Manchester’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.
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.
“We want the Boohoo look to be fun, young, energetic,” says Kat Butterworth, Boohoo’s studio manager. “Commercial but accessible. Our models need to look like girls our customers aspire to. They should look like her best friend, but not the type that would steal her boyfriend.”
Cindy steps onto the white seamless and strikes a few poses. A photographer in chunky Doc Martens and ripped jeans crouches for the shots, and a stylist fans a piece of cardboard so the model’s hair blows softly for the camera.
When Cindy ducks into a small changing room to try on another outfit, a second model emerges nearly instantaneously in a camouflage-print dress and leather jacket. The stylist teases her low ponytail to appear a bit messy (“how they wear it these days,” she explains), the photographer snaps her camera a few times, and the model is gone. Barely a moment passes before Cindy steps back into frame.
The entire process is incredibly fast. Images are taken, only to appear seconds later on a computer screen in the corner. A photo editor organizes them into a folder and sends them to a team a few rooms away that will lightly touch them up before uploading them to Boohoo’s website in a few days. Each week, Boohoo debuts 700 new styles on its site; for context, that kind of volume is akin to two Anthropologie stores’ worth of merchandise.
“Speed is absolutely critical to the shopper today,” says Debbi Ball, Boohoo’s buying director. “It used to be that you saw something on the catwalk and it would be available within a few seasons. Now, you can stream these catwalks online and we can deliver products weeks later. People see Kim K. wearing something one day, and they want it the next.”
While competitors Zara and H&M deliver new, trendy collections every six weeks, Boohoo can deliver new product in as fast as two weeks. This is faster than fast fashion as we have come to know it — this is fast fashion in hyperdrive.
Fast fashion companies been outpacing traditional clothing retailers for years in terms of both market share and annual revenue. The top-grossing companies — H&M, Uniqlo’s Fast Retailing, and Zara parent company Inditex — all have several brands under their umbrellas, and collectively saw $59.18 billion in sales in 2016.
Zara is based in Spain, H&M in Sweden, and Uniqlo in Japan, but it’s the United Kingdom that’s emerged as the dominant country for the next generation of fast fashion companies, online-first ones with unprecedented speed like Boohoo, ASOS, and Missguided. Topshop, New Look, River Island, and Matalan — which all have physical locations, but also robust digital presences where they sell trend-driven merchandise produced faster than their non-UK peers — are also based in the country.
“The Industrial Revolution started here,” explains Orsola de Castro, founder of UK-basednonprofit Fashion Revolution. “It’s where mass machinery starting weaving the textile industry, importing cotton from the US and exporting a massive textile commerce. From a historical context, this country paved the way for consumer appetite.”
The country’s immigrant population is also part of the equation. The UK is home to large communities from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, countries where many fast fashion factories are located.
“There has been huge immigration of Indians and Bangladeshis, and often these companies develop from family connections,” she says. “In Italy, for example, you don’t have this kind of development. These geographic connections are made by the history and migration.”
The British also have a massive appetite for fashion; the Telegraph refers to shopping as “Britain’s unofficial national sport.” According to Fung Global Retail, per capita spending on apparel in the UK in 2015 was 928 pounds ($1,194), while a country like Spain was at 517 pounds ($665), and France 609 pounds ($784).
Rachel Arthur, an independent retail consultant, attributes consumer interest in trend-focused shopping in particular to the country’s celebrity-crazed culture.
“Celebrities are such a huge part of what is influential here, and the tabloid press is popular too. They hound celebrities, and the royals,” says Arthur. “In the early 2000s, weekly magazines were absolutely massive. There were loads of them — Heat, Grazia, Look — that were all geared to fashion and they were a huge part of our lives. Anything that looked like whatever was on the cover of Grazia would sell out immediately. We’d be shopping in armloads.”
“The UK has traditionally had strength in fashion,” adds John Mercer, an analyst with Fung Global Retail, “especially relative to the US, where the retailers are much more conservative. Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, Aéropostale; these are pretty conservative and safe. They are almost the same season after season. British brands, on the other hand, are known to be trendy.”
The distinctly British concept of High Street, a term that refers to a town’s shopping area but has become synonymous with mass-market fashion brands, has certainly played a role in shopping’s outsized role in British life too.
