THE £1 BIL­LION FACE OF FAST FASH­ION

The Mail on Sunday - You - - Generation Special - MAIN PHO­TO­GRAPH CLAIRE WOOD

Bri­tain’s teenagers can’t make a sar­to­rial move with­out CAROL KANE, whose on­line cloth­ing em­pire Boohoo de­liv­ers cheap chic to cash-strapped Gen Zeds. But what about all that land­fill, asks Char­lotte Pear­son Methven

IT’S in your face, it’s cheap as chips and it’s show­ing off the lat­est style of cy­cling shorts (2018’s must-have trend, ap­par­ently). You’ll either know Boohoo from its fierce bill­board ad­verts (#DoYourThing) or be­cause you’re wear­ing it club­bing. There’s a mul­ti­tude of rea­sons why this up­start on­line cloth­ing re­tailer (etailer, for the ini­ti­ated) has be­come one of the UK’s most talked-about brands and it’s not just be­cause it’s got ev­ery­one un­der 25 wear­ing cy­cling shorts.

Beloved for celebrity-led de­signs (Kourt­ney Kar­dashian had a col­lec­tion), speedy de­liv­er­ies and low prices (the av­er­age item costs £13), Boohoo is per­fect for ‘a gen­er­a­tion that wants things fast, but doesn’t have much cash’. And this year, it has at­tracted at­ten­tion both good (smash­ing sales tar­gets) and bad (how sus­tain­able can cheap fash­ion be?).

Not ev­ery­one is com­fort­able with the idea of Boohoo, par­tic­u­larly in this ‘woke’ era (that’s so­cially en­light­ened times, for the non-Mil­len­nial) where so­cial jus­tice is­sues are para­mount. The com­pany re­cently hit the head­lines when some fash­ion ex­perts re­vealed that even char­ity shops are turn­ing away its £5 dresses (im­ply­ing that they are then des­tined for land­fill). Else­where, it has to bat­tle claims that its on­line model is con­tribut­ing to the demise of the Bri­tish high street, as more shop­pers surf the web rather than pound the pave­ments. (While ten years ago, just 5p of ev­ery re­tail pound was spent on­line, ex­perts say that fig­ure is now near­ing 50p; and more than one in ten shops now lies empty.)

For Boohoo co-founder and co-CEO Carol Kane, 52, the crit­i­cism must hurt. ‘It does,’ she says. ‘How could it not?’ She is not de­fen­sive but refutes the idea that they are pro­duc­ing ‘throw­away fash­ion’. As well as em­ploy­ing a busi­ness model that mit­i­gates waste, the com­pany also ‘doesn’t suf­fer from sea­son­al­ity, be­cause we sell in 200 coun­tries, and it’s al­ways sum­mer some­where’. So they are left with only ‘a tiny amount’, much of which, she says, goes to char­ity – whether it is wanted or not – or gets sold on. She also points out that one of the great ben­e­fits of so­cial me­dia is that ‘as a brand we can in­ter­act with our cus­tomers and ed­u­cate them. The best thing we do in terms of mak­ing our model more sus­tain­able is post­ing “how-to-wear” videos show­ing ways to re-wear items, and mak­ing the point that just be­cause clothes are in­ex­pen­sive does not mean they are dis­pos­able.’

When Boohoo was born in 2006, on­line re­tail felt risky, but Carol and her long-term busi­ness part­ner Mah­mud Ka­mani sensed which way the wind was blow­ing. ‘Ev­ery­one told us we were crazy, but we knew shop­ping habits were set to change.’ The com­pany has just posted an­other record year of prof­its, buck­ing the re­cent trend of re­tail gloom. Sales are ex­pected to reach £1 bil­lion by 2020, and Carol, whose per­sonal net worth is es­ti­mated at £120 mil­lion, made it on to this year’s Sun­day Times Rich List. ‘Money has never been my driver,’ she says. ‘Ob­vi­ously, it buys things and re­wards hard work, but my am­bi­tion was al­ways to build a value fash­ion brand of­fer­ing some­thing for ev­ery girl in “that decade” of her life. We’re not just re­act­ing to what we see in celebrity mag­a­zines,’ she adds. ‘We cre­ate the trends, too.’ They do this by min­ing in­for­ma­tion from so­cial me­dia, chiefly In­sta­gram; trawl­ing the streets to see what girls are wear­ing and em­ploy­ing a team of trend pre­dic­tors.

The abil­ity to turn on a dime is one ad­van­tage on­line has over bricks and mor­tar. ‘We have no rails to fill. Our model al­lows us to make only what we are go­ing to sell, which, as well as be­ing a prof­itable way to op­er­ate, cuts waste,’ she re­it­er­ates. Carol is keenly aware of the scru­tiny that her busi­ness re­ceives, as a pur­veyor of fast fash­ion, even from the young peo­ple in her own of­fice (of the 700-odd em­ploy­ees in head of­fice, the av­er­age age is 26). ‘I am sur­rounded by so many mem­bers of Gen Z that I feel as though I’m one of them! They have great so­cial con­science and have em­braced sus­tain­abil­ity in a big way – it’s a con­ver­sa­tion that’s on­go­ing and I’m all ears. I want to help.’

With her long tou­sled hair and fig­ure honed by daily work­outs, Carol looks younger than her years. Meet­ing her, it makes to­tal sense that she is dress­ing a gen­er­a­tion raised on Love Is­land (whose cast, by the way, are ‘as good as it gets’ in terms of in­flu­encers; Boohoo is col­lab­o­rat­ing with

The Christ­mas 2018 ad cam­paign, above. Boohoo of­fers value fash­ion to ‘ev­ery girl in “that decade” of her life,’ says CEO Carol, op­po­site

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