In less than 10 years, The Business of Fashion became more popular than the news sources that were established for decades before. The founder of the new company, Imran Amed, says that he succeeds because his opponents are ‘sycophants’.
Fashion was always considered a closed industry that doesn’t like outsiders. It’s working according to its own rules, and it decided who will and will not succeed. The stereotype was broken by a 41-year consultant from Canada, who is now at the top of the world of fashion.
The Business of Fashion (BoF) is a website that is based in London and features fashion, media, and tech business news. It has become the Financial Times for fashionistas around the world. When we met him in his office, Mr Amed told us people are obsessed with the website. It’s no joke. Many shiny people read the daily newsletter, which provides links to the big stories of the day in leading publications, even before they’re out of bed and hitting the double espressos.
BoF has almost 1m unique monthly users and a social-media following of 3.5m. Almost 250,000 subscribe to the newsletter, which has displaced Drapers and Women’s Wear Daily as the go-to source for fashion news. Currently it is free, but next month BoF will take the bold step of charging for content.
Autumn is Amed’s busiest season. It’s when he publishes The Business of Fashion 500, a Vanity Fair-style audit of who’s hot and who’s not in the togs trade. Almost everyone in the industry reads the list, which is published both in a special print edition and online.
This year, Kate Moss is on the cover, because she has given BoF a rare interview. She may be sitting pretty, but her business associate Philip Green, once king of Britain’s high street, has dropped off the list altogether, following the collapse of the BHS chain he formerly owned, amid allegations that he enriched himself and his family at the expense of thousands of employees who have now lost their jobs and whose pensions are under threat.
Also off the list, which will be published in full next month, are the leading designers Hedi Slimane, Alber Elbaz, Francisco Costa, Alessandra Facchinetti, Peter Copping and Stefano Pilati, “as they all left their roles and have not popped up anywhere else”. New additions include Jaden and Willow Smith, Bella Hadid, Zayn Malik and the Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel. Britons and those working in the UK make up the second-largest group on the list after Americans, because “so much of the creative talent that drives fashion is British”. (Including Amed — he now has a British passport.)
His journey to the centre of planet fashion is an unlikely one. It’s not just that he’s a pointy head from Calgary who got a job with McKinsey, the world’s wonkiest consultancy, after graduating from Harvard Business School. He does not look or sound much like a typical fashion fella. He’s a short, thin, self-confessed “nerd” — a super-techie in an industry that is still highly suspicious of the online world. He uses words like “traction” a lot. He doesn’t drink much, or smoke or do drugs, or party hard. He goes to bed between 10pm and 11pm and gets up at 5.30am, bedtime for many during fashion week.
Yet it is precisely these qualities that have made him a success. Years before most fashion types realised the potential of blogs, he set one up. His McKinsey brain told him that an industry worth £190bn a year was hopelessly divided between the suits running the businesses and the creatives designing and marketing their wares. Neither side understood the other — and many still don’t. He decided to explain the business to the creatives, and the creatives to the suits.
He started his “passion project” in 2007, alone on the sofa in his apartment in Notting Hill, to which he retreated after he quit McKinsey the previous year, much to the disappointment of his Tanzanian-born mother and Kenyan-born father, who emigrated to Canada before he was born and were delighted when their son got a six-figure salary at a posh firm. BoF now employs 40 people in London, New York and Shanghai, where it has a satellite operation to oversee its Chinese-language edition. It is funded by recruitment advertising — the big brands pay about £20,000 each a year to advertise jobs to BoF’s subscribers — plus sponsorship from partners. Other backing, amounting to several million pounds, has come from 20-odd investors both inside and outside fashion.
As his influence has grown, Amed has used his position to try to challenge the unspoken rules of fashion journalism. He exposes the industry’s prissy public-relations Henriettas, who have got too big for their Manolos. In one article, he published the ninnyish complaints about BoF stories from Saint Laurent’s PRs, who, he said, “appear to think that the media exists solely to serve as their mouthpiece”.
He has also introduced a system of full disclosure. When a brand pays for a BoF writer to attend a fashion show or an event — as Amed’s star man, Tim Blanks, lured from Condé Nast, did back in May, when Chanel unveiled its Cruise collection in Cuba — it is always disclosed. Fashion magazines