The UK has a new king of fast fashion; Mahmud Kamani, the founder of the billion pound Manchester-based Boohoo empire. Kamani also owns Pretty Little Thing and MissPap, and has hoovered up the dust of administration-bound high street stalwarts Warehouse, Coast, Karen Millen and Oasis in the last month alone.
Kamani’s specialty; fashion so fast it barely registers with much of the UK population. Unless you were in the target demographic of 16 to 24 year-old women, or had a daughter or son who shopped there, you may not even have noticed the Boohoo boom, for it has no physical presence on the bricks and mortar high street.
Steadily, since it was founded in 2006, Boohoo has become a force to be reckoned with in the UK fashion market. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, it is really flexing its muscles – profits have soared in lockdown as it quickly adapted to selling Instagrammable loungewear instead of party dresses (sales rose by 45 per cent to £367.8m in the three months to May) and its models have been praised for their at-home photoshoots, advertising new products without airbrushing. When the rest of the high street is crumbling, the Boohoo group seems to be on an unstoppable upward trajectory – in January, it was revealed that Boohoo is now worth more than rivals Marks & Spencer and ASOS combined.
These numbers, coupled with the photographs of crowds queuing in front of Primark stores when shops reopened last Monday, indicate one thing; the UK is still obsessed with fast fashion.
No matter how much snobbery we fashion editors throw at it, no matter how much we learn about where our clothes come from and how they are made, the appetite for new clothes, quickly, now!, seems to be insatiable. That value proposition – ‘I bought all these clothes for £40 and still have money spare’ – is as irresistible as ever.
Britain, arguably, pioneered the fast fashion industry during the Industrial Revolution – Richard Arkwright’s spinning frame, invented in 1769, allowed yarn to be mass, machine produced, rather than spun by hand for the first time.
After more manufacturing innovations during World War II, mass-produced clothing began to become popular and retailers including H&M, Zara, Topshop, Primark were all established between 1947 and 1969. Pricing got competitive in the clothing market in the 1960s, meaning that off-shore manufacturing was utilised. By the 1980s, retailers were aggressively competing to deliver the new trends, first, and for the cheapest price; in 1989, the term “fast fashion” was coined by the New York Times after Zara boasted that it had taken them just 15 days to get a new idea made up, and into shops.
It’s a cycle which has whirred ever-faster – with plenty of consequences. The Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed 1,134 garment industry workers found in appalling conditions in 2013, fuelled the Fashion Revolution movement which now campaigns to slow down the industry.
According to Keep Britain Tidy, around 10,000 items of clothing are still thrown into landfill every five minutes in the UK. There is still a rife culture of people who will wear something once before throwing it away. There is still a stigma that you can only be photographed in something once, perpetuated by celebrities doing so in public on the red carpet.
The mantra ‘buy less and buy better’, as championed frequently by The Telegraph’s fashion team, is sinking in for many, yet buying eco-fashion is something which, currently, many still cannot afford to do. The matter of shopping for sustainable fashion is a class dividing issue – it’s all very well to tell someone they should buy a £250 organic cotton dress, instead of a £12 one, if you can afford the former.
Livia Firth, sustainable fashion campaigner and founder of Eco Age, suggests though, that those queues outside Primark last week were not only filled with people who truly needed to shop at Primark. While there is, of course, no question that those who need to buy affordable clothing should be able to, her gripe is with those who could afford to do better.
“[The majority were] just there for cheap fixes,” she wrote on Instagram. “Fast fashion is like sugar, we are addicted, we buy without thinking or caring as it just makes us happy for 5 minutes. This may not be popular, but do not tell me the multi-billionaires owners of these fast fashion brands are SO rich because of people who can’t afford to buy expensive clothes…. [those] who can’t afford to buy a lot [don’t] buy a lot. The majority buy [tonnes and on] average every two and a half weeks.”
A shift in consumer mentality in the UK is happening. Many do now understand that they’ve got too much, and that cheap clothing doesn’t last very long, so they want to buy well-made clothes that last.
At the same time, the pandemic has shown what many already knew; several of the biggest high street fashion brands were already struggling. Over-producing was already sending many into a constant spiral of year-round discounting and the collapse into administration of Laura Ashley, Cath Kidston, Debenhams, Oasis, Karen Millen, Warehouse, Coast and more is reflective of the change that was already happening, before the coronavirus shoved them all over the cliff at a faster rate.
In swooping in and swallowing up brands that were already ailing, will the Boohoo billionaires have bitten off more than they can chew? The brands which they have bought appeal to an older customer than the one which they are used to dealing with (it’ll take more than an endorsement from a Love Island contestant, for example, to tempt the Karen Millen shopper to strike) and they will never shift the volumes they are used to unless they completely remodel these businesses to match Boohoo’s aggressive, micro-trend-led approach.
The pandemic, also, has afforded a moment of realisation for many British shoppers. A new survey conducted by The Seam in London determined that 45% of us have learned during lockdown that we ‘need less stuff in order to be happy.’
Could Britain’s obsession with fast fashion finally be coming to an end? If it is, Boohoo’s bubble might burst as quickly as it ballooned.