There is a fashion that fashion likes to ignore. Here is one of its imaginary clothes rails: a pair of crocheted white shorts, a fringed suedette jacket. Flick, flick. A maxi skirt slashed to the thigh, tops with backs or fronts cut out. Each item costs £20 or less and its main ingredient lies somewhere between 95% viscose and 100% polyester. Fashion’s wardens do not like to acknowledge these clothes, which live mostly in exile from Vogue and the highbrow style magazines. They shadow the wardrobes of celebrities rather than Parisian or London catwalks and the labels carry strange sounding names: Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, Shelikes, Missguided. These are a new crop of digital fashion brands. Their shopfronts are Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr. They push out looks rather than innovate in design. Yet together they are at the forefront of a revolution in the digital fashion industry – a second wave of fast fashion.
The figures are impressive. Missguided’s turnover has gone from £8m three years ago to £55m for the past financial year. Boohoo’s sales were £50.8m for the four months to December. But these brands don’t come from where you think they do. Far from being faceless multinationals, all four are startups born in Manchester, in the streets still dominated by the architecture of the textile industry. Their founders are the descendents of immigrants who found work in Britain in the rag trade, and stayed in it. Now these entrepreneurs are using the decades-old skills and networks of the textile industry to map the desires of the digital consumer.
Missguided’s office, on an industrial estate on the edge of Salford, is full of empty chairs, soon to be occupied. Growth has been so fast that it employed 253 new people in the first half of last year. Bright and breezy clothes hang on rails – as worn by Nicole Scherzinger (who is a “brand ambassador” for the company, fronting the “Nicole X” range), Ellie Goulding, Fearne Cotton, Little Mix, Katy B and countless others. Walls are pasted with slogans. “Don’t make sense, make dollars.” “Wake up, kick ass, repeat.” Across the boardroom window, giant stickers spell the word L-O-V-E.
“I did the interiors. I’m a very peaceful person,” Nitin Passi says. Passi is Missguided’s 32-year-old founder and chief executive. He is striding through the studio, “the funnest place in the office”, where a model is posing in an outfit of skorts and top that costs £28 all in. “I like to say we’re the quickest,” he says. “If [the high street] are fast fashion, we’re rapid fashion.” “We update our site once a day with new stock,” Passi says, “but in my eyes we should be updating it every hour. If a trend comes, we need to have it on our site in under a week.”
There is a souvenir that Passi keeps, from his first week in business, which is key to this speed. “One of my buying lists. It says: pair of leggings, one size small, one size large.” He bought pieces only once he had an order. Despite its growth, Missguided has retained its agility. Five days after a dress has appeared on a C-list red-carpet event, a jersey remake can be waiting in an online basket. “And we’re going to get quicker,” Passi says. Felipe Caro, a professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management, has spent years studying Zara, which in 2005 was hailed by the Economist as the pioneer of fast fashion. He describes the work of Missguided and Boohoo as “fast fashion on steroids”. At Zara, the journey from drawing board to shop floor is typically around four weeks, Caro says. But Passi claims he “can turn samples around in a day”.
This sounds impressive. So why are these retailers locked out by the gatekeepers of fashion? Why do their clothes never feature in Vogue? “Fashion is a snobby world,” says fashion consultant Melanie Rickey. The only brand out of these four that has crossed her radar is Boohoo. Can she foresee a day when it makes it to the pages of Vogue? “No,” she says. “It is not a fashion brand. It is a cheap retailer of clothes for Saturday night. What would have been a street market.”
The comparison is accurate. The overlap between digital fashion and Manchester’s rag trade heritage is built into Boohoo’s head office, in an old cotton mill. Where Mahmud Kamani’s father bought up property, Kamani and his siblings bought domain names (they paid £10,000 for boohoo.com). Where Kamani’s father hauled his wares around the markets – he sold bags – Kamani and his co-founder Carol Kane have set up stall in the giant virtual marketplace of the internet.
Kamani is sitting at one end of a polished boardroom table, several mobiles before him, diamonds around the rim of his Rolex. Next to him, Kane wears a side plait and a Chanel necklace. They worked together on Pinstripe, a wholesaler owned by Kamani’s father that supplied the giants of the high street – “Topshop, your CAs, your Etams,” says Kane – and their patter has the ring of traders warming their hands on stories of sales past.
“We had lots of winners. Every season something would hit,” says Kane. “The fur gilet…”
“If you walked down the high street, every window had our fur gilets. It was in that much demand,” says Kamani.
“They would have taken whatever we had,” nods Kane.