“The US has 40 times the landmass of the UK, so while there’s loads of space to build new malls, it’s very densely populated here and so most shopping was built very close to where people live,” says British retail analyst Richard Hyman. “High Street today can be interchangeable with retail in general, and it’s the most important shopping location.”
Early High Streets were filled with small mom-and-pop shops and pharmacies. Today England’s big department stores, like Debenhams and Marks & Spencer, and fast fashion brands, both British and not, dominate.
“The High Street was where we spent all of our time because it was so accessible,” says Arthur. “I imagine it’s not different from American consumers going to the mall, but it’s such a big part of growing up in the UK. I feel as though it’s completely ingrained in us since birth. As a teenager, I worked in a coffee shop with my three closest friends and when we’d earn our money, we’d dash next door to New Look to buy a new top.”
It’s also worth noting that much of the United Kingdom’s spending happens online, and so it makes sense that large-scale online-only businesses have taken hold there. According to the British Retail Consortium, 24 percent of clothing and footwear purchases in the UK are e-commerce purchases. This puts the UK well ahead of most of Western Europe, and certainly the US, where only 17 percent of clothing and shoes are bought online. Online innovation has paid off for UK retailers, many of which began incorporating “click and collect” before their American peers, which is one reason UK retailers aren’t seeing the type of carnage we’re experiencing in the US.
At Boohoo, design is split between “now trends” — trends that pop up and are translated into Boohoo designs soon after — and longer-lead design concepts that it plans in advance.
Long-lead concepts almost always start from runway looks and bloggers, explains Jocelyn Seeley, Boohoo’s design manager. Her team discusses their ideas and then chooses fabrics, color palettes, and silhouettes. Instead of copying designer looks almost exactly the way a company like Zara does, Seeley’s team takes more liberties in its inspiration. In particular, Boohoo’s team takes runway pieces and tries to make them more youthful, swapping boxy or loose silhouettes for more fitted ones.
Boohoo stocks a relatively small quantity of each product at first, so the team can work reactively. Screens with sales figures that update every 20 minutes are mounted all across headquarters. “We can know within one day, sometimes within a few hours, whether something is going to work, and if it does, we can get a new line of it ASAP,” says Ball.
“Our business model is that she lets us know,” echoes Seeley, “she” being the Boohoo customer. “If she buys into it, we’ll give her more. If she doesn’t, we’ll drop it. Trying all these trends allows us to evolve throughout the season, rather than just setting things up at the beginning and not having a way out if she doesn’t like it.”
If something is suddenly hot on a Saturday night, the team can begin production on the item by Monday and replenish the site’s stock in less than two weeks. This is in part thanks to its Burnley factory, where 50 percent of Boohoo’s merchandise is made.
“Our competition is still in department store mentality, where they are buying third-party and don’t have control over their margins,” says Boohoo CEO Carol Kane. “We have a lot of suppliers in the UK that are Boohoo-only and we are going directly to suppliers, to factories. We have total control.”
Boohoo makes everything it sells and has added various sub-brands that serve to segment its overwhelming assortment, while still ensuring the company considerable control of production. It now has its own denim line (Boohoo Blue), a black tie collection (Boohoo Night), men’s (Boohoo Man), plus-size (Boohoo Plus and Curve), athleisure (Boohoo Fit), maternity, and kids. Kane says the company is now working on rolling out a cosmetics line (Boohoo Beauty, perhaps?).
It also acquired Nasty Gal, Sophia Amoruso’s troubled startup, earlier this year. Although the takeover started off on the wrong foot, Boohoo’s plan to expand Nasty Gal to the UK is underway, with further international expansion coming down the road. In December, Boohoo acquired the e-commerce site Pretty Little Thing, which was started by the sons of Boohoo founder Kamani in 2012 and is marketed to Generation Z, encompassing those currently in their tweens and teens.
In addition to the family connection, the Pretty Little Thing acquisition made sense given Boohoo’s young target demographic. The company positions itself as being for 18- to 25-year-olds, but Ball says it has plenty of younger teenage shoppers. Boohoo’s distinctive voice has made it resonate with the age group; models sport messy buns and French braid pigtails, and Instagram photos feature Selena Gomez inspo and sassy apparel like a jacket that reads “trouble maker” on the back.
“This brand really has an opinion, a personality that talks to shoppers on a very intimate level,” says Tiffany Hogan, a retail analyst with Kantar Retail. “Shoppers feel more personally connected to it than an H&M or a Zara.”
