what she wants. That’s the trick,” says Ash Siddique, co-founder and managing director of women’s fast fashion pureplay Missy Empire, as he shows Drapers around its new Manchester head office and warehouse.
“Whatever we plan, we do it from the outside in. What would the Missy girl wear? What would she eat? What would she drink? How does she socialise? Once we had that mindset, the business grew, and we built momentum.”
That momentum and the clear focus on what its Generation Z customer wants has turned Missy Empire into a £20m-turnover business within just four years of launching. The new 35,000 sq ft headquarters on Knowsley Street, in the heart of Manchester’s rag trade district, underlines its rapid growth.
The Missy girl is very demanding. She is from a generation led by social
The walls are painted in the brand’s trademark bright pink and, when Drapers visits, the warehouse is still in the process of being stocked and organised following the move from its previous 14,000 sq ft home in Ardwick, two miles away. The new space will allow Missy Empire to increase stock levels by at least 50% for the coming peak trading season, as well as developing its product offer – a key part of its future growth strategy.
“It will add revenue to the top line as previously we had no room to build the product ranges,” explains Siddique.
“We had to slow down our new buys as there was nowhere to put them, [and] we had to minimise the quantity of repeats we could replenish as we didn’t have the space to put them anywhere. The new warehouse allows us to back our winners at big volumes and expand the ranges.”
“Kylie” and “Kim”
Launched in 2015 by Siddique and his brother Ish, Missy Empire creates affordable trend-led womenswear for its two customer profiles: 17-to-24-year-old “Kylie” and 25-to-34-year-old “Kim”.
“The Missy girl is very demanding,” laughs Siddique. “She is from a generation led by social. She knows what she wants, she knows what is trending. She is not afraid to voice her opinion, she loves going out and she loves taking pictures. You can’t fool a Missy girl.”
There but there is a great opportunity for sexy athleisure, or ‘pretending to go to the gym’ athleisure
Retail prices range from £5 for leggings to £99 for coats. The business expects turnover of £20m this year, up from £4m in 2016, and around 20% of its sales are international. Siddique will not give profit figures, but insists Missy Empire has been in the black in since 2016.
The team has grown to a head count of 45, and 10 roles will be added across marketing and buying now it has moved into bigger premises.
As well as growing its team, Siddique plans to expand Missy Empire’s product range over the coming 12 months, starting with a new athleisure range in January.
“There are a lot of great sportswear brands out there but there is a great opportunity for sexy athleisure, or ‘pretending to go to the gym’ athleisure. We released a couple of styles this year and it went down really well, so we’re building on that.”
The business will also develop a full core basics range – something it did not have space for in the old warehouse – and is expanding its footwear offer to include a wider range of styles. In February 2020, it will launch beauty gift sets for Valentines Day, and hair extensions will follow later in the year.
“We are making sure that everything is connected to the Missy Empire girl,” explains Siddique. “Why let her shop elsewhere to finish off her outfit? That doesn’t make sense. We want to fill in the gaps and complete her look.”
Missy Empire may still be in its infancy, but the clothing industry is in Siddique’s blood.
His father, Choudhry, set up a manufacturer in Manchester called AKL in 1992. It was a cash-and-carry model selling womenswear direct to market traders. When Siddique joined the business in 2000, he began working with multiples including Jane Norman, Primark, Roman Originals and Bonmarché.
“I learned a lot about brand identity manufacturing for the high street,” he explains. “I saw how it differed from brand to brand. I saw how finishing touches, fit and packaging made a difference on the final price point.”
We don’t look at what others are doing. When you imitate your competitors, you don’t stand out
A cancelled order for 50,000 pairs of knitted leggings in 2009 led Siddique to make the leap from manufacturing into retail. The brothers put the stock on Ebay and it sold out in four days.
“I saw the worth in retail. I knew how branding worked and how trends worked. I just needed a platform.”
In 2014, the first incarnation of Missy Empire was born, on a free Wordpress platform. Siddique describes this as “one of his biggest mistakes: you get what you pay for”. After multiple crashes, the website replatformed and relaunched in May 2015. Six months later, on its first Black Friday, it made £70,000 of sales.
Eyes off the ball
Despite its early success, the business was not without its challenges. In 2016, the brothers were splitting their time between Missy Empire and running their father’s factory. Their attention was not on the etailer and they made a few wrong hires. Revenue stagnated.
“Our attention wasn’t 100% on Missy Empire, and if the captain of the ship isn’t there, the ship hasn’t got any direction,” Siddique admits.
