Mission: Carol Kane is ‘rewiring’ the DNA of brands she knows well
Carol Kane has the kind of working life that most people at fashion retailers can only dream about. The Boohoo co-founder and executive director is busy nurturing some of the most famous high street brands back to health after a string of retail failures.
From Principles to Karen Millen, many of them are brands she shopped at back in the 1980s. Kane has spent months rewiring the ‘brand DNA’ of Warehouse, Oasis and Dorothy Perkins, and last Thursday signed off a new advertising campaign for Debenhams – to be revealed later this month under the strapline Debenhams Delivered To Your Doorstep.
This weekend, fresh from a trip to Italy’s fashion hotspot Florence to meet new suppliers, she has a few days enforced isolation to sort through her Staffordshire home ‘dressing rooms’ – previously bursting at the seams with her own clothes but now expanded considerably as part of her ongoing house renovation project.
It would all sound idyllic if it wasn’t for some very public criticism that could erupt once again this week with a controversial vote at Boohoo’s annual meeting. Shareholder advisory body Glass Lewis has urged investors to block her reappointment as a director following last year’s allegations that Boohoo failed to act quickly enough to stamp out poor working conditions at its Leicester suppliers.
The company has made significant efforts to draw a line under the furore. It brought in Alison Levitt QC to investigate, then retired judge Sir Brian Leveson to continue the work, and even former police commissioners to ‘forensically’ examine its supply base.
Kane’s position on the board will be cushioned by a block vote from the Kamani family which owns more than a quarter of Boohoo’s shares. And sources said Jupiter, the biggest institutional shareholder with 9 per cent, is also planning to support her.
However, some institutions may automatically vote in line with the Glass Lewis position. One City source said the continued criticism does not reflect efforts made to right wrongs, nor take into account Kane’s key role revitalising a bunch of tarnished brands.
Kane says: ‘What we’re doing now is far more than just regular factory audits. We’ve gone to a forensic level. We have exposed factories, we have uncovered fraudulent activity, things that you would never see in a factory audit. We’ve not only cleaned up the manufacturing base for us but for everybody else in the industry that wants to tap into it. It’s a move for good.’
She admits to being ‘humiliated’ by last year’s scandal.
But she insists Boohoo will now act as ‘a champion’ for Leicester manufacturers while many retailers have been ‘frightened’ away. She says of the push to have her unseated: ‘Taking someone’s head is vengeful. But it doesn’t actually help the industry. Myself, Mahmud [Kamani co-founder and executive chairman] and John [Lyttle, chief executive] are the team that are putting this right.’
But how sure can Boohoo be that new processes are watertight? ‘It’s difficult now for them to do it because of the processes. But people are creative,’ she says. ‘As they find a way around our system, we’ll have to keep strengthening our system. We’re taking them on a new journey as well. They understand we are an important player – the size and scale we’ve got – and if they don’t play by the rules they will be exposed and that will be very visible.’
Kane admits she’s going at ‘100 miles an hour’ despite her overarching creative role at each brand from fashion design to marketing. She says: ‘I think I’ve become the guardian within the team. I’m looking at the DNA of each brand, to hold it precious. We keep each brand team within their own floor and we don’t cross-pollinate.’
Kane says she has her fair share of Gucci and Louis Vuitton but prefers to wear black skinny jeans and a shirt to the office. ‘It’s funny, people who work in fashion are relatively conservative in their own dress.’
And it’s the high street she knows best. ‘I knew the brands well [when we acquired them] and knew what they stood for, possibly better than the recent owners. I was the girl who shopped them. Now I have an opportunity to get them back to their former glory and make them relevant in an online only business.’
She says that includes educating teams coming in on Boohoo’s sophisticated ‘test and repeat’ model of seeking out the hot sellers.
She adds: ‘That middle market has really been struggling in recent years but it does still exist and I am that woman, I do work, and I need something more professional to wear at work and I do have occasions where I want something a little bit more expensive when I go out.’
While in Florence and nearby Prato she met quality suppliers to help in her mission to improve the brands. She adds: ‘We were also talking with them about what we can do that’s sustainable.’ Sustainable fashion? A contradiction surely for one of Britain’s most successful fast-fashion giants? ‘No I don’t believe that at all,’ Kane hits back. ‘We’re looking into growing our own cotton so we can go from farm to factory. It’s part of the big change in a large organisation that has to be responsible for the fashion it produces.
‘I never throw anything in the trash. I have high street stuff like Topshop or Miss Selfridge that I’ve had for ten or 15 years.’ She admits fashion and sustainability ‘don’t necessarily go hand in hand’. Boohoo’s business model has very much been driven by £5 tops and £10 jeans that hardly seem designed for the long term.
But she explains: ‘There hasn’t been such a demand [for sustainable fashion] in the last few years. But I’d say that has changed in the last 12 months. Maybe with people working from home and they’ve been wearing more cotton products and natural fibres they’ve really been thinking about it a little bit more. But I think there has been more noise [about environment issues] in the news generally.’
Most importantly, perhaps, the next generation appears to be steering the changes. ‘There’s a massive drive from the influencers who are wanting to work with sustainable brands – that tells me there’s a sea change to come.’
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