Is British Fast Fashion Too Fast?

ASOS stocks 85,000 styles on its site. Boohoo turns around collections in two weeks flat. And competitors are freaking out.

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Fast Fashion

anchester’s city center, also known as the Northern Quarter, juxtaposes Britain old and new. Wide, freshly paved roads rest on the same grid as narrow, windy streets that crisscross through town. Grand neo-gothic buildings hold banks, coffee shops, and grocery stores. Steely modern high-rises tower over 19th-century brick buildings.

It was here that England established itself as a mass producer of textiles during the Industrial Revolution, with Manchester eventually gaining a reputation for being a “Cottonopolis.” Today, most of the city’s giant mills and factories have closed, with production having largely migrated to Asia, and many of these spaces have since been turned into offices and warehouses.

Down one quaint street just off the center’s main drag is a red building that serves as the headquarters for British fast fashion brand Boohoo, a company founded 11 years ago by partners Mahmud Kamani and Carol Kane.

The building, which once served as a cotton mill, was bought by Kamani’s father, Abdullah, an Indian native who arrived in Manchester in 1968 after fleeing a war-stricken Kenya. Abdullah built his own multimillion-pound textile business by purchasing closed Manchester factories and working with relatives in Africa and Asia to import materials, making cheap clothing for fast fashion retailers like Primark, New Look, and Topshop. Mahmud worked for his father for 20 years before starting his own company with Kane in 2006.

Boohoo, which exists solely online with the exception of the occasional pop-up shop, is one of the fastest-growing clothing companies in the world. The brand, which filed for IPO in 2014 on England’s Alternative Investment Market, has seen exponential growth the last few years. Revenue shot up from $31 million in 2011 to $142 million in 2014; in 2016, its revenue more than doubled to $378 million, from $180 million the year before. At a time when American retail companies are filing for bankruptcy and closing stores at an unprecedented rate, Boohoo’s US sales grew 145 percent last year.

Racked of clothing at Boohoo press preview
A rack of clothing at Boohoo’s latest press day in London.

The company now employs 518 people in its head office, and 884 more in its warehouse in nearby Burnley. It boasts 5.2 million active customers and ships to more than 100 countries. It features a whopping 20,000 styles on its site at any given time, with prices that start as low as $15 and don’t go much higher than $130.

One morning in late March, a handful of these styles are being photographed on models in the attic of Boohoo’s old building, up several narrow staircases. There’s a row of seven brightly lit studios in which some 350 pieces are shot each day.

In one studio, the Arctic Monkeys are blaring over a loudspeaker as a team of stylists and a makeup artist fuss over a model named Cindy, who’s wearing a loose white top, track pants, and giant hoop earrings. She looks a lot like Kylie Jenner, and a mood board on the wall nearby is filled with pictures of Kylie and those in her orbit: her sister Kendall, Gigi Hadid, Cara Delevingne.

 

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