Catalogue of hits

The north’s online fashion industry is a global success, responding to social media trends and pushing out new lines at speed. But do Boohoo and co owe their success to a more old-fashioned business?

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When Manchester businessman Mahmud Kamani started selling clothes on the internet, he couldn’t have predicted the success that would follow. Formerly an entrepreneur working in wholesale fashion, Kamani, along with business partner Carol Kane, witnessed the decline of the high street fashion sector and moved into e-commerce, co-founding online brand Boohoo in 2006. Almost 12 years on, and Boohoo is one of the world’s fastest growing online fashion retailers and employs more than 2,000 people worldwide.

Curran says nurturing northern talent is an important part of the company’s strategy

The growth of Boohoo is a modern northern success story. From the city that was nicknamed Cottonopolis at the height of the industrial revolution, Boohoo keeps a close eye on trends and dispatches fast, cheap fashion to over 100 countries at the click of a button. The firm achieved triple digit growth in its first five years and last year made a pre-tax profit of £43.3 million, up from £30.9 million a year earlier. Revenue also soared 97 per cent, to £579.8 million – ahead of company forecasts.

In 2016 and 2017 the group acquired fashion brands PrettyLittleThing and Nasty Gal and last year had an 82 per cent increase in job offers on the previous year. Today the Boohoo group sells to more than eight million customers worldwide.

It’s a similar story for other online fashion brands that have chosen the north as their home. Last year Liverpool-based Shop Direct, which operates digital department stores,, and, reported its fifth year of sales and profit growth.

Missguided is another northern fashion brand that has experienced breakneck growth. Based in Salford, Missguided produces inexpensive clobber inspired by reality TV stars and aimed at 16-24 year olds. The company has the capacity to release 300 new lines every week and can get a new design on sale within 10 days.

The growth of the online fashion market is good news for the north. Perhaps for the first time there are realistic opportunities for fashion graduates to pursue careers outside the capital. Katie Curran, PR manager at Boohoo, says nurturing northern talent is an important part of the company’s strategy. The brand offers internships in buying, marketing, merchandising and design, and representatives from the company attend jobs fares at local universities in a bid to attract employees.

“Because it’s so fast we just look at what celebs are wearing, mostly the Kardashians.”

“We are passionate about northern talent,” says Curran. “We have some of the best universities in the country right on our doorstep and many of our interns are graduates who come to us come from them. Being able to offer them opportunities where they don’t have to leave the city that they have grown up in or studied in is amazing and something that we really try and nurture. We work to try and make people aware of the opportunities that are here as much as we can and that’s across all the businesses.

“We meet a lot of young people who are in university, and you do definitely see a difference in people’s perceptions of what they can achieve and what’s possible without going to London.”

Yazzmin McDonagh studied international fashion and marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University but thought she may have had to move to London to pursue her dreams of working in the industry. But during her studies she did an internship at Boohoo and eventually got a job as a junior buyer.

“I’m glad I was able to stay up north because all of my family are here,” says McDonagh, from Chester, seven years on. “I probably would have moved back here in the end anyway. My husband and I bought a house together, we drive nice cars – it’s a lot easier. We probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve that if we’d moved down south.”

As well as its Northern Quarter head office in Manchester, Boohoo runs a distribution centre in Burnley, while subsidiary company PrettyLittleThing has announced plans to open a warehouse in Sheffield, creating 1,200 jobs by the end of this year. The Boohoo effect is spreading across the north.

“There was never any intention to leave,” says Curran who says Manchester forms an important part of the brand’s story. “[Kamani and Kane] have built their success off their own knowledge of product and sourcing, but I think realistically as an e-commerce brand you can operate anywhere. It’s wonderful that it’s Manchester but I think it could have been anywhere.”

But the north’s expertise in textile manufacturing and selling is one that pre-dates the internet. Financial Times northern correspondent and enterprise editor Andrew Bounds says Manchester in particular has a proven track record when it comes to remote selling, starting with the catalogue industry, whose experience of persuading people to buy clothes before trying them on proved helpful when it came to adapting to the digital market.

