Last february, on a sunny afternoon in West Hollywood, two girls with precise eye makeup paused on Melrose Avenue and peered in the windows of a building whose interior was painted a bright, happy pink.
Two pink, winged unicorns flanked racks of clothes: ribbed crop tops, snakeskin-print pants, white sleeveless bodysuits. One of the girls tugged on the door, then frowned. It was locked, which was weird.
She tugged again. Inside, a broad-chested security guard regarded them impassively from behind a pink security desk.
Erin Cullison, the U.S. public-relations rep for PrettyLittleThing, a fast-fashion brand founded in 2012, watched the girls give up and walk away. She sighed.
Although the West Hollywood showroom closely resembles a store, it is not, in fact, a store. It is not open to the public; the clothes on the racks don’t have price tags. “People try to give us cash, but we’re not even set up to take money,” Cullison told me.
Instead, the clientele is made up of the brand’s influencer partners—thousands of them—who can make an appointment to visit the showroom every couple of weeks and “get gifted.”
They try on the latest styles and take advantage of various “photo moments”: lounging on the plush pink couch, posing on the pink staircase, peeking out of the London phone booth repainted—yes—pink.
They can snack on a pink-frosted cupcake, and (provided they’re 21 or older) drink a glass of rosé at the store’s pink bar, before heading home with several items of free clothing.
PrettyLittleThing is part of the Boohoo Group, a company that has become a dominant force in retail fashion over the past decade; along with several other aggressive and like-minded companies, it is quickly reshaping the industry.
Boohoo stock is now publicly traded on the London Stock Exchange (LSE: BOO), but it started as a family business.
As the legend goes, the family patriarch, Abdullah Kamani, immigrated to the U.K. from Kenya in the 1960s and began selling handbags from a street stand.
Eventually, he opened a textile factory that supplied the retailers that, starting in the 1990s, shook the fashion world with their cheap clothes and high merchandise turnover: H&M, Topshop, and the Irish fast-fashion juggernaut Primark.
Abdullah’s business was successful enough that he bought himself a Rolls-Royce; his son Mahmud saw the potential for even greater profits.
In 2006, Mahmud and his business partner, Carol Kane, began selling cheap clothes directly to consumers through Boohoo.com.
Without the burden of retail stores, the company’s costs were relatively low, except when it came to marketing.
Young girls who went on YouTube (and, later, Instagram) were inundated with microtargeted ads for Boohoo bodysuits and minidresses.
Boohoo’s founders understood that social media could be leveraged to make new brands quickly seem ubiquitous to their target audience.
“If you have that imagery out there you are perceived as a much larger business than you actually are,” Kane told the trade publication Drapers.
Brands flooded our feeds with their wares, whether through their own channels or, more surreptitiously, by enlisting influencers to make an item seem irresistible, or at least unavoidable.
Boohoo’s founders understood that the company had to hustle to keep customers’ attention—to “be fresh all the time,” as Kane has put it.
“A traditional retailer might buy three or four styles, but we’ll buy 25,” Kane told The Guardian in 2014.
Not having to keep hundreds of stores stocked meant Boohoo could be flexible about inventory management.
In 2018, H&M was sitting on $4.3 billion worth of unsold items. Boohoo, by contrast, could order as few as 300 or 500 units of a given style—just enough to see whether it would catch on.
Only about a quarter of the initial styles were reordered, according to Kane.
Over time, Boohoo accumulated rich data about online consumer behavior, and further tailored the shopping experience to its shoppers’ tastes.
“They know that first-time customers like to see this product category, or customers from this geographic area like this color palette,” Matt Katz, a managing partner at the consulting firm SSA & Company, told me.
In normal times, Boohoo’s agility and ingenuity offered crucial advantages over the competition. When the pandemic hit, those advantages became decisive.
In 2015, when Tricia Panlaqui was 12, she pretended she was 13 so she could start an Instagram account, where she posted videos of herself doing the kinds of things that 12-year-olds do: cartwheeling, blowing kisses at the camera, putting on makeup.
By her 15th birthday, she had moved on to what she felt was a more grown-up medium—YouTube—and focused her content on fashion.
When she posted haul videos, a YouTube genre that’s a combination of an unboxing and a bedroom fashion show, her viewership skyrocketed. Brands began reaching out, offering her sponsorship deals.
In Tricia’s earliest videos, her outfits had mostly come from familiar mall stores: a white sweater from Express, distressed denim cutoffs from American Eagle.
But once she hit 10,000 followers, her channel began to feature clothes from a different set of brands, ones that were typically online-only and based in China.
There was Shein, which sells $10 bathing suits, and Zaful, where the prices were even lower.
These companies had cropped up alongside lesser-known brands whose names tend to be two words awkwardly jammed together: DressLily, NastyDress, TwinkleDeals, TrendsGal, FairySeason.
You wouldn’t find their goods at the mall or see them advertised on TV, but if you were a young woman between the ages of 12 and 22 on social media, their targeted ads were inescapable.
Once Tricia surpassed 100,000 followers—a key metric for YouTube influencers—she began getting offers from better-known fast-fashion brands, including Boohoo, as well as other companies that were following its digital-first model, such as Princess Polly and Fashion Nova.
In April, U.S. clothing sales plummeted by 79 percent from March; McKinsey predicted that global fashion-industry revenues would contract by 30 percent in 2020.