But honing in on a narrow demo, particularly one that’s so young, can backfire. As shoppers grow up, they get sick of fleeting trends and begin considering investment pieces instead.
“Fast fashion companies can have a very short lifespan,” says Ben Voyer, a professor at the London School of Economics. “It’s a spot in the market that’s growing very fast, but can shrink too. The teenage girls shopping at Boohoo aren’t going to shop there forever. These customers tend to have very low loyalty, so while they shop and shop, once they find something else, it’s over.”
Many consider Inditex to be the original pioneers of fast fashion. The Spanish company dates back to 1963, when founder Amancio Ortega Gaona started selling coats and robes in the port city of La Coruña. He opened the first Zara store in 1975 and established the Inditex parent company in 1985. From the start, Zara was known for its trend-forward offerings, low prices, and quick production schedules.
Inditex outsourced production to countries with cheap labor, taking cues from Nike and Gap. It also invested in factories of its own. As the New York Times wrote in 2012, more than half of its product is made in Inditex factories in Europe and Northern Africa; the “higher labor costs are offset by greater flexibility — no extra inventory lying around — and on faster turnaround speed.”
Inditex now has 7,292 stores around the world. Zara, its biggest brand, has 2,213 locations; its shoppers in London are said to visit its stores 17 times a year, in contrast to the average store visit rate of four times a year. H&M adopted Zara’s tactics along the way, eclipsing Zara with 4,000 of its own locations to become the world’s largest fast fashion brand. While the Swedish giant has been around since 1947, it was only in the early ’80s that the company began to rapidly accelerate its production and increase its store footprint. These companies and their peers have turned the concept of seasonal buys on its head; fast fashion stores turn over 15 times a year, according to NPR.
Some argue fast fashion has democratized the fashion industry. Shoppers can now own trendy clothing without paying anywhere near luxury prices, though Zara in particular is known for knocking off runway designs.
There are also dire environmental effects to consider. As reporter Alden Wicker wrote for Racked in March, fashion’s impact on the environment is “astounding. It touches agriculture (cotton, flax, hemp), animal agriculture (leather, fur, wool, cashmere), petroleum (polyester and other synthetics), forestry (rayon), mining (metal and stones), construction (retail stores), shipping, and, of course, manufacturing.”
Fashion is believed to be the second-most-polluting industry on the planet after oil, a claim that’s based on its dependence on cotton, which needs a plenty of fertilizer, pesticides, and water to grow, and polyester, the petroleum byproduct of which 50 million tons was produced in 2015. Then there are the resources it takes for deliveries to be made an average of once a week; McKinsey & Company estimates that the creation of one kilogram of fabric produces an average 23 kilograms of greenhouse gases. Clothing production nearly doubled between 2000 to 2014, with the number of garments being created exceeding 100 billion.
The speed at which fast fashion operates, and the low prices it promises, has had a profound effect on consumers, who see clothing as a highly disposable good. As studies from Greenpeacehave found, many customers now toss clothing after two or three wears. “Not only is this a huge waste of all of the resources in these products,” Greenpeace concludes, “but it creates yet more pollution, through emissions of hazardous chemicals and greenhouse gases from incinerator stacks or landfills.”
Brands have acknowledged these environmental issues, though their resultant efforts make up a very small portion of their businesses. H&M, for example, has sold an “eco-friendly” Conscious Collection since 2011, and it offers a clothing-recycling program in its stores; Zara launched a sustainable collection last year.
Fast fashion also raises plenty of humanitarian concerns. The cheap cost of the clothing is only possible because of the cheap labor that makes it, with the majority of fast fashion factories located in developing countries. These companies, McKinsey found, “face problems with labor conditions throughout their supply chains, including child labor, low wages, and health and safety hazards.”
The industry’s practices were brought to the world’s attention in 2013 with the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which took the lives of 1,129 clothing factory workers and injured 2,500 more. Four years later, gross neglect is still the status quo. Companies, including Boohoo and ASOS, have come under fire for the treatment of workers in their factories and warehouses in Western countries too.
Boohoo is small compared to its main competitor, ASOS. Over the last five years, ASOS’s business has exploded: revenue nearly doubled from $716 million in 2012 to $1.2 billion in 2014, with 2016 soaring to $1.8 billion.
