Qasim Akhlaq, managing director of footwear etailer Public Desire, talks to Drapers about its rapid growth, influencers, Instagram and his competitive streak.
Retail is in Qasim Akhlaq’s blood. The managing director of footwear etailer Public Desire grew up watching his father sell women’s jeans from a shop in Liverpool. He opened his own shoe shop in the city aged just 17 in 2000, which he ran for eight years before turning his hand to ecommerce.
Fast forward 16 years and Public Desire, which launched in September 2014, is soaring. While Akhlaq is tight-lipped about its bottom line, sales reached £9m in the year to 1 January – smashing expectations of £3m – and are on track to more than double to £20m by the end of this year.
“When your father’s a businessman, you’re always interested to see what’s going on,” Akhlaq tells Drapers. “I was brought up with it. I used to love going down to his shop on a Saturday and I wanted to try retail for myself.”
His first venture into retail was quickly followed by another three ladies shoe stores but in 2008, he and his three brothers – one older, two younger – sold the stores to launch My 1st Wish, a shop on Ebay and Amazon. They moved into offices in Manchester and if they could sell it, they did, offering customers everything from shoes to kitchen accessories. But a few years in, although the site was making money, Akhlaq and his brothers were increasingly concerned about its growth potential.
“We were making good money and we had a really good business, but what we were finding is that there was no brand value in it,” he explains. “If you buy a pair of shoes from an eBay store, you don’t say ’I’ve just bought something from My 1st Wish,’ you say ’I got it from eBbay’.
“We sat down in 2014 and thought, we have the whole structure here, why are we not doing a standalone website and controlling our own brand value?”
The next question was what this website would sell. Fellow Mancunian etailers such as Missguided, Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing (PLT) were dominating the fast fashion clothing market.
But Akhlaq, with his background in footwear, thought there was a gap in the market for a specialist fashion footwear brand: “We had such a great presence in shoes, we knew what was on trend, we knew what was coming through, so we thought, let’s go for the £30-£40 mark.”
And so Public Desire was born. It has since built its name by producing shoes for consumers looking to copy the styles they see on social media stars such as Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner, at a fraction of the price.
All four Akhlaq brothers are involved in the business – Qasim heads product, and Ateeq, Bilal and Tayabb look after ecommerce, marketing and finance respectively. Any tensions that arise from working together are dealt with on the tennis court or football pitch.
A willingness to take risks has been key in building the business, Akhlaq says: “I say to my designers and my buyers, if you think it’s going to sell, just make it, design it. If we do a fluffy pair of heels and we get a good reaction to it, go all out. We’ll get 60 or 70 pieces in and try them out. If it works, brilliant, we’ll do a repeat order. If not, it’s not been a massive cost.”
Speed is everything in a fast fashion environment where consumers are spoilt for choice. Getting products online as quickly as possible has become Public Desire’s point of difference in a crowded footwear market. On average, it takes four to five weeks for an initial idea to become a finished product available online, although that can be cut to three for a high-priority style.
“It is a major cornerstone of the business,” says Akhlaq. “When Perspex heels became a trend, for example, we were the first people to do that because we brought it in by air. It costs a lot more to do that, around £3 per pair more than it would if we were bringing them by sea, which is what people tend to do. But for us, it’s not about the money, it’s about bringing things in first.”
Until now, the business has relied on a close relationship with its UK suppliers to allow it to be as nimble as possible. However, rising costs have prompted Public Desire to go direct.
“For us now, it’s a margins thing. We want to make sure we can stick to our price marks – the whole ethos of Public Desire is bringing in trend-led footwear at low prices and, at the same time, we’re growing, there’s more overheads.”
A natural competitive streak has helped Akhlaq build Public Desire. This extended to the etailer’s first celebrity collaboration with American model Hailey Baldwin, which launched in October and retails from £34.99 for strappy heels to £49.99 for lace-up knee-high boots. Despite being offered collaborations with a cohort of reality TV stars since Public Desire launched in 2014, Akhlaq was determined to hold out for a bigger name.
