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You might have seen some signs of the invasion: huge posters and ads in pink — almost always pink — featuring the come hither, sexy looks of Amber Rose and Pamela Anderson dressed in bodycon dresses and jumpsuits.
These unabashedly sexy ads are from the young British retailer Missguided, which seems to have found the secret sauce to winning the hearts and minds of the UK’s millennial women.
Let’s call the vibe "Sexy HBIC." Missguided’s Instagram feed is full of pink, neon pink, and shiny pink. Lips are bee-stung, luscious with lipstick or glitter and biting into a juicy cherry. Cheeks are aggressively contoured; butts and boobs are a cause for celebration. It’s anti-Kate Middleton and pro-Rihanna. The Missguided girl never works, just moves from Miami to Ibiza to LA to Las Vegas, floating in pools and partying with her girls. Although this retailer was founded by a man, males do not exist in the Missguided fantasy world, and neither does slut shaming. It’s the millennial’s brand of feminism evangelized by the Kardashians: Empowerment means celebrating your sexy to the max, and let no one tell you otherwise.
And Missguided’s four million customers love it. 51 percent of them browse the site five or more times a week — largely from their mobile devices — looking at bodycon dresses, high heels, faux vintage T-shirts, plunging one-piece bathing suits, stretchy pencils skirts, and accessories. Items range from $5.95 for socks to up to $225 for a sequined wedding dress, with most priced around $30 to $100. In March, the 50% off sale was so popular it caused the website to crash.
Does it seem like this brand came out of nowhere? Well, it kind of did.
Missguided, as the story goes, was founded in 2009 by a young Brit named Nitin Passi with a £50,000 loan from his father. Passi was three years out of college, but not completely without experience — he worked for his father’s clothing importing company in the New York and then London offices for three years. But he is quick to point out that his father’s business is completely different than Missguided: "It was going off a customer that was 35-40 plus, and it was 150,000 units minimum of basic lines," he told Fashionista in 2014. This new business was different from the beginning.
Does it seem like this brand came out of nowhere? Well, it kind of did.
When the 2008 recession was clobbering the industry, Passi noticed that the only place of growth was in online retail. He launched a website in March of 2009 with no employees for the first six months. He would buy a few pieces of stock for pictures, throw them up online, and when an order came in, pull a box off the shelf to send it off. He was aiming for millennials, that elusive and fickle group of fashion lovers who are impatient to have the latest trend as soon as they see it on Instagram.
Fast forward eight years later, and Missguided is sold in 150 countries — including the US as of 2013 — with 20 million visitors a month to its site, and 600 new products launching each week. It booked £120 million in revenue in 2015, and £4.7 million in pre-tax profits during the year ending March 2015.
Just 18 months ago, they launched wholesale in ASOS, the UK retailer Selfridges, and in Nordstrom, and are on track to do $50 million in wholesale revenue alone this year. They’ve also launched: activewear; lingerie; nightwear; wedding; plus, petite, and tall sizes; maternity; a beauty line (with contouring kits, duh), and what Passi describes as a "high-end" line called Peace & Love, whose most expensive item is a slinky $119 dress. A brick and mortar store in the UK is slated to open right before holiday shopping season, and he’s hoping to open up to ten new stores by the end of next year.
Passi has hired 180 people in the past year to service this growth and now has 330 people working in its swanky new offices in Manchester. "We’re going to see huge, huge growth this year," he told me in a phone interview. (You’ll get a sense of how busy Passi is when speaking to him — he talks close to the pace of a competitive debater, and squeezes in just as much information.) "We grew about 35 percent last year, and this year we’re likely to grow 70 percent."
Missguided is sold in 150 countries — including the US as of 2013 — with 20 million visitors a month to its site, and 600 new products launching each week.
Even more impressively, Passi says he paid back that initial loan in 2010, and has since grown the business without the help of any investors or debt. (Because Missguided is a privately held company, we’ll have to trust them on the numbers.) "I’m not saying we’ll never take investment in the future," Passi says. "But in the next 12 months I don’t see us taking on any debt. It’s a nice position to be in."
Yep. Passi, whose own Instagram feed has Missguided marketing images interspersed with rich boy shots of expensive cars and his entourage, made the 2015 Sunday Times Rich List of the 1,000 richest people in the UK. Passi is still hungry, though. He wants to hit £1 billion in revenue in the next five years.
So, what is propelling Missguided growth?
You might point to Missguided’s laser-like focus. The Missguided customer is largely between 16 and 35, but the company thinks solely about what a certain type of twentysomething millennial wants. "I think twentysomethings are a very aspirational age," Passi says. "If you’re below 20, you aspire to be around that age. When you get in your 30s, you probably still want to be in your 20s."
