When Mahmud Kamani faces adversity, he drives to a run-down suburb of Manchester, peers up at the one-bedroom flat that he once called home and reflects on his rags-to-riches journey from market trader to billionaire boss of the Boohoo fashion empire.
In recent months, the 56-year-old has had good cause to make such a journey.
First his company was enveloped by a wave of condemnation amid claims it was using suppliers who exploited their workers.
Mahmud Kamani, pictured, is the billionaire boss of the fashion empire Boohoo. The 56-year-old businessman once lived in a one-bedroom flat in a rundown part of Manchester
Then came the death of his father, who had borrowed £500 from a friend in 1968 so he could carve out a new life for his family in Britain.
‘We all lived in one rented room above my mum’s shop – seven of us – and we cared for my grandfather too,’ recalls Mr Kamani in his first interview since the Boohoo scandal broke in July.
‘We were never wealthy. I remember the times that bailiffs would knock on our door and my mother crying about it. ‘But we all worked really hard, that’s what our parents instilled in us – that we could be whoever we wanted to be if we worked hard enough.
‘Eventually the family raised enough money to buy the shop and flat. I still own it today. I could never part with it. I still drive past it and say a little prayer of thanks, because that’s where it all began.’
Established by Mr Kamani and his business partner Carol Kane in 2006, Boohoo has become synonymous with the wildly popular, yet equally controversial, fast-fashion phenomenon. Its sales topped £850 million last year, propelling Mr Kamani to 131st place on The Sunday Times Rich List, with a family fortune of £1.16 billion.
But it was revelations in the same newspaper that workers in a Leicester factory packing clothes destined for Boohoo were being paid far below the minimum wage which plunged his firm into crisis. Undercover reporters also found the factory operating during the city’s localised lockdown without social distancing measures in place.
‘Never in all my years in business have I found things so tough,’ he admits. ‘The business, my family and our team have been attacked and the thought that we could have been buying from suppliers that treated their people this way has kept me awake at night.’
While a report commissioned by Mr Kamani and carried out by Alison Levitt QC found the firm had not intentionally profited from poor working conditions and low pay, and had committed no criminal offences, it did identify ‘many failings’ and concluded Boohoo had not taken sufficient responsibility for those involved in producing its clothes.
Items like this £15 dress made Boohoo a success
Mr Kamani holds up his hands to mistakes. ‘We started as a small business and we grew. We’re from the same roots as many of the people in our suppliers’ factories. We’re cut from the same cloth, if you like. Of course we don’t want people to be hurt. It’s unimaginable that we would purposefully set out to mistreat people.
‘Do I, hand on heart, believe we have knowingly treated workers badly – absolutely not. My mother is an unassuming hard-working Indian immigrant. The idea I could treat someone, just like my mum, in the ways that our company has been accused of is just unthinkable.
‘Our business has grown so quickly.
‘At the start, Carol and I were all over every aspect of every decision that needed to be made, and we’ve been lucky enough to be incredibly successful. We’ve gone from a tiny team to employing around 6,000 people and owning nine great brands.
‘If we are guilty of anything, then it’s failing to realise we needed to put in more oversight and governance when dealing with suppliers. We didn’t put in enough checks, we didn’t put them in fast enough and things slipped along the way. It’s my job now to make sure we fix them.’
In the days after the scandal broke, Boohoo’s share price almost halved, and its no-nonsense co-founder is aware that winning back public trust will be hard.
He has appointed Sir Brian Leveson, who chaired the public inquiry into the culture and practices of the press, to oversee Boohoo’s so-called ‘Agenda for Change’ with the accountants KPMG tasked with independently tracking its progress.
The firm will also work alongside the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, a body that represents exploited workers.
‘I know that everyone is looking at us, some seem keen for us to fail. But we won’t. Sir Brian and his team will make sure we don’t,’ says Mr Kamani.
‘We started mapping our UK supply chain at the beginning of the year and all of this has spurred us on. We’re almost ready to publish our full UK supply chain early next year and our global supply chain by the end of 2021.
‘I understand how hard it is to run a small business, so to protect jobs we will stick by those who, while they may not be perfect, can prove that they are willing to change.
‘But we will never condone illegal practices or mistreatment of workers. We started in this country and we’re sticking by it. We’ll grow capacity with great suppliers, of which there are many, and I’m determined to build a UK manufacturing hub that is the envy of the world. I’ve never been more determined to fix something.