“Absolutely millions and millions…”
They have entered a kind of reverie, the two of them, because they chalked up hits as middle men, linking manufacturers to retailers. Then, in 2006, Kane and Kamani realised they could use the internet to connect directly with their consumers. They found that one of the advantages of having your shop window online as opposed to on the street is that your stock has no physical context. No one can see who your neighbours are, or how high you pile it. If the website looks slick, so do the clothes.
“It is old rag trade reinvented, and that is in no way pejorative,” says Lorna Hall, head of market intelligence at fashion forecasting service WGSN. “It’s the second and third generation of the rag trade who have really grasped the digital, seen an opportunity and run with it. Why couldn’t they launch their own business with their products, brand it, give it a name, build it?” She points out that 23% of the prices at Boohoo are in the £5-£9.99 category, compared to only 11% of Asos products. “You start to see who that shopper is they’re targeting.”
“They want to try something in a small way and if it takes off, work out how to produce more of it fast,” Hall says. “Get in and out of stock quickly, really be able to put their bets where the money is. It’s the old short order, but it’s been digitalised.” So how are these companies managing to turn around clothes so quickly?
For a start, they are on the doorstep of a large wholesale district. A couple of miles north of Boohoo’s cotton mill lies Manchester’s Cheetham Hill suburb. Shop names flash past the car. Papaya Fashion, Babez, Fashion Zoo. “This area you could call the Silicon Valley of Fashion,” says Sam Puri, co-founder of young startup Shelikes, although it seems more like a fashion wilderness. He is making his daily pilgrimage to Stylewise, the wholesaler owned by his father, Sunny, which supplies Shelikes with most of its clothes.
It’s fun to imagine Little Mix, who have worn complimentary Shelikes clothes, in Stylewise, with its rails and vats of clothes, neon playsuits bristling with static, shopped mostly by older men. Sunny moved to Manchester 25 years ago from Punjab and, just like Kamani senior, started off working in street markets. “Sometimes, I think, how come we’re in this trade? Because we never sold clothes in India. We had a showroom for car accessories. But maybe this was easier to get in. You don’t need much capital. You can get credit from the factories. Some people we knew were in this trade.”
Where in the world do they go to, for clothes that need to be turned round really fast? “Leicester,” say the Puris. “Leicester,” say Kamani and Passi, who both estimate that over half the clothes they sell are made in the UK.
Terraces of 1930s homes line Leicester’s Chesterfield Road, erupting on one side of the street into an industrial estate. Chesterfield Road is Boohoo heartland. At Soft Touch factory, which supplies Boohoo and Shelikes, the back door is open to rows of whirring sewing machines. The same sound rises from Cat Girl on the opposite side of the road too, another Boohoo supplier. The place is clattering with industry.
“Your Boohoo, your Cash Carry kind of place, it’s a fast turnaround,” says Eva Szplit, the pattern cutter, above the noise from the next room. “We can do that. That’s why we’re busy. It’s cut and made and out the door.”
There is lots of evidence in these parts of an upsurge in manufacturing. A short walk up Chesterfield Road is the Sharma Women’s Centre. Founded 30 years ago to empower local women, Sharma has taught hundreds to machine-sew, supplying local factories with fresh workers. “Our sewing machine mechanic used to be free all the time,” says Amarjit Parmar, the centre’s hosiery manager. “Now we have to keep chasing him.”
An enlivening of British manufacturing sounds like a good news story, and mostly it is. But last month the Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI) published research showing that 75-90% of workers in Leicester’s garment factories were paid £3 an hour. Parmar has heard of workers being paid below the minimum wage of £6.50. Another Leicester-based manufacturer, Bhav Mandalia, has “had ex-staff coming to see if we’ve got any jobs,” he says. One, “a very experienced worker”, told him he had been offered a job at £3 an hour.
Szplit, of Cat Girl, has heard of no such thing. “It certainly doesn’t happen here,” she says. There is no suggestion that any of Boohoo’s, Missguided’s or Shelikes’ manufacturers meet their retailers’ needs unethically. Cat Girl has just passed a Sedex ethical audit. In August Boohoo launched a supplier manual, and hired a corporate social responsibility manager. Missguided says it follows “both the ETI base code and principles of implementation in the engagement of suppliers”, though none of Missguided, Boohoo nor Shelikes are members of the ETI.
But as fast fashion accelerates, and shoppers require their needs to be met at the right price and on the right day, retailers need to work harder to ensure ethical compliance in their supply chains. Melanie Rickey believes that high fashion is no longer enamoured of fast, cheap chic. “Conscious consumers wouldn’t go down this road,” she says. But she thought that Boohoo would never feature in Vogue, and the April issue includes a bomber jacket, costing £30, from that very brand. It is Boohoo’s first appearance in the style bible. Has it broken into the high fashion world after all?