The ASOS London headquarters feels like college, with young employees bustling around in crop tops, platform shoes, and chokers. Meetings take place at giant couches and wooden tables scattered throughout the space. The company’s cafeteria resembles a hip Brooklyn bar, with hip inhabitants to match.
“The office is actually a great source of inspiration,” says John Mooney, ASOS’s brand creative director. “It’s a melting pot, and you can see what’s cool and what we’ll be selling.”
ASOS stands for “As Seen On Screen” and was founded in 2000 by Quentin Griffiths and Nick Robertson, two friends who ran an entertainment product placement company. As Robertson told the Telegraph in 2005, the idea for ASOS came about when they were thinking of ways to expand their existing business. He read in a magazine that “a lamp appeared in Friends and NBC got 28,000 calls or something ridiculous about where the lamp came from.”
And so the pair decided to start a website where customers could buy products they’d seen on TV and in movies, like the Oakley sunglasses Tom Cruise wore in Mission: Impossible, or the backpack Leonardo DiCaprio wore in the opening scene of The Beach. They poached a buyer from Topshop and began to buy merchandise from other High Street companies. During its first year in business, ASOS made $258,000, according to London newspaper The Times.
ASOS’s only investor at the time was Robertson’s brother, and with the company short on cash, it decided to go public in October 2001. This provided a much-needed infusion of capital, and business picked up steam right away when it began selling brands like Reiss and Karen Millen bought with the new funds. It also saw success with the “as seen on screen” products it initially promised: the tiger underwear Robbie Williams wore in his “Rock DJ” music video; a copy of a sleeveless pink dress Sarah Jessica Parker wore in the Sex and the City movie; floral dresses that looked like the ones Keira Knightley wore around town. The website even had a function where shoppers could search by celebrity and then buy their outfits.
“ASOS is horribly, most distractingly, addictive,” The Times wrote. “Want a dress almost exactly the same as Cheryl Cole’s? Er, as a responsible adult, actually, no. But the tone of the website, with its boundless enthusiasm for trends, is contagious, so you click, and bingo! ASOS is the closest a fashion website has come to capturing the visceral excitement of the high street without the downsides.”
By 2004, it began shifting away from stocking “red carpet replicas,” as it called them, from other brands and started to make its own clothing using original designs. While much of it wasn’t all that different from the trendy stuff sold at competitors like Topshop, the Financial Times ascertained that “much of ASOS’s success has been built on a low-tech guarantee to customers: free returns. In the early days of internet shopping, allowing customers to send anything they did not want back was essential.”
Today, ASOS is the largest online fashion and beauty retailer in the UK, offering 85,000 different products (including 4,000 new styles every week) to 12.4 million active customers. Its own brand makes up 44 percent of its business, while the rest comes by way of a curated selection of 850other brands that include French Connection, Converse, and J Brand, as well as many with little name recognition.
“We are the largest fashion label without a store, and that is because of the sheer volume of what we can offer,” says Nicola Thompson, the company’s global trading director. “Shoppers come to us because they know there will be a product offering unlike any other. We have amazing combinations, and an unlimited amount of popular brands, and that is really a unique positioning within the market.”
Pricing is also what’s drawn millions of shoppers to ASOS — its in-house line is cheap, but not too cheap, and Mooney says ASOS “is sure to undercut our competition” in how it prices third-party products. In many cases, brands are just fine with ASOS selling its products at a lower price because they know it’ll move. ASOS also negotiates aggressively so that 60 percent of its third-party products are exclusives.
Like Boohoo, ASOS studies shopping behavior to inform its in-house designs; when ASOS sees that customers are buying a certain style from one of the brands it stocks, it will turn around and make its own version to sell. The strategy is one also employed by Amazon; the e-commerce giant has historically used customer data to build private-label collections. Except, unlike Amazon (at least for now), ASOS is exceedingly successful in selling fashion and partnering with brands.
Jasmine Prasad, a 21-year-old university student in the UK, says that she doesn’t know anyone who doesn’t shop at ASOS on a regular basis.
“They carry so much that’s just a click away,” she says. “The website is so easy to use that it’s easy to spend money. Me and all of my friends will order something in several sizes and compare how they feel, because it’s easy to just send it back. We also like to use the products to play with what we have in our wardrobe, which is something you can’t do in stores. ASOS just fits our lifestyle better than shopping on the High Street.”
