Behind the scenes at the huge online fashion portal
Time Out staff
Once a cut-price celebrity fashion site, Asos is now one of the most visited websites in the world. Kerry Potter spends a day at the brand’s London HQ. Photography David Sanderson.
Greater London House, formerly the Carreras cigarette factory, is a strikingly exotic presence in the grey hinterland of London’s Mornington Crescent. A fabulous bit of art deco, its entrance is framed by ornate pillars and two huge statues of black cats stand guard outside. This is the headquarters of Asos, the global online fashion retailer.
The reception is shiny and white, and the chic wooden-floored café is a world away from your average corporate canteen.
Every few moments, glossy posses of smiling women (and a few men) clatter past in heels, clad in denim and clutching notebooks. They are young (average age 25) and fashion forward (every staff member gets a 40 percent discount so most are dressed head-to-toe in Asos). Everywhere you look there’s a meeting taking place: in the canteen, by clothing rails, even cross-legged on the floor in the vast open-plan offices. (A friend who once worked here showed me her meeting calendar, lamenting she didn’t really have time to use the toilet.)
No one is distractedly munching on biscuits. Instead, there’s a hum of enthusiastic chatter, a crackle of energy, the feeling that things are getting done. Asos is enjoying a period of incredible success. Launched by Nick Robertson in 2000, it was initially called As Seen on Screen and sold copies of iconic pieces worn by celebrities. Things are different now. You can buy Dhs67 Primark jeans on Asos, but you can also buy Dhs1,500 JBrand ones. With a daunting 65,000 products on the site, your object of desire is likely to be out there somewhere, although it might take some intense filtering to get to it. All of which means Asos makes a sale every three seconds and saw its sales increase by 38 per cent last year. It has a fanbase that includes Michelle Obama and her daughters. Mum wore a checked Asos dress the day her husband was re-elected in 2012, in what became the most retweeted photo of all time. And it’s rare to find a fashion magazine or streetstyle shoot that doesn’t include an Asos piece.
Why has the world gone mad for Asos? Sheer volume of products and a range of price points are clearly factors. But there’s also the shopping experience itself: you can view pieces from every angle, you can see how they move in the catwalk videos and there are online stylists to advise you. It’s the kind of presentation that makes even an Dhs50 T-shirt look covetable. Its free returns policy is key, something Asos worked out early on: you can buy ten bikinis with an eye to keeping two, and try them on in the privacy of your bedroom, the best changing room you can get. The 1,400-strong London team has trebled in the past three years, to cope with the truly vast scale of the operation.
The studio teams shoots 60 products a day between 9am and 5pm, with four minutes allocated per piece. Compare that to glossy magazine fashion shoots which can take days to get one shot. It’s an efficient process with little margin for error. But the fact Robertson paid £2.8 million (Dhs17m) in bonuses to his staff last year, covered by him personally, probably helped sweeten the workload. Everyone gushes about the company culture: the 3pm Friday finishes in summer and the ‘lightbulb lunches’ with management at which you can volunteer ideas.
What’s next for Asos? A foray into homeware is mentioned. And of course there’s a global trend or two to launch. ‘We don’t really change trends to suit each country,’ says womenswear buying director Rachel Morgans. ‘They buy into the way we do them here.’ So less, ‘as seen on screen,’ and more, ‘as worn in London, followed by the world.’ www.asos.com
Meet the makers
Asos staff spill the beans on working for the website
Jacqui Markham Womenswear design director
What do you do all day? ‘We anticipate the trends and decide what a girl is going to want to buy in six months’ time.’
Best thing about your job? ‘The variety: we trawl all over the world for ideas. We look at vintage fairs, blogs, catwalks and things outside of fashion, too, such as festivals.’
Style tip? ‘Wear classic pieces you know suit you as your foundation, then add little elements of new season trends to that base.’
Rachel Morgans Womenswear buying director
What do you do all day? ‘I work alongside the design team, making the trends they create a reality. We choose the ones we think the customer will like.’
Best thing about your job? ‘The energy: because the office is all open-plan, there’s a real buzz.’
Style tip? ‘I don’t plan outfits the night before, I get up and put something on that reflects my mood. It means I don’t feel uncomfortable later in the day.’
John Mooney Head of menswear design
What do you do all day? ‘I manage the menswear design team, oversee quality and make sure designs are pitched well for our customers.’
Best thing about your job? ‘Being creative on a daily basis and getting paid for it. And the office environment is great: we have the music on, there’s lots of laughing.’
Style tip? ‘Be comfortable. Wear jersey shorts: they are so comfy and you can dress them up or down.’
Asos by numbers
38 Percentage by which sales grew last year
65,000 Products available on the site
1,400 Employees in London
3:00pm The time at which employees finish work on Fridays in summer