When Umar Kamani steps out of his £300,000 Lamborghini and strides into a party in £1,200 Chanel trainers , a gold Rolex on one arm, model girlfriend on the other, heads turn.
Fist-bumps with stars such as P Diddy, Will.I.Am and Jennifer Lopez reveal a man in with the in-crowd. The swagger is hardly surprising — the eldest Kamani brother, with his bleach-blonde hair and designer clothing, knows his family’s Boohoo fast-fashion dynasty is worth an estimated £1 billion.
The family have properties all over the world, from the Hollywood Hills to New York, Dubai and Manchester, not forgetting their double-decker yacht, which they sail along the Amalfi coast. Brothers Umar, 32, Adam, 30, and Samir, 24, enjoy trips to Cannes and St Tropez — flying between the two by helicopter — hang out with rapper Snoop Dogg at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles; ski in Whistler; chill with Kylie Jenner at Coachella; and fly by private jet from Ibiza to the Maldives
After the pair met at music mogul L.A. Reid’s Grammy party in Los Angeles, Umar hosted J.Lo’s 50th birthday party at Gloria Estefan’s mansion in Miami.
Their mother Aisha enjoys lavish holidays in the Maldives, Ibiza and Dubai and posing alongside Khloé Kardashian and Ashley Graham at her son’s company office in LA.
But this week things took a sharp downward turn after a damning investigation claimed people were working in “sweatshop conditions”, with workers in cramped factories working for as little as £3.50 an hour in one of Boohoo’s suppliers in Leicester, where lockdown has been extended after cases of Covid-19 spiked. The Kamani family are being described as “the unacceptable face of fast fashion”, while Home Secretary Priti Patel called the alleged activities in the factories “truly appalling”.
In a separate investigation, employee rights group Labour Behind the Label said it found that workers — with little or no social distancing, PPE or sanitising stations — had been working flat out in Leicester on Boohoo orders throughout lockdown. Those who reported Covid symptoms were allegedly told to come to work anyway.
“We’re good, hard-working, honest people, that’s what we are,” said Mahmud Kamani, patriarch and Boohoo founder, sounding shaken when we reach him on the phone. It’s not surprising if he’s feeling the strain: the scandal has wiped a third off the company’s share price over the weekend, costing its founders more than £335 million in just two days.
A rayon Bandeau Bodycon Mini Dress sells on Boohoo for as little as £4. How well does this fit with Boohoo Group’s commitment to environmental practices?
Umar had a typically cryptic response to the scandal on Tuesday. “The truth will always come out,” he tweeted at 11.39am, before removing the tweet for a more considered company statement decrying “false reporting” about supply chain malpractice. (It asserts that Jaswal Fashions Ltd, contrary to the report, has never been a supplier for the group — garments had apparently been shipped to them from a supplier in Morocco for repackaging — but admits it uncovered “non-compliance” with Boohoo’s code of conduct.)
The family maintain they have nothing to hide and have appointed a QC to investigate conditions.
The company was valued at £5.2 billion in June, more than Marks & Spencer and Asos combined. Sales had jumped by 45 per cent to £368 million in the three months to May — lockdown turbo-charged its online-only selling model. The group snapped up Warehouse and Oasis from administration on June 16, further swelling a portfolio of online-only brands that now includes Pretty Little Thing (PLT), Nasty Gal, MissPap, Karen Millen and Coast, the latter of which Boohoo rescued from the brink in 2019.
This is not the first time that questions have been raised about supply and working conditions. Boohoo has shrugged off previous revelations about suppliers in Leicester, including an investigation in 2018 by the Financial Times which reported finding unsafe working conditions, unauthorised subcontracting and underpayment of wages. But stockists such as Next, Asos, Very, Amazon and European giant Zalando have been quick to drop Boohoo clothing from their sites. Amazon said: “Selling partners are required to follow all applicable laws, regulations, and Amazon policies when selling in our store. We will be suspending the sale of the brands in question.”
Is the fairytale over for Boohoo’s good, hard-working, honest higher-ups?
Mahmud Kamani certainly seemed to have a magic wand when he started the company in Manchester in 2006, founding one of Britain’s fastest-growing companies. His father, Abdullah Kamani, had migrated from Kenya to Manchester in the late Sixties and sold handbags on a market stall. Abdullah then founded the family business, Pinstripe, selling wholesale textiles, and ultimately becoming a supplier to some of Britain’s rising high-street chains, including New Look and Primark.
Today, the dynasty has become just as famous for sharing pictures of their lavish lifestyles on social media as retail entrepreneurialism. Insta-personality is essential. Umar’s 785,000 Instagram followers come for the #lifegoals: red carpet events, glimpses of his swish cars (including two Rolls-Royce Phantoms, a Lamborghini Aventador, a customised G-Class Mercedes and a Range Rover) and pictures of him alongside J. Lo (who designed a range for PLT), Drake and Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero.
Umar, who says he took up boxing because he was a “chubby” kid at school (he was expelled from £12,000-a-year Stockport Grammar for being “rebellious”) recalls being hired as a manager at Boohoo from the age of 18, and has told reporters he “used to cry on the way home from work” because he couldn’t relate to his father.
He FaceTimes Will.I.Am “every day” and hired a personal cameraman to document every detail of his daily life — a tip he picked up from P Diddy.
“P Diddy said he’d had the most amazing experiences in his life,” Umar has said. “He said he wished he had filmed them, and told me to do it.” He said sharing his exploits online was a ploy “to make my rivals think I’m not a shrewd businessman”.
In May, he was set to land a £300m windfall after Boohoo revealed plans to take full control of PLT. Mahmud Kamani celebrated the transaction with his son on Instagram with a photo of the Kamani clan holding up their fists like boxers and the word “proud”.
“It’s a sickening display, when their uptick in sales over the Covid period has come at the expense and health and safety of workers,” says Meg Lewis, campaigns manager at Labour Behind the Label. “It shows that Boohoo does have the money — it just doesn’t trickle down.”
There is a sense (and perhaps hope) in fashion circles that a perfect storm has finally broken above the fast-fashion industry. Allegations of malevolent working practices have swirled for years, and a parliamentary committee decried Boohoo’s deficiencies on sustainability and labour rights in January. But Leicester’s lockdown has rammed the spotlight on these shortcomings.
In 1989 Zara boasted that it took just 15 days to get a new idea designed and out on the shop floor. John Lyttle, CEO of the Boohoo Group, said in June their team can now do it in 48 hours. Newer, ultra-fast-fashion retailers are also less scrutinised by their younger customers. Low prices are even hailed as democratisation — bringing the clothing of the stars to the people who worship them. Boohoo introduces new trends every week, and is just as likely to be influenced by clothes from reality TV as those from the runways of New York or Paris, with next-day delivery. Often, they will be discarded after a single wear. The environmental — and human — cost is massive.
“The incredible pressure to get prices as low as possible means factories are constantly being forced to undercut each other,” says Lauren Bravo, author of How To Break Up With Fast Fashion. “You can’t change the price of cotton but you can pay your workers less, so of course it’s the garment workers that end up suffering.” Clothes don’t last as long, which only adds to the 300,000 tonnes of clothing going to landfill in the UK alone every year. The practice of “chasing the cheapest needle” — assembling a garment in several separate countries to reduce finishing costs — contributes to an industry carbon footprint of 1.2 billion tonnes, more than that of international flights and international shipping combined.
As for the Kamanis, who knows if they will be able to maintain their business model under the increased scrutiny that is bound to follow? No one expects the red carpet to roll up anytime soon. But there’s a sense that, for fast fashion, the party is winding down.