Vanessa Spence has worked with ASOS since 2007, after beginning her career 17 years prior in design at Arcadia and a brief stint at Pepe Jeans. Starting with a team of two, Vanessa was influential in shaping the ASOS brand and now leads a team of 47. As Design Director, her role is to oversee the design of all womenswear product. To do so, Vanessa constantly has an eye on what fashion is doing, and where it’s headed, taking sneaky snaps on the tube all in the name of research. She grew up just outside of London, and her early style took inspiration at Camden Market, where she’d often weave in and around countless fashion stalls thinking, “I’m going to do this one day.” Humble about her rise, yet well aware she’s living her dream, Vanessa generously sat with us for a chat about what her working life is like, and her trusting, occasionally hands-off, leadership style.
What has kept you with ASOS for a decade?
From the minute I kind of stepped in for the interview, it was definitely a case of, “You’re going to be part of something big and something different.” When I came in, I was the third designer staff, none of the product was really designed at that point, and it was very much like, “We’re going to create something new, something different.” There was just a buzz and an energy that made you kind of believe it.
Still, in terms of online, it was still quite new. Things were so tiny in terms of fashion in general, and yeah, I kind of believed it. To be honest, nothing’s really changed from that day in terms of that buzz, and that energy. I would say what’s lovely about ASOS is you can kind of do anything. If you’ve got an idea, it’s a really brave company, so you can just do it. You can go for it. They’re willing to try new things.
What does being the ASOS design director involve?
We give the teams a lot of autonomy, and a lot of control over what they do, because they’re the experts. I think part of being a director at ASOS is understanding that, as part of your role, you cannot and should not have a hold of every single aspect of everything, because actually, you need to trust your teams. You need to be there to direct them, and so I guess I, from an overview point of view, make sure that we’re doing the right trends at the right time. Then also, make sure, along with the buying merch director, that we’re doing things at the right price, and also booking the right quantities, and making sure we’re just getting things as quickly as we can in the right way.
I think the beauty of online is that you can get things on [the website] really quickly. You don’t have to worry about store layouts, and what colour is going to go with what. You can just put it online, and if you see a new trend, that can go straight on.
How much do you produce that’s just sitting there waiting to be bought, versus how much do you have made based on demand?
All right, so we basically just make everything. We’ll create the trends, and then the teams will all work together to create the products. We buy the quantities that we buy based on what we believe will sell. It’s not based on any sort of pre-order process or anything like that. A lot of it’s kind of like gut feeling.
That’s the big thing about ASOS as well. I think also being design director is very much like not looking too much at history, and sales too. We look at history, what sold previously, we’ll take that into account, but we’re also really aware that our customer wants newness, so a big part of doing our job is to make sure that we’re pushing the teams to get the newest things.
Have you noticed if there’s a trend in that your customers are becoming greater risk-takers in terms of the clothes that they buy, since when you first joined the company?
I mean, definitely, my point of view, because obviously 10 years is a long time. I think also fashion is changing as well, in that I think the customers are a lot more savvy. They know what they want, and I think with the likes of social media, Instagram, people see things and they want to replicate that look in some way, and I think people are then braver for that reason. I think also on social media, they see different ways of styling things as well, so it kind of gives them more options, and ways of making things more individual.
How was your personal sense of style cultivated?
I was always a more casual kind of person. I think it kind of cultivates season to season, depending on the trends. I’m always definitely a denim girl in terms of, if you go into my wardrobe, I have got a zillion pairs of jeans. I do always like layered stuff with denim, and I think probably more-so now, but I think maybe it’s a little bit smarter at points, like blazers and stuff.
Even though I might decide to wear a mini body-con, I’ll wear it in my way. I think that’s the thing with fashion. It’s about having fun with it, and playing with it, and that’s what I want our customer to do. That’s what I’ll do as well, so whenever I’m looking at trends, I’m kind of thinking, “Well, how would I want to wear it, but how would somebody else want to wear it?”
Did you always have, even from school-age, a confidence about what to put on?
Yeah, I mean I loved fashion when I was young. If you asked me at six what I was going to do, [it was] fashion design. My mum was like, “Oh god. Please just do some math,” but I love fashion. Even at a young age, I used to go to charity shops, so when everyone else was wearing labels and stuff, I was like … When I say young, I was about nine, ten, like happily mixing it up, and being like, “Oh, that’s really cool,” or like I would also look at celebs and stuff, and try and recreate things.
What has been the most surprising training you’ve undertaken for your current job?
One of my biggest things is definitely the work experience process. So from about the age of, like, 14, I went to designers and was like, “Can I come and work?” I managed to get a placement done at King’s Road when I was 14, so that was my thing. From there, I did loads of stuff over the summers, any sort of gaps and little breaks I had during my schooling or university, I’d be doing some sort of work experience, and I think that is so valuable. You know, you just learn, you see it in the actual workplace, and you see people doing it for real. It’s good because then you can apply what you’re learning at uni to that. Also, the other way around, apply what you’ve learned at placements to your uni work as well.
I think it gives you a level of understanding of business, and not just the commercial side, you know, whether it’s entering price points or anything like that, but it’s even as a designer; understanding that commercial side behind it, and understanding ultimately you can be as creative as you want, but you do need to you need to be [able to] sell.
Where do you travel for inspiration?
We’re not usually attending shows. Normally we’re looking around, going around shops, looking at competitors, going to vintage. We go to archives, and warehouses. We have some good relationships with people. Sometimes it will be that there’s exhibitions there as well, which are great. Obviously Europe, but also London as well. London’s amazing, so I think it’s easy for you to be like, “Yay, let’s go off somewhere else,” but actually we’ve got a lot on our doorstep. Korea’s a good one, and Tokyo is great.
What’s the best professional advice you’ve received, and who gave it to you?
I think they’ve generally been from past bosses. Sometimes fashion can be quite serious sometimes, so I think definitely one of them is don’t forget to have fun along the way, and enjoy what you do, and remember what we’re doing is fun. I think that kind of comes across in the clothes as well, like I think it sounds silly but even in your decision making, I think if you’re getting very kind of anxious and stressed about everything that you do, you’re forgetting what you’re doing.
The one [boss] that I can remember actually was really open and always open for you asking questions, and was always like, “No question is a silly question. Just come to me, and ask me anything.” I think that’s one of the big things I’ve always remembered; to just be like, “Yeah, no suggestion is silly. Give me your suggestions. Ask me, yeah, and that’s it.” Just that encouraging nature. I can never forget that. That particular boss, you could ask her anything, and she would take the time to sit and explain.
What role do you play in mentoring and contributing to the ASOS work culture?
We try to be really approachable; I love it when people just come up to me with new ideas. I’m like, “Oh my god, that’s amazing. Leave that with me. Let me work it out and I’ll come back to you.” Yeah, I love that.
Whenever somebody new starts on the team, within, I don’t know, within a few weeks, or a month or so, and their friends or their partner will be like, “Oh my god, you’ve so been ASOSed.” Meaning they are just to happy to be there. If their partner works in the industry they’re like, “I’ve heard of this.”