Walking down the catwalk at Asos’s head office in Camden, London isn't as easy as it may seem, although the models strutting down the white walkway sure enough made it seem like a breeze. However, when I paid a visit to the online retailer's headquarters last month in order to get a behind the scenes tour of what office life is really like at the online fashion giant for FashionUnited, being put through your paces on the runway is just one of the many facets occurring on a daily basis at Asos.
After being met at the reception by Jasmine Walker, International Press Officer, I was given a sneak peek into Asos’s showroom, which was stocked with its home brand Spring-Summer ’15 collections, including their first foray into bridesmaids attire and new occasion wear range, set to launch mid-march. “We know young women love to dress up for a night on the town, a wedding, a day at the races or a work function, so we have really focused on creating accessible pieces with that ‘special occasion’ touch,” said Asos head of design Leandra O’Sullivan in an interview with the Guardian.
“They sell perfect prom dresses and glitzy cocktail numbers to young women who want to ramp up the glamour,” added fashion consultant Erica Davies. Apart from focusing on expanding their core fashion ranges, Asos has been growing it’s own specialty ranges which include Asos White, Asos Black, Maternity, Curve, Occasion Tall and Petite, a move which highlights how far the British retailer has come in the 15 years of its existence, since the sale of its first product, which was ironically a mortar and pestle.
"[Asos] has definitely have gone from following to being followed"
"Asos sort of started off after the founders saw how the media was responding to the rise of the celebrity and what they wore,” explained Walker. “However since then, it sort of has turned the whole thing on its head. So instead of people wanting to emulate a celebrity look, we have artists like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift wearing Asos made pieces." The demand for their own labels was one of the many factors which lead to Asos having 11 in-house studios, with 8 being dedicated to women’s wear, 3 to men’s wear and the remaining 2 housing the catwalk studios to keep up with the product information demand for their site.
Rachel Caplan, Senior Production Coordinator, who has also joined in on the tour, stops in one corner of the office to share another reason why Asos is becoming one to follow. By the modelling team department lies Asos’s wall of fame, which displays photographs of top models Cara Delevingne and Malaika Firth. Both models began their careers modelling for Asos before moving onto other projects and now the company’s model team has to manage the portfolios of over 150 models from around the world, flying in special models for a days’ work to make sure there is a type to meet every brands needs, as well as the consumers expectation of what an Asos model is.
Together the studios, which employ dozens of photographers, cinematographers, photography editors as well as hair and makeup artists shoot 3500 new products per week, with each studio shooting 22 models per day and the catwalk studios filming and editing up to 600 videos per day. "We definitely have gone from following to being followed, which is interesting,” pointed out Natasja Giezen-Smith, Territory Manager Northern Europe, Russia and the Rest of World. “It has been going on for a while in the background, but become more and more pronounced as we've grown our own collection and designed more and more. Even building up Asos White, Asos Black, the salon collection, the occasion wear, it has helped develop Asos into a company to watch."
Specialty lines helped develop Asos into "a company to watch"
"I think that we are ahead of the game in a lot of departments, not that many brands offer as many specialty lines as we do,” added Walker, who believes that their extensive range of speciality lines helps set Asos apart from other online fashion retailers. "What’s interesting for me is that most people assume that Tall will do very well in countries such as the Netherlands because everyone there is so tall,” said Giezen-Smith. “And it does do well there, but surprisingly enough so does our petite range because Dutch high street brands don't really cater to petite and these ranges can be extremely hard to come by there. Even things like our Maternity range does well.”
“We really see those lines doing well in other markets and growing really fast. If we would double the size of the current ranges I think people would still be asking for more. We have a very clear image in our heads what our customer is like, but there is no size or limitation attached to that image, no color or boundaries - just individuals who are interested in fashion." Walking through the remaining studios, the stills studio and the 360 degree studio which produce extra images for Asos’s Chinese platform to ensure the authenticity of the products they offer in a market plagued with counterfeits, and the rest of the office, the extent of Asos’s determination to achieve it’s goal of becoming the ultimate online destination for fashion-forward 20 somethings is thrown into sharp relief.
