Culture

The Story of the Kamanis, the UK's Billionaire Fast Fashion Dynasty

Starting life on a market stall, the Manchester family's clothing empire now includes Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing and I Saw It First.
24 February 2020, 12:45pm
kamani family boohoo
Left to right: Umar Kamani, Mahmud Kamani and Adam Kamani. Photo: Eamonn and James Clarke / PA Images

Walk down any street in Britain and you will see the boohooMAN. His jeans are tapered and ripped at the knees. His T-shirt is crisp and tight, clinging to his swole arms. His body is hairless, his teeth are fluorescent, his fade is tight.

Avert his gaze and look upwards, and you will probably see the Boohoo Woman. Staring vacantly down at you from billboards and bus stops, lips parted and arse jutted, she is post-Kardashian femininity at its most extreme. Her heels are high, her top is cropped and her bodycon is snakeskin (for this season, at least).

Over its 14-year lifespan, Boohoo has become much more than just an online retailer. These days, it is an entire aesthetic, having crept up and conquered the UK fashion industry, racking up a £3.9 billion valuation and overtaking (as of January, 2020) high street heritage staples like Marks & Spencer and Debenhams. Championed by model Jordyn Woods, England footballer Dele Ali and perhaps every Love Island contestant who has ever lived, its aim is simple: offer consumers bold, fun and up-to-the-minute trends at rock bottom prices.

Behind the ubiquitous brand is the Kamani family, a Mancunian fast fashion dynasty that has, over the course of three generations, built up a worldwide clothing empire worth billions.

Theirs is a rare (and literal) rags-to-riches story. After migrating from Kenya in the 1960s, Abdullah Kamani moved to Manchester and began selling handbags on a market stall, before eventually starting up his own textile company and supplying Primark and New Look. His son Mahmud followed suit, using his father’s wisdom and contacts to launch Boohoo in 2006. As the company grew in the 2010s, Mahmud snapped up more brands, buying NastyGal, Miss Pap, Coast and Karen Millen. His brother Jalal also got involved, launching I Saw It First in 2017.

The Story of the Kamanis: The Manchester Dynasty That Got Britain Hooked on Fast Fashion  The Story of the Kamanis: The Family Dynasty Behind Boohoo, I Saw It First and Pretty Little Thing

An advert for online fashion retailer Boohoo in London. Photo: Alamy.

Then there are Mahmud's three sons: Umar, who founded PrettyLittleThing in 2012; Samir, who is currently the CEO of boohooMAN; and Adam, who heads up the family's property empire.

"The Kamani formula has been to keep things simple and provide customers with quality fashion at unbeatable value," says Richard Oldworth, a representative for both Mahmud and Boohoo, over email. "We know we have been fortunate to achieve success so far, and we will strive to ensure we can continue to give customers great affordable fashion."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their immense power, getting hold of the Kamanis is almost impossible. The majority of my emails, calls and press requests get ignored or batted away by PRs who seem eager to avoid any hassle. For a while, the only person who seems willing to talk is a former Boohoo employee who worked alongside Mahmud for nearly a decade, before trying to sue him for breach of agreement (a spokesman for Kamani described the allegation as "entirely without merit"). He slides evasively in and out of my DMs. "The Kamanis are ruthless," he warns, ominously.

None of this fills me with confidence, but just as I'm about to give up I eventually manage to lock down a quick conference call with the oldest son, Umar. It feels like a coup: although no longer employed at Boohoo, the bleach blonde 31-year-old is the most high profile of the family: he has over half a million followers on Instagram and is regularly pictured alongside A-list celebrities (Will.I.Am and Jack Nicholson being two of the most recent).

Somewhat surprisingly, given the DM warnings and PR barricades, he is also very easy to talk to. Umar speaks openly about his upbringing and the chaotic, business-first mindset of the Kamani household. "We grew up in a house of 19 people, so I had my grandparents, my dad, my dad's brother, my dad's sister and then all of the grandchildren," he remembers. "It was always very busy, and kept my mind in overdrive."

