Mahmud Kamani: a modern rags-to-riches tale

Mahmud Kamani turned fast-fashion website Boohoo into a business worth billions. The coronavirus crisis may have brought the company’s biggest challenge yet.

Mahmud Kamani
(Image credit: © Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Boohoo)

When Boohoo, the Manchester-based fast-fashion sensation, floated in 2014, the FT observed how business in the old “Cottonopolis” had changed. Although the former mill district in the city’s northern quarter was still “a centre for the rag trade”, fortunes once made “by making clothes” were “now made from selling them”. No-one better exemplified this shift than Mahmud Kamani – an entrepreneur who “grew up on these streets” and went on to disrupt the British high-street with his online emporium.

The firm’s “explosive growth” – on the back of its PrettyLittleThing and Nasty Gal brands, plus some clever Instagram marketing – has defied the “doom and gloom” engulfing many rivals, says Business Insider: in the past five years, it has gone from £195m in sales to £1.2bn, making a billionaire of Kamani.

Sweatshops in the spotlight

This month, Boohoo hit its first rough patch since listing. With up to 3,000 new lines arriving on its website each week, the firm’s status as “teen tailor of choice” was built on reacting quickly to trends, says the FT. Hence the need to source locally: over half of the company’s clothes are made in the UK – by a network of small, independent, mainly Leicester-based factories. The Midlands city has long attracted scrutiny over working conditions in these, but it took the Covid-19 pandemic and a resulting Sunday Times investigation into unhealthy “sweat-shops” to make this an urgent issue.

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Hence some £2bn was wiped off Boohoo’s value last week amid allegations about some of its suppliers. The firm said that it was “shocked and appalled” by the claims, had severed ties with two suppliers and commissioned an independent investigation into its supply chain, notes The Daily Telegraph. But given a row over the generous bonuses awarded to Kamani and Boohoo co-founder Carol Kane, the timing was unfortunate. Some investors are spooked about how thoroughly the company knows its own supply chain.

Doubtless Kamani, 55, will hope this turns out to be a small bump in Boohoo’s spectacular trajectory and in his family’s rags-to-riches tale. Kamani’s father,

Abdullah, arrived in Britain from Kenya in 1968 “with a wife, four children and a few hundred pounds” and got into the rag trade using “family ties with Asia and Africa to import clothing”, says FT. The young Kamani cut his teeth in the business selling cheap clothes, under the Pinstripe label, to high-street brands including H&M, Topshop and Primark.

It was there that he met Kane, a designer for the brand. Both were quick to see the internet as a way “to cut out the middleman” and market directly to customers, says The Sunday Times. So in 2006, they set up Boohoo. The partnership covered all the bases: “He had the money, while Ms Kane knew the industry and the tastes of fashionable young women”, says the FT. It helped that Kamani was a natural salesman with “bags of energy”.

Keeping it in the family

All three of Kamani’s sons caught “the family bug”. PrettyLittleThing was set up by Adam and Umar in 2012 when they were teenagers. The youngest son, Samir, now heads the menswear division, BoohooMan.

The younger generation are practised hands on social media – titillating followers with shots of celebrity parties, glamorous cars and exotic holidays. But Kamani himself rarely gives interviews.

Earlier this year he stepped down as CEO to become Boohoo’s executive chairman, but this is unlikely to be a prelude to retirement. “Some people like golf, others like football. I like work,” he once told The Mail on Sunday, pointing out that, even at the age of 80, his father still showed up in the office every day.

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.