‘We don’t own or operate any factories in Leicester or anywhere else, and we were not the only retailer buying from them, but I’m going to use my influence and our buying power to change things. To my suppliers, I say that if you can’t prove, categorically, that you’re acting legally and ethically, you will never get any business from Boohoo. I guarantee it.’
Mr Kamani was only four when his Gujarati father Abdullah joined an exodus of Asians from Kenya where draconian employment laws prevented them from making a living. While his mother ran a small fabric shop, his father sold handbags and towels from a market stall.
Mr Kamani, who met his wife Aisha at college in Manchester, where they still live, inherited their work ethic and tough negotiating skills. ‘I spend my life in the engine room,’ he says.
‘I don’t have a hobby outside my family and my work. For me, without work, what would I do? I’m not a man to sit on a beach, go on the QE2, go round the world.
Mahmud Kamani with his wife, parents and high-living children
‘I don’t play golf, don’t collect rare stamps, I’m not into cars, I’m not a wine connoisseur. I don’t even like champagne.
‘I’m not ashamed of being wealthy – I’ve worked hard all my life – but life is normal.
‘My ideal day would be getting up, going to the gym, going into the office and being busy in meetings and watching everything going on.
‘I usually leave at 8pm, have dinner and get back on my iPad and go over the figures. I live a simple, basic life. I’m quite low-key, I don’t want to be in anyone’s face. Glitz and glamour? That’s not what I do.’
By contrast, his children – particularly eldest son Umar – live very public lives of extravagance.
‘My children do Instagram for marketing. That kind of publicity is not really something I’m comfortable with,’ he confesses.
‘Money and wealth is not important to me. For me, it’s just back to work. I don’t do long holidays and even when I do take a break, I’ve got my phone on. I’m still working.
‘My wife is used to it by now. When you have a fast-growing business, it’s what you do, it’s all hands on deck.
‘The last thing I bought was a pair of earrings for my wife for her birthday. That was in October. Those and some socks I bought at Marks and Spencer a week ago.
‘I have the same friends as I had 35 years ago, some from school, some from college, some from the early days of my business.
‘My children have big celebrity friends, but my friends are my good friends.’
Umar’s friends, as well documented on his Instagram account, include music icons such as P Diddy and Jennifer Lopez.
The 32-year-old, who founded the Pretty Little Thing fashion brand with his younger brother Adam in 2012, owns a fleet of cars, including two Rolls-Royce Phantoms, a £300,000 Lamborghini Aventador, a £92,000 customised G-Class Mercedes and a high-end Range Rover.
‘My children are different. Everyone has their down time and they’re young men,’ says Mr Kamani. ‘But I’m so proud that all three of them work hard.
‘How many people who have rich fathers have children who work hard and grow their own successful business? It so rarely happens.’
Despite its setbacks, there has been speculation that Boohoo may buy Topshop, part of Sir Philip Green’s fallen Arcadia empire, to further tighten its grip on the fast-fashion market.
Mr Kamani declines to comment on that, or the fate of Sir Philip, his long-term rival in the fiercely competitive industry. Instead, he says, he is focusing on his looming appearance before the Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee later this month, where he will be challenged about how Boohoo operates.
Despite thriving in the famously sharp-elbowed fashion world, he is apprehensive, but determined to point out it is the whole fashion industry – not only Boohoo – that needs to ensure its house is in order.
‘I know we can’t fix this on our own and I know that I’m not responsible for what other retailers do, that I can only control what our team does and how we behave.
‘We’re going to rebuild a manufacturing base in Leicester that everyone wants to buy from – that will be great for the workers and great for Leicester and for the UK.
‘The easy option would have been to quit but walking away, giving in, if you like, was never an option. I owe it personally to everyone in our business to fix this.
‘We will prove once and for all that the business we have built is sound, that we can take the looks off the catwalk and celebrities and turn them into garments for our millions of customers quickly, legally and ethically.’
For now, however, he is grieving for his father. ‘
The last five months have taken my soul. It feels like I’ve been beaten with a stick.
‘But I’ve decided I’m not going to keep my head down. I’m going to hold my head up high. I’m proud, very proud, of what I’ve done and what we’ve built.
‘My father was my hero, my king, my best friend. When that’s taken away, the rest is insignificant.
‘What else can they do, when my most precious thing is gone?
‘He would hate me to give up. He’d want me to fight, to stand up and rightly shout from the rooftops.’