After a poor peak trading season, in January 2017 the brothers sold the factory to focus on Missy Empire. They changed all but one member of staff to get the business back on track.
We are building our base here because of Brexit
“We went back to basics and looked at what the customer wanted. We got the product right. We worked on the imagery, user experience, social media, the influencers we use … By June  sales were up 50% year on year, because we were getting it right.”
Siddique credits his background as a manufacturer, and knowledge of product and fit for the retailer’s comparatively low returns rate of 22%-25%.
“We know what our suppliers’ qualities and strengths are. There is no point sending someone dresses when their speciality is gymwear. As a manufacturer, we understand that. If you force a supplier to do something he isn’t skilled at, the quality will be poor.
“That’s why the returns rate is low: all these decisions are made before an order is placed.”
Missy Empire sources from cash-and-carry suppliers and directly from factories in China, Bangladesh, Turkey, Italy and the UK. Previously, 80% of stock was sourced abroad and 20% was made in the UK. However, it has shifted to a 50:50 split ahead of Brexit, driven by currency headwinds.
“We are building our base here because of Brexit,” says Siddique. But he adds that international sourcing is still vital: “The currency fluctuates too much to rely so heavily on international suppliers, but you still need them. There are certain products that can’t be made here because of a skills shortage or the high cost of labour. It’s not just about finding supplier – it has to suit what our shopper is willing to pay.”
Thanks to the near sourcing in its mix, Missy Empire can change a colour on an existing style and have it on site in three days. A new product can go from design to online in five to 10 days.
Fast fashion has come under the spotlight in recent months after the environmental audit committee questioned the sustainability of the model, and accused retailers of encouraging a culture of “throwaway fashion”.
Siddique’s annoyance at this is clear: “We are fast fashion, but it doesn’t mean it is a throwaway product. The quality is good. Being a manufacturer, hearing that actually hurts, as I know what it takes to make a garment. There are a lot of intricate parts to it.”
Missy Empire has signed up to the Regain app, which offers shoppers discounts for recycling their unwanted clothes. It also asks its influencers to produce videos showing shoppers how to style products in several different ways, so they wear them more than once.
Anusha Couttigane, principal analyst fashion – EMEA at Kantar, points out that the Gen Z consumer is becoming increasingly aware of sustainability. “Missy Empire has signed with the Regain app but building on this and developing its marketing to speak to these values will be important to the development of the business going forward,” she says.
Like most fast fashion etailers, Missy Empire’s marketing strategy centres around social media, although it also advertises on taxis and billboards, among other channels.
Instagram is its biggest social channel: it has nearly 1 million followers. The platform makes up a small portion of overall sales, but Siddique says the introduction of shoppable tags in March 2018 increased revenue on the platform by 60%.
The savvy nature of the millennial and Gen Z customer means Missy Empire has to work hard to steal spend from competitors in an increasing oversaturated market, says Emily Salter, associate analyst, retail at GlobalData: “Missy Empire has seen significant growth recently but it only had a 0.1% share of the online pureplays clothing and footwear market in 2018.
“It faces strong competition from more established and well-known players such as Missguided and Boohoo, all of which have similar product propositions and target females aged 16 to 24. It must find a way to differentiate itself.”
Siddique maintains that Missy Empire stands out from its competitors – many of which were also founded in Manchester – by knowing its customer inside and out.
We are constantly looking for new product, new campaigns, new faces
“We look at what the Missy girls need and we plan from that. We don’t look at what others are doing. When you imitate your competitors, you don’t stand out.
“For us it is about what we can offer: our experience in manufacturing, our background in knowing how garments are constructed, our knowledge of the product.”
Over the next five years, Siddique intends to grow the business by adding other third-party brands and branching out into complementary parts of the market, including menswear and nutrition.
“We want to have multiple brands, by way of acquisitions or mergers. Menswear is in our pipeline but not in the immediate future. We want to give the complete package to our Missy girl first. It depends on the opportunities out there, we are constantly evolving. We are constantly looking for new product, new campaigns, new faces. We always need to be fresh in the eyes of the Missy Empire customer.”
Missy Empire is operating in arguably the most competitive and saturated part of today’s tough womenswear market. Its customers are digital natives, price driven and, while being sustainably focused, demand trend-led product with free next-day delivery. Coupled with the bubbling pressures of Brexit and scaling to meet demand, the business may face bumps in the road ahead but Missy Empire’s solid foundations in maufacturing and razor sharp focus on its customer will help it rise to the challenge.