Public Desire x Hailey Baldwin
“We didn’t want someone off Geordie Shore or The Only Way is Essex. In my opinion, it’s such a [unimaginative] thing to do. We wanted to secure someone that made people say ’Wow!’”
Dan Bisson, footwear and accessories editor for trend forecaster WGSN, says Baldwin was a savvy choice: “Celebrity collections don’t seem to be dying out – in fact, they’re accelerating. They’re becoming a key way retailers push their brands forward. Hailey Baldwin was a good direction for Public Desire to go in.”
However, the collaboration was not without its challenges. Set on having the collection ready for autumn 16, the Public Desire team had just six weeks to produce and promote it.
Fortunately, Akhlaq relished a challenge: “I work better under pressure and I like applying it to the team. Doing everything in six weeks wasn’t ideal, but it showed us what we’re made of.”
Competitiveness is also a necessary quality in Manchester’s fast fashion scene. Although proud that the city is a fashion hub, Akhlaq says the close proximity of so many rivals means the atmosphere can be a little like a “soap opera.”
“Manchester is very close-knit. I’ve got ex-Missguided staff here, I’ve got ex-PLT staff here, and no one can hide anything for long.”
We knew Instagram was the way we needed to target customers and we put our trust in bloggers
Social media, and Instagram in particular, has been a key part of Public Desire from its early days. Akhlaq started building its Instagram following before the website even launched and it now has 968,000 followers.
“We knew Instagram was the way we needed to target customers and we put our trust in bloggers. We were one of the first to identify that bloggers, plus products, equals great Instagram,” he says of the photo-sharing app.
Public Desire continues to work closely with influencers, including fashion blogger Sarah Ashcroft (608,000 Instagram followers), and YouTuber Jayde Pierce (768,000) and identical twins Klaudia and Laura Badura (97,400).
Screen shot 2016 12 08 at 16.13.07
“The brand puts a lot of thought into everything they do,” Pierce tells Drapers. “I know that when I’m promoting them to my followers, they’re getting good quality shoes at an amazing price.”
Wholesale is a growing, if unexpected, side of the business. Akhlaq says wholesale is still too new to register as a percentage of overall trade and he is determined Public Desire will not run before it can walk. However, the brand launched on US etailer Nasty Gal last month and is currently in talks with Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, as well as Office and Lipsy in the UK. It has been stocked on Asos since the end of last year.
“Wholesale really wasn’t part of the plan at the start. In September 2015, Asos contacted me but it was our first real Christmas, the team was small and we just didn’t have the capacity to fulfil an Asos-sized order. However, they were persistent, we gave them a few styles and it sold out. That’s when I realised I had to consider it properly, and it’s been brilliant for brand awareness.”
Public Desire’s ambitions are increasingly international. Half of all sales now come from outside the UK, driven by the US. A US website launched in February and Akhlaq is planning to open Public Desire’s first ever bricks-and-mortar store in Los Angeles within the next three years. A store in the UK could follow.
Because of our presence on social media, our mix of customers is very varied
“It’s a lot easier to become an international compared with five years ago, when your major budget spend would be on billboards or TV ads and you limit yourself to one country. Because of our presence on social media, our mix of customers is very varied.”
Having established the etailer’s place in the footwear market, Akhlaq is battling with whether it should add clothing to its mix. There have been numerous debates on the subject around Public Desire’s board table, although a firm decision has yet to be reached either way.
“I could add clothing to my range next week and double my turnover figures,” he says. “We’ve got the customers, but from a brand perspective, if we dilute our footwear specialist reputation by becoming like Missguided or Boohoo, what differentiates us from them? My background is in footwear. I’ve done footwear for 15 years. It’s a funny one. For now, it’s about pushing the footwear presence but keeping the apparel door open.”
Whether or not Public Desire choses to go toe-to-toe with its competitors by adding clothing, Akhlaq has achieved impressive growth in just two years. Public Desire seems poised to step even further into the limelight in 2017.