Brands like Primark were saddled with what one industry observer called an “inventory crisis”—billions of dollars of merchandise intended for now-closed shops.
With less inventory and no brick-and-mortar stores, Boohoo and its competitors had no such drag on their operations.
Quick to pivot, the brands sent Tricia sweatpants and hoodies and suggested themes for her videos: Corona style! Lounging at home! Even with the economy in free fall, demand for cheap, cute clothes persisted.
In times of crisis, consumers don’t stop shopping—they just limit their purchases to affordable pleasures.
Fast fashion had expanded its market share during the 2008 global financial crisis; now this new cohort of companies—known as ultra-fast fashion—was poised to do the same.
While the rest of the retail sector struggled and legacy companies such as J.Crew and Neiman Marcus filed for bankruptcy, many of Tricia’s sponsors and their rivals thrived.
Asos’s sales rose rapidly from March to June. Boohoo had its best quarter ever. “We’ve seen an incredible sprint to digital,” Matt Katz told me. “What would’ve taken seven years has taken seven months—or seven weeks.”
While high-end fashion companies were still releasing fall and spring collections, Forever 21’s rival Zara offered fresh styles twice a week.
The company, which prefers to distance itself from the “fast fashion” label, says it was just trying to respond to customers’ desires.
But stocking inexpensive, ever-changing options also stimulated our desire to buy more.
If you found a look you liked at Zara, you had to snap it up right away, or else suffer from fashion FOMO. One study found that, whereas the average shopper visited any given store about four times a year, Zara shoppers stopped in once every three weeks.
Worldwide, clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2015, while prices dropped: We were spending the same amount on clothes, but getting nearly twice as many items for it. At its peak, in 2015, Forever 21 made $4.4 billion in global sales.
Trends used to take a year to pass from the runway to the mainstream; now the fashion cycle has become so compressed that it takes just a few weeks, or even less.
Americans buy a piece of clothing every five days, on average, and we pay so little for our garments that we’ve come to think of them as disposable.
According to a McKinsey study, for every five new garments produced each year, three garments are disposed of.
Like many retail brands, Forever 21 was hit hard by the shift to online shopping. While other companies invested in their e-commerce platforms, Forever 21 doubled down on brick-and-mortar retail, signing leases in malls that were steadily losing foot traffic.
When shoppers did visit stores, they found a retailer that was out of touch with the times. In 2015, two-thirds of teenage girls in the U.S. identified as “special size”—plus, petite, tall—but mall shops were slow to respond to this reality.
Two decades ago, Zara was revolutionary for offering hundreds of new items a week; nowadays, Asos adds as many as 7,000 new styles to its website over the same period.
Fast-fashion companies used to brag about getting a new style up for sale in as little as two weeks. Boohoo can do it in a matter of days.
Boohoo’s profits doubled in 2017. They doubled again in 2018. Meanwhile, the third generation of the Kamani family was making inroads in the fashion business.
Umar, Mahmud’s son, had founded PrettyLittleThing when he was 24. Now he was turning it into Boohoo’s splashier little sister.
The clothes were bolder (more body-con dresses, more crop tops, more metallics) and the branding was emphatically pinker.
PrettyLittleThing’s branding reflects Umar’s flashy persona. On Instagram, where he has 1 million followers, he’s posted photos of himself posing with Drake, sunbathing in the Maldives, and Jet Skiing behind a yacht.
He hosted J.Lo’s 50th birthday party at Gloria Estefan’s house, and claims to FaceTime with will.i.am
nearly every day.
In 2017, data from the social-media-analytics company Hitwise showed that PLT was the most popular emerging fast-fashion brand, with a 663 percent rise in traffic to its online store since 2014.
From 2016 to 2019, the company’s annual sales went from about $23 million to nearly $510 million.
In 2014, Dolls Kill attracted $5 million in an initial round of funding led by Maveron, the venture-capital firm co-founded by former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz; five years later, the company raised another $40 million in a second round.
That round was headed by Sequoia, which thinks Dolls Kill has the potential to be a “generation defining” brand, Sun told me. Rebellion against the mass market had mass-market appeal, she believed. “The age of conformity is over,” she said.
“Anytime I wear anything from them, people are like, where did you get that?”
The ultra-fast-fashion brands have designed a shopping experience that makes the consumer feel as if the clothes magically appear out of nowhere, with easy purchasing and near-immediate delivery.
The frictionless transactions contribute to the sense that the products themselves are ephemeral—easy come, easy go.
Producing clothing at this scale and speed requires expending enormous amounts of natural resources.
Cotton is a thirsty crop; according to Tatiana Schlossberg, the author of Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have (2019), producing a pound of it can require 100 times more water than producing a pound of tomatoes.
But synthetic textiles have their own problems, environmentally speaking. They’re a major source of the microplastics that clog our waterways and make their way into our seafood.
McKinsey has estimated that the fashion industry is responsible for 4 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions; the United Nations says it accounts for 20 percent of global wastewater.
Meanwhile, the volume of clothes Americans throw away has doubled over the past 20 years. We each generate about 75 pounds of textile waste a year, an increase of more than 750 percent since 1960.
Some thrift shops, glutted with flimsy, synthetic wares, have stopped accepting fast-fashion donations. Discarded clothes get shipped overseas.
Last year, a mountain of cast-off clothing outside the Ghanaian capital city of Accra generated so much methane that it exploded; months later, it was still smoldering.