Passi, in his early 30s, gets into his customer’s head by hiring her. "Most of the people we employ in our business are twentysomething girls," he told me. 80 percent of his staff is female, with an average age of around 27. (That age has been pushed up by a recent spate of executive-level hires: CFO, CTO, buying director, commercial director, retailer director, digital director, HR director, and trading director. The executive team is split almost 50/50 male to female.)
The office is the Missguided social presence come to life. There is a champagne-themed room, a "Boom Boom" board room with glitter wallpaper, swings for seats in one conference room, another with astroturf and palm trees, nap cabins, neon lights, faux taxidermy unicorn heads on the walls, a picture of 100 bills with Nitin’s face blowing smoke, pithy slogans lifted straight from Tumblr like "Don’t worry be yoncé" and"Started from the bottom now we’re here" going up the steps, and a selfie light tunnel.
"It’s a corridor in our office," Passi explains to me with the air of an older brother cluing the old folks into his sister’s mysterious teen ways. "It’s a mirrored tunnel; it’s supposed to be perfect for taking a selfie. I’ve actually taken one selfie in there and yeah, it looked pretty good."
Over three-quarters of Missguided's customers own a smartphone they reach for when they wake up, so it goes without saying Missguided is heavy on social. It has an app that, by August — four months after it launched — has been reportedly downloaded a half million times. Customers use the "Swipe to Hype" feature, like Tinder for fashion, which saves items to a favorites list so they can be remarketed to customers later. They also have a customer service chat feature and a Whatsapp channel so customers can message cute finds to their friends. The Whatsapp channel is apparently now the number one way to share Missguided's product pages, according to the company.
All this is super cute and cool, but Missguided’s real superpower isn’t in the pretty pink branding — it's in an ADD-like eye for fashion.
"Our whole business is built around speed and newness, and that’s something on which our customer depends," Passi says. Everything is hyper on-trend, drawing from fashion shows, social media, street style, celebrities, and popular youth culture.
"Our whole business is built around speed and newness, and that’s something on which our customer depends."
Missguided promises next-day delivery in the UK, and 85% of its customers in the UK take advantage (though it doesn’t always fulfill on that promise; more on that later). It can get products to the US in 48 hours (or faster, if you’re willing to pay). Products often sell out within ten days of launch, but that’s okay because Missguided restocks at a speed that makes Zara look lumbering. 40 percent of Missguided’s items are produced in the UK and can be restocked in a week. The rest are flown in from China, Romania, Turkey, and South Asian countries like Bangladesh and India, when other fast fashion companies typically use sea freight.
"Flexibility in apparel means reacting to the marketplace and reacting to sizes that sell quickly," says professor Dev Mukherjee, the former CEO of Evite and a retail analytics expert. "You can’t predict ahead of time which specific design is going to be popular in size 0 versus size 14. They’re able to respond quickly to the market, which I’m sure is a big advantage. The fact that they are getting in trouble for making money out of the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie breakup is interesting, because they are able to react that quickly.
"It doesn’t surprise me, no," he continues when I ask about Missguided’s self-funded double-digit growth. "Because the profit margins in fast fashion are pretty high. The big expenses come from wastage, like if he has a lot of the wrong sizes that he needs to clear out, or he invests a lot in producing a particular line that doesn’t sell well, that can add a lot to expense. But he’s keeping his supply chain so short, and giving himself so much flexibility, I doubt he’s got the same problems as a traditional Zara or H&M or Macy’s would have in terms of unsuccessful product." (Wait, did he just call Zara traditional?)
"We’re doing what our customer wants," he says. "If our customer is demanding newness, we would be stupid not to do it."
Passi isn’t bothered at all about the movement against fast fashion, which has been accused of being the root cause of unsafe and unhealthy working conditions and toxic pollution. "We’re doing what our customer wants," he says. "If our customer is demanding newness, we would be stupid not to do it. If we don’t drop newness daily, we’ll see our conversions and our sales suffer. That’s the reality. It’s the changing way millennials are shopping. Retailers who bring in goods twice a year are not going to survive in the future, and they’re actually not surviving now.
"We have a whole ethical and CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] team of five people visiting factories all over the world," he continues. "We try to be sustainable and ethical about how we go about our sourcing." He reels off the basics: "Ensuring the factory environment is what it needs to be. Ensuring workers are paid fairly. Ensuring the fabrics we’re sourcing are manufactured as well as possible. We don’t do organic and green lines at the moment, but it’s something we’re looking into. But our key focus is ensuring that the people manufacturing our stuff are in good conditions and they are treated in the right way."
