British modest fashion label Aab was picked by John Lewis earlier this year as one of 11 womenswear brands the iconic retailer is now carrying as it moves with the “shift in dress codes”. Aab was the only modest fashion label in the group that largely comprises sustainable and ethical independent brands.
The partnership is an opportunity Aab is really excited about, co-founder and commercial director Altaf Alim told Salaam Gateway.
John Lewis operates 42 shops plus one outlet across the UK as well as johnlewis.com. The John Lewis Partnership, which also owns the Waitrose retail brand, is the largest employee-owned business in the UK and, with over 78,000 employees, one of the biggest in the world. As a social enterprise, profits are reinvested into the business.
“In terms of values and brand adjacencies John Lewis is a great fit for Aab,” said Alim.
He has been pleasantly surprised about the amount of business done through John Lewis that has not cannibalised sales through Aab’s own online platform.
Aab is no stranger to working with department stores and went into the John Lewis deal with seasoned eyes. The opportunity arrived at a time when the label’s collaboration with Debenhams, that started in 2017, came to “a natural conclusion”, with Aab’s brother-sister team of Nazmin and Altaf Alim feeling they didn’t have complete control over their brand.
The Debenhams experience is but one of Aab’s many learning journeys. The brand has been around for 14 years—it will turn 15 in June next year—and has adapted to changing distribution channels, product ranges, and technological innovations. It also once ran two retail stores, one in London and the other in Bradford, although both have closed down.
“Despite the age of our company, we still feel and behave like a start-up,” said Altaf Alim. “We're learning new things every day.”
He reckons the barriers to enter the modest fashion market are a lot higher these days as the standards of marketing, presentation, and customer experience have all heightened.
“The market hasn’t only grown, it has evolved,” he said.
Living up to its name—aab means water in Persian—the brand, too, has flowed with the changing landscapes. “Had we kept the same [business] mindset as when we started the venture, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” said Alim.
While 80% of the products in the UK fashion market are bought offline, retail, including fashion, is rapidly morphing into a digital industry.
In fashion, johnlewis.com generated e-commerce net sales of $1.845 billion in 2020, making it the UK’s leading online store in this segment. In second place is Sainsburys.co.uk with net sales of $1.821 billion, followed by next.co.uk with $1.741 billion.
Going digital demands a constant link between market learning and tech development as consumers expect attractive platforms, convenient payment options, and quick and cheap deliveries, according to a study about the development of international e-commerce in retail SMEs.
Taking control, Aab recently switched from Magento, which Alim described as a constant firefighting experience, to Shopify’s enterprise platform.
“We lost about 12 to 18 months on our roadmap of introducing innovations just because we had a really poor platform that we as a customer struggled with,” said Alim.
Aab learned the hard way.
“Your technology must never fail,” said the co-founder. “Using the right platform allows you to focus on creating value.”
40% of Aab’s revenue comes from overseas transactions and it was critical that the company get its e-commerce right.
Since the platform transition, the company has introduced new service features like a customer loyalty programme and additional payment options.
Modest fashion’s competitive landscape has changed significantly, according to Alim, with an increasing number of players in the market serving a variety of product spectrums, price points, and client profiles.
“I don't think the market has reached maturity, but it demanded a behaviour change,” he said about the evolving market conditions that require businesses to be agile.
In retrospect, Aab’s commercial director said the business could have taken more risks and scaled quicker earlier.
He admits mistakes were made along the way but the company draws positive lessons from them.
“We've experimented. We’ve been in retail. We’ve been in department stores. We actually really understand what customers want.”
Putting this intimate knowledge into practice, Aab recently expanded its product range to include modest swimwear and activewear. In autumn, it will launch a collection of hijabs in eco-friendly fabrics.
With consumer choices growing exponentially, Alim thinks the gap between mainstream and modest fashion will continue to narrow. “It’s going to be harder unless you achieve a level of scale and you have the operational back office to serve your customer.”
Lessons learned, the entrepreneur feels confident about the future — especially as on the back of the John Lewis collaboration, the Aab brand is exploring a new partnership with a different third-party. Alim, however, declines to disclose any details.
“It’s still early stages,” he said. “But we definitely think that there's more headroom to grow here in the UK.”
"We're conscious that we're on a journey."
*Correction: In Para 5, mention of a brick-and-mortar store was removed and a line was inserted in Para 7 to show that both of Aab's retail stores in the UK are now shuttered.
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