ASOS has something of a reputation. Actually, it has several – and it continues to pick up new ones at pace, having been particularly busy over the course of the pandemic in terms of rumours of how the retailer treats its vital warehouse workforce.
At this moment, though – with news breaking of the brand’s fresh acquisition of TOPMAN, TOPSHOP, Miss Selfridge, and HIIT after the collapse of Arcadia – we’re reminded of ASOS’ reputation as a retail superpower. With over £3.2 billion in revenue from 2020 (which, to put it into a more visual perspective, that looks like £3,200,000,000), the British e-tailer has become a dominant force in the online fashion landscape – stocking everything from cult favourites such as A BATHING APE to former 00s high street shopping centre stalwarts like Burton.
The breadth of ASOS’ offering is, of course, what brings people to its website and its app: where the brand’s origin story as an acronym for “As Seen On Screen” – a virtual shopping destination offering low-cost imitations of stand-out items of clothing from film and TV – was rooted in providing customers with a version of something which they knew they already wanted, ASOS in 2020 is a very different proposition. A place for aimless consumers to browse a near-infinite selection and probably find something to buy in the process. More a listless pass time, something done for its own sake, like Twitter or Instagram, than a destination at all.
But, where this approach has clearly worked for ASOS as a whole, it has historically been less beneficial to those brands which the retailer has acquired.
It’s with that in mind, when the official ASOS Twitter account announced on February 1st that, “Topshop & Topman are now part of the ASOS family,” not everyone hoping those brands might somehow be saved would breathe a sigh of relief. It’s also why, when the optimistic follow-up tweet let us know that ASOS “can’t wait to bring these iconic British brands into a new era,” you could practically hear the eyes rolling.
It may seem cynical. Maybe they do deserve a chance. But the fact remains: ASOS has form with buying up and, either intentionally or through a total lack of understanding, asphyxiating well-loved brands with their own in-built identities and histories. After all, you only have to cast a skeptical eye back to 2015 and the collapse of the Crooked Tongues brand to understand that just because ASOS can buy-up a brand, that doesn’t mean it should.
Having originally bought 50% of Crooked Tongues in 2009 for £150,000, ASOS then purchased another 45% – for an undisclosed figure – in 2013, leaving only an errant 5% of the entire company out of the e-tailer’s hands. Based on this, you’d think ASOS had big plans for Crooked Tongues – that they’d use their platform to give a boost in visibility, as well as access to much-needed additional funding, to a brand that already knew itself.
This kind of faith, however, turned out to be wildly misplaced.
A label very much, as they say, “for the heads,” Crooked Tongues had spent nine years before ASOS’ first investment working diligently to earn a reputation as a brand oriented around detail and specificity, as well as being deeply and sincerely rooted in the culture.
Taking the initial step of re-homing the CT label at ASOS’ London headquarters, the senior partner in the relationship soon began to set off alarm bells for those long-serving Crooked Tongues employees who had stuck around as part of the transition. Not least of all the sadly departed sneakerhead Gary Warnett, who worked with Crooked Tongues as the head of their content team.
In a blog post from 2015, a month after Crooked Tongues was officially shuttered by ASOS (existing now in name only, as one line on the exhaustive list of ASOS’ brand A-Z), Warnett recalled early signs of trouble between the two brands and the clear, irreconcilable difference in their cultures: “A meeting with some guy who held up a King Apparel t-shirt with a J Dilla logo of some sort and and told us that, “This is by a really cool brand called J Dilla…” made me hyper-aware that CT and ASOS probably weren’t the ideal match,” Warnett explains, noting his deflation and a creeping sense of uncertainty about the relationship.
These misgivings, sadly, proved founded: “After ASOS took a majority stake of the site in April 2013, that September the site was relaunched and Crooked Tongues looked worse than ever,” Warnett continues to clarify, “ceasing to innovate entirely. The site went downhill fast. Bug-riddled, run by folks who weren’t interested in trainers, it should have been put out of its misery then and there.”
But Crooked Tongues wasn’t euthanised on the spot, and the brand as fans had come to know it died a slow and painful death. What remains is a pale imitation – no life of its own, no identity to speak of.
Now, TOPMAN is no Crooked Tongues. But it is, strangely, so thoroughly entwined with the psyche of British fashion and High Street culture that it is in its own way as much a brand to be cared for and nurtured as CT should have been – despite its relative massiveness and household name status, even in the face of ASOS as its new owner.
At a price of £330 million GBP, you’d think it would be safe to assume that ASOS has plans to take good care of TOPMAN, TOPSHOP and the other Arcadia brands it has now acquired – if not for the sake of those labels, then for the sake of its own reputation and financial investment.
That being said, history doesn’t necessarily bode well.