THE £1 BILLION FACE OF FAST FASHION
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