ASOS’s target demographic skews a bit older and certainly wider than Boohoo’s; it aims for customers ranging from ages 16 to 34, and the brand calls its core audience “20-somethings.” This is reflected in the more sophisticated offerings of its ASOS label, and also in its assortment of brands that are fairly age-neutral, from Adidas to Calvin Klein to Marc Jacobs.
“Companies like Boohoo and Topshop are single-label brands. They have their handwriting all over it, with a very specific price point and feel,” says Thompson. “We’re not like that — we’re far more democratic, which is honestly the way people shop today.” And while ASOS sells Boohoo on its site, Mooney adds, “we would never sell our ASOS line anywhere else. That’s the difference.”
In reality, the difference is in the size and breadth of the ASOS business. Combined with its trend sensitivity, it’s become incredibly influential in a relatively short period of time. Says Voyer, “Even Topshop, which is a higher-end brand, hasn’t had that type of success. ASOS is now defining how people shop and what they wear.”
While Boohoo and ASOS continue to grow in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, both are set on winning over Americans.
The US is currently Boohoo’s second-largest market, thanks to a dogged marketing strategy that has included dispatching a pop-up shop in a bus to college campuses up and down the East and West coasts. ASOS, too, is seeing rapid growth in the country, with US sales increasing 50 percent last year to $231.4 million.
ASOS CEO Nick Beighton announced the company would use some of its revenue to lower prices, in hopes of luring more international customers. Last month, Beighton also shared a preview of a new “visual search” it developed for its app that will allow shoppers to upload photos of favorite outfits they see on friends or in magazines and find similar products on ASOS.
Mooney says that by 2020, ASOS intends for its American business to be as big as its British one. ASOS is also planning to open a distribution center in the US; it currently has a warehouse in Ohio, but only some 20 percent of its American orders are fulfilled there, with the rest coming from the UK. Once that’s set up, it will offer the free next-day shipping its customers in Europe enjoy.
Missguided is also betting on the US market, which it entered in 2013. The company saw global revenue of $155 million in 2015, and expects to grow 70 percent this year. Karinna Nobbs, a professor at the London College of Fashion, calls the US “the promised land” for British fast fashion retailers.
“To companies out here, the US is the top of the top. If you can crack the US, you have the fashion market,” says Quentin Bradley, Boohoo’s head of creative. “We actually think of the US as three different markets: there’s the West Coast, the East Coast, and then the whole middle. There’s a huge earning potential for any company to head out there, and a lot of companies have tried to make it and stumbled. It’s important for global relevance.”
American retail companies are losing ground to fast fashion retailers and e-commerce businesses. ASOS, Boohoo, and Missguided are both — and their less digitally focused rivals are scrambling. Just two months ago H&M said it was reassessing its supply chain in order to keep up with the pace of companies like ASOS; Uniqlo is going through the same thought process.
Then there’s Primark, a retailer based in Dublin, just across the Irish Sea from ASOS and Boohoo, that’s a whole other beast of its own. It has 325 stores around the world and an annual revenue of $7.6 billion, all without any advertising or e-commerce. It just opened its seventh store in the US — a 55,000-square-foot store on New York’s Staten Island. Primark sees Old Navy and Gap as its main competitors, though its aggressive price point can hover as low as Wal-Mart’s. Except, as Primark US president Jose Luis Martinez de Larramendi points out, it also has a design team that utilizes a fast fashion strategy too.
“I think we have a unique formula in terms of amazing fashion and amazing prices, and all within a great environment because our stores are big, and they are an experience,” says Larramendi. “People look at our prices and say, ‘Is this a Black Friday promotion?’ No, because every day is Black Friday at Primark. We believe that the width of what we sell, the environment, and, again, our prices, puts us in a very unique position.”
Is there room for everyone? At the very least, Americans’ desire for cheap and trendy clothing is not likely to slow down anytime soon.
“Of course it makes sense these brands are coming to the US,” says Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. “We aren’t just a consumer-driven country, we are also low-end shoppers. High fashion has never become mainstream here.”
Cline says US shoppers buy an average of 60 pieces of clothing every year; as a nation, we’re buying five times as much clothing as we did in the ’80s. The advent of fast fashion is certainly a key factor in this shift.
“Countries find ways to entertain themselves, and fast fashion has become a form of entertainment,” says Cline. “It has a lot of cultural power in the UK, and it is only just starting here.”