“Manchester was a centre of the catalogue clothing industry throughout the 1900s,” says Bounds. “JD Williams, the founder company of N Brown, and Great Universal Stores – later GUS – pioneered remote selling. As customers moved to the internet it is no surprise that Manchester entrepreneurs created new businesses to meet the demand. The same design and selling skills used in print could be adapted online.”

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Photos: In the Boohoo studio: hair, make-up and photo shoots. Images are then examined, selected and sent upstairs to be put on the website. Also upstairs: hi-tech photography, in-house design and the hot rail – a selection of the most on-trend clothes

Bounds adds that the city also has a number of textile businesses that were started up by the children and grandchildren of immigrants – Kamani is a prime example. Many of these businesses were previously concentrated in the Northern Quarter but most have moved further out to the Cheetham Hill district and manufacture for e-commerce brands on a wholesale basis, so it can be argued this area in particular, and the experience of the business owners, has been integral to the success of local online brands.

“The city’s sporting and musical achievements have helped it become a trend setter,” says Bounds. “Many of the new businesses have been started by second or third generation immigrants whose parents and grandparents learned fashion tastes working on market stalls, running clothing factories or importing from their Asian homelands.”

Over the last 10 years the fashion industry has experienced a significant shift. Where designers used to look to Vogue magazine as the holy grail of style, Generation Z are more likely to find inspiration from bloggers and social media influencers. In 2016 four US Vogue editors were told to “get back to their Werther’s Originals”, after complaining about the presence of “pathetic” and “desperate” fashion bloggers at Milan fashion week. The senior staff members criticised bloggers for changing their outfits every hour, with creative digital director Sally Singer writing: “Note to bloggers who change head-to-toe paid-to-wear outfits every hour: please stop. Find another business. You are heralding the death of style.”

The scathing comments from the big cheeses of the fashion world may have once forced their targets to retreat into a corner but in the digital age, where bloggers are able to connect with their audiences on a personal level and update them on a daily basis, both print magazines and the catwalks are arguably losing their influence.

“We do look at the catwalks but it’s becoming less and less,” says McDonagh. “I don’t think anyone has time to read anymore either. People just want something quick to look at. At the moment because it’s so fast we just look at what celebs are wearing, mostly the Kardashians, because that’s what our customers are interested in.”

But although business is booming in the online fashion world, there are worrying undertones. Recently the Financial Times reported from factories in Leicester, where many online retailers’ clothes are produced. The report alleged many factory workers are paid less than £5 an hour, while both central and local government appear to be turning a blind eye. And last year, in response to a Channel 4 Dispatches programme based on covert filming at its Burnley warehouse, the company issued a statement insisting it pays all warehouse staff above the national minimum wage and denying that it operated a harsh disciplinary process.

There’s also concern about the impact the online market is having on the high street. House of Fraser, Mothercare and New Look have all announced plans to close shops and cut jobs, while Marks and Spencer has taken a hit as well.

Alex Schlagman is co-founder of the campaign group Save The High Street, which aims to support local businesses and help them thrive in the modern world. He says that although the online market is growing, the high street is still integral to the way customers shop.
“If you look at the biggest online retailers in the world they all have strategies around the high street, and this is something a lot of people don’t realise,” says Schlagman. “Arguably the biggest ever move Amazon made was to buy Whole Foods, and they bought Whole Foods so they could have a bricks and mortar presence and they are exploring owning more space on the high street.

“Really central to online businesses’ strategy is how we connect locally, and the reason for that is that the way that we shop isn’t just about browsing a website and buying from a website or walking up and down a high street and buying on the high street – it’s a bit of both. People find things locally and then they buy them online, or they do a load of discovery online, whether it’s searching for things on Google or getting inspired by things on Pinterest, and then they end up working out how they can find it locally.”

Schlagman makes an important point. When Boohoo wanted to present its latest offering Nasty Gal to UK shoppers, there was one place it turned to in a bid to help create brand awareness – the high street. In November last year, Nasty Gal opened its first pop-up shop on Carnaby Street, hosting live music as well as weekly events and live talks with industry influencers. Missguided also has two flagship stores as well as concessions in Selfridges.

“We don’t want to live in a world where we just sit behind a screen all the time,” says Schlagman. “We want to meet with humans. The high street is the hub of the community locally and if it doesn’t exist, what world are we moving into?”

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