Fashion website continues to defy market gravity

There may be pain on the high street, but Asos has had a bumper year. Susannah Frankel reports

While the luxury goods sector continues to grapple with the economic downturn, at least one fashion retailer is laughing all the way to the bank. Yesterday, the online boutique asos.com posted a 59 per cent rise in first-half profit which, even in boom time, would be impressive, but given the current climate is nothing short of miraculous. By contrast, and only last week, Next – Britain's second most successful retailer, warned that its customers will face a double-digit price rise, owing to the inflated costs of materials.

The secret of Asos's success lies at least in part in the sheer size of its operation and also, to give the powers that be there the respect they are due, in the company's ability to move quickly with the times. The Green Room, an area of the site dedicated "to brands with a social and environmental ethos" and including People Tree and Bassike, is a case in point.

When Asos was launched, in June 2000, its initial USP was to come up with copies of celebrity looks everywhere from the red carpet to the streets of LA. The name originally stood for As Seen On Screen, although it has since worked hard to shake that off. It was aimed squarely at A-lister-obsessed teenagers who could snap up the gold Burberry dress Sienna Miller wore to the Met Ball in New York, say, or the purple Miu Miu design that Lindsay Lohan chose for the MTV movie awards, for not much more than £20.

Even in a market obsessed with budget fashion, with high-street retailers able to supply low-priced remakes of designer garments only weeks after appearing on the catwalk, the speed with which Asos churned things out was phenomenal.

To begin with, designer names were characteristically suspicious of any association with the site. But the e-store busily rebranded itself in 2002, raising its game in the process, and in the end the volume of sales involved has proved hard to resist.

Asos now attracts nine million unique visitors a month, sells 40,000 branded and own-label products and claims to have 3.7 million registered users. In the six months to 30 September, overseas sales rocketed by 120 per cent to £49m, compensating for slightly less stratospheric growth in the UK.

Browse Asos's designer section today and everything from Acne (the cult Swedish label currently whipping up a storm) to Sonia Rykiel and from La Perla to Vivienne Westwood is on offer. It is still, mostly, designer diffusion and accessory lines that are available, but that may change.

It doesn't stop there: there is, in the time-honoured cliché, something for everyone. A young woman in her mid-twenties will be only too happy to find clothing courtesy of some of Britain's most celebrated young talent – niche names including Peter Jensen, Hussein Chalayan and Richard Nicoll are all stocked at Asos. In a bid to take on Topshop's own-line collection, Unique, Asos Black, similarly designed by an in-house team, is as trend-led as any fashion-savvy young shopper could wish for.

This season alone, the mix of leather and lace that swept the international catwalks is all present and correct. Aimed squarely at the party season, meanwhile, are any number of just the type of structured-with-a-twist cocktail dresses that Cheryl Cole likes to wear. Neither is Asos just for girls. The fashion-conscious male in search of a quirky knit, designer jeans or a watch will find an exhaustive number to choose from.

As the shift towards shopping online gathers momentum – witness the success of Asos's upscale counterpart, net-a-porter.com, which generated sales of £120m last year – Asos's dynamic chief executive, Nick Robertson, predicts that 2011 will be equally profitable. After all, the UK counts for only 2 to 3 per cent of global internet traffic. "Unlike last year when we were stocking down, we're stocking up," Robertson says.

Asos launched in the US in September and has sites in France and Germany and is currently eyeing the lucrative Chinese market.

Crombie coat, £120

Asos White, launched this year, is aimed at those who prefer a more classic look; this Crombie coat has proved a favourite.

Wedge boot, £60

A prevalent style of footwear this season, and Asos's version has had its customers in a frenzy.

Aviator jacket, £350

This jacket from the brand's vintage-inspired Revive line had a waiting list of 400. The first drop was snapped up in just 20 minutes.

Satchel, £65A popular style with Asos shoppers this season, particularly this leather version.

Organza tape dress, £85

The Asos Black line is designed in-house and offers premium pieces, such as this one-shouldered organza mini-dress which is a current hit.

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