Umar emphasises that it was a house of "hard work" and "respect". From the age of five, he would play chess every day with his grandad, which he believes blessed him with a "mind for business". His father was equally influential: "I remember there was a new Action Man out, and I really wanted it," the entrepreneur says. "I went to a toy store with my dad. It was £25, but he said, 'If you can go in and get it for £20, you can have it.' I was only about seven years old. So I went into the store, working my charm, and I ended up getting it."

Umar believes the Kamanis' empire has tapped into something harmless and inherently human: the urge for self-expression. Fashion, he argues, should be accessible to everyone. "My biggest love was always clothes," he explains. "I was quite a self-conscious kid, so when I put my outfits together it would help me feel a different kind of way. I used to feel more confident. I think it's important that fashion does that."

In 2012, after several years of working at Boohoo himself, Umar decided to step out of his father's shadow and launch PrettyLittleThing – a louder, more Instagrammable retailer aimed at girls and women between 14 and 24. The pinks are brighter, the florals are bigger and the mascot is a unicorn. It's a formula that's paid off: the company is now worth £1 billion and has already locked down partnerships with Little Mix and the Kardashians. When we speak, Umar is in Dubai, getting ready to set up PLT's Middle Eastern site.

"I was so, so close to knocking it on the head and throwing in the towel," Umar says, reflecting on the company's success. "For the first year or two, I used to cry on my way home from work. I remember feeling really lonely, because I couldn't relate to my dad because he was doing so well."

"People will always say, 'Oh, you've done well because you've come from a rich family.' And I get why people would say that. I would probably look at myself as an outsider and think a similar thing. But with that also comes a lot of expectation and pressure. The fear of failing becomes even more heightened, because you're around so much success. I remember getting us to a decent stage, and it never felt like enough."

Despite being forthcoming about his upbringing, there is one topic that Umar is keen to dodge. While fast fashion makes sweeping promises of a more egalitarian world – a place where cash-strapped Brits can come closer to the glamour of their Instagram feeds – its effect on the planet is becoming harder to ignore.

The fashion industry is now the second-largest generator of pollution after the oil industry, creating £1.2 billion tons of CO2 a year. Much of it – particularly the cheaper, synthetic garments used by fast fashion brands – is powered by a steady flow of chemical dyes and microplastics, as well as much of the planet's clean water supply (soon, demand for the latter may even outrun supply).

Both Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing have taken steps to release more sustainable, eco-conscious lines, but they remain a small part of their output. The one question I put to Umar on fast fashion's role in the climate crisis is not approved by his PR team (all questions were pre-vetted before the call) – but we skirt around the topic anyway. "I'm excited about opening PLT up to the world, and to keep adapting to the world and the climate that we're in," he says.

There's also a social cost to fast fashion. The industry has a reputation for being murky, with little transparency. Often, garments can only be sold cheaply if they are built off the backs of poorly paid workers. While there's no evidence that Boohoo or PrettyLittleThing are paying any illegal wages – and the Boohoo Group's suppliers are required to "undertake a SMETA (SEDEX Members Ethical Trade Audit) to assess the quality of their operations" – the location of their factories, and the flow of production, remains unclear.

"We will continue to ensure that the Boohoo Group behaves responsibly," stresses Oldworth. "[We will continue] paying our suppliers in a timely fashion, ensuring our supply chain pay their staff above minimum wage. We will provide safe working environments and inform our customers how to style items in multiple ways to encourage repeat wearing of our fashion garments, enhancing the sustainability of our business and the environment in which it operates. We'll never be complacent."

Although maintaining this level of consumption seems barely sustainable, Umar is also optimistic. He is in it for the long game, and believes the planet – and PLT – will stay with him too.

"I'm trying to build a brand that will still be going strong in 200 years time," he says. "It has to be more than fashion. I want PLT to be like a young girl's best friend; someone who they turn to when they need support or when they need encouragement, or who can deliver the right messages to live in this tough world. I think PLT has a responsibility to do that for young girls."