“When working online, you have to be excellent in everything that you do, and that’s really hard because we juggle so many times at the same time. You can’t just be good in some, you need to be amazing in all fields. Knowing how to design well, buy well, how to do the logistics with warehouses well, how to do globalization well, can be a lot to handle. But because we were one of the first online pure-players in the fashion industry, what helps us stand out from the current list of online retailers, is that experience. You can't get that off the shelf, by which I mean not only the design experience, but also the buying as well. Half of our sales come from the brands we buy in, so we have to know which brands to buy in, for the right price and select the right products in those ranges.”
Asos hopes to be "excellent" in everything that it does
By streamlining the product information and content, Asos aims to create an easier platform for users to navigate as well, to ensure the site makes it as transparent as possible for a customer to find a certain product. “I think people may have been initially scared of online clothes shopping, since they are unable to try things on in person, or feel the fabric, but a lot of that fear has been eradicated through how much information we offer now on our product pages. I do not think we are a solely a transactional website,” pointed out Giezen-Smith. “Obviously you can buy stuff from us but at the end of the day we are about content and inspiration.”
However, despite Asos' big ambition to become the creme de la crop when it comes to online fashion retailing, the British company is well aware it needs to keep its eye on the ball and not lose sight of what is important. “At the end of the day the biggest challenge I would say that Asos faces to become the best of the best is a more internal aspect, considering priorities,” explained Giezen-Smith. “So for instance, if we only shipped to fifty countries, or only offered our own line, or only did women’s wear, then we'd make things much easier for ourselves because we'd be working within that constraint.”
“So setting the priorities between that and figuring out what our limits are, while pushing ourselves as much as we can to make sure we have as few limits as possible whilst staying as true to the brand as we can, I think that’s a big challenge. Now we have to decide if we invest in this or that first, because both would fit well within our brand and do well, but the question is which one do we do first and which one second? We try and chew off so much, but that’s also what makes it fun.”
“People work here because they love the brand in general
Another part of what makes it fun working at Asos, is the corporate culture and identity the online fashion company invokes. With the average age of a head office employee said to be 26, many of the members of staff are simultaneously the brand's target audience and employees, which helps the fashion etailer closer connect with its main consumers around the globe. “People work here because they love the brand in general. It is not like most other companies where it is just a job, people actively choose to work here. People love fashion and love Asos, but in a non-judgemental way, from the staff in the mailroom to people in the boardroom. I've never worked for a company where people love what they do as much as here.”
Asos uses an open floor plan to encourage open communication channels to bring together the separate teams, such as the buying teams or the design teams, so that when they do encounter an issue internal communication is not an problem, as the company is not hierarchical in structure. “The open office plan really helps create that open atmosphere between colleagues and departments as well,” stated Giezen-Smith. “I am always wandering over to Jasmine in the PR department when I need help with something and vice versa.”
In this sense, Asos encourages its staff to work together and everyone is able to speak their mind or have their say, something I was able to experience firsthand as an outsider when I was bustled on the catwalk for my modeling ‘debut’. Catwalk Videographer Jessica McCall, was firm that the current model step aside for my 30 second walk and managed to edit the film and have to sent to my email within the hour. “I feel like it is really collaborative here, people are generally interested in everyone’s skills and what they can bring to the table,” added Walker after the catwalk.
“We all realise that no one can do this by themselves. I can't look after the Northern Europe market with out working with the marketing team, PR team, the digital marketing team, so we are all in this together and striving towards the same goal,” added Giezen-Smith. Asos also hosts weekly marketing meetings for the entire team, where they can hear what other departments are up to on a daily basis. “That’s really when everything clicks into place, like a well oiled machine,” concluded Walker and after experiencing what things are like behind the screens at Asos, I can’t help but agree with her.
Photos: Asos's head office in Camden, London