Missguided is a familiar name in the UK, but you’ll be seeing a lot more of it in the states — especially if you’re a New York or California girl. While the US only currently makes up 10 percent of the site’s revenue, it’s Missguided’s second-biggest and fastest-growing market. It’s carried in 80 Nordstrom stores, and the brand is starting to scout East Coast locations for a brick and mortar store, possibly to open by the end of 2017 or early 2018. And they’re thinking about doing more production in the states — they do a tiny bit in Los Angeles right now.
"In terms of our actual customer and what we sell, there’s very little difference," between the US and the UK, Passi says. "Our bestsellers in the UK are our bestsellers in the US, and globally. Those customers are influenced by the same touch points: the same celebrities, the same movies, the same music, and the same catwalk." The only difference is in the influencers they choose to work with, like Carli Bybel, a New Jersey-based blogger with 3.8 million Instagram followers who posts bodacious selfies and makeup tutorials. Pamela Anderson and Amber Rose were global faces for the brand.
Now Missguided is just facing one huge challenge: its delivery and customer service. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are all awash in angry customers who got their order late or never at all, who weren’t able to track orders, who got the completely wrong order and were told that they would have to pay to send it back, who can’t order because of website glitches, or whose refunds have taken up to six weeks to process.
"DO NOT BUY FROM THIS COMPANY," one Facebook comment starts. "I ordered from them and selected their standard shipment method 2-3 business days. Their ‘tracking’ information FINALLY updated ONCE it was delivered, 20 DAYS LATER. The best part? It said it was delivered yet, I never received it. Let's see how their customer service handles my refund request."
The best thing about @Missguided next day delivery is that it never actually comes the next day— Danielle Carter (@daniellecarter_) October 5, 2016
Saw a sweater, loved the sweater, bought the sweater, paid next day delivery for the sweater...received a bikini instead @Missguided— Emily Brown (@EmilyGrace_321) October 10, 2016
Passi blames the legions of angry customers on a 50% off flash sale they did to stress test the site before Cyber Weekend, which created a backlog of orders. He also blames it on the vocal and connected millennial. "If we do something bad, they’ll tell us. If they love us, they’ll tell us as well."
That could be true, except the vitriol on Missguided’s social posts outdoes ASOS, Urban Outfitters, Nasty Gal, and even their closest competitor, Boohoo. And the frustrated comments go back long before the 50% off sale on August 27th.
The NYC blogger Danielle Gray of The Style and Beauty Doctor starts a March 2015 post called "when you love a brand but hate their customer service…" with:
"SIGH. You know as someone who browses internet sites often and kinda almost has an order coming my way a little more often than I'd like to admit, I get really annoyed when things are consistently inconsistent. It PAINS me especially when it's a brand I like but their customer service SUCKS. Funny thing is I had the title and first sentence of this post in my draft since January 27th but didn't finish the post because I thought maybe I was being too harsh or perhaps the company would right its wrongs. But nope. Here we are in March with the same inconsistencies."
She goes on to describe a broken site, late shipping, and pricing that jumped $36 from the list price when she put it in her cart. "I feel like if I took a trip to their corporate office, I’d bust open the door and there’d be puppies at the cubicles and what not running the show." (Or perhaps twentysomethings in swings drinking champagne and taking selfies?)
It might not matter. "Social media is incredibly important, but the thing that drives fast fashion, whether it’s Zara or these guys, is whether they’re on trend," Mukherjee says.
I decided to order something, and picked out some fuzzy slipper socks with cat faces on the toes. I paid $8.99 for express delivery. Two days later, while I was on the phone with Passi, my buzzer rang. I ignored it. Later that day, it rang again, and I received my socks from a DHL delivery guy. "It’s a good thing you answered this time," he said as he handed me the pink package. "It would have gone back."
My socks had flown across the world to me in two days. This fact was astonishing to me. I considered them for a beat longer, then tossed them in a drawer.
Missguided has one distribution center that serves the whole world, though they are considering opening another in the US. My socks had flown across the world to me in two days. This fact was astonishing to me. I considered them for a beat longer, then tossed them in a drawer.
After all the ranting, the blogger Danielle Gray ended her post with "I’m pretty much the definition of a fool because I keep going back because the stuff is so cute and fits me well. Then when I say I’m quitting them, I see a fashion blogger in my feed wearing something and then I’m back browsing."
In that way, Missguided is like a fashion slot machine: shiny, blinged out, addictive, (unreliably) dispensing entertainment, and rewards for bad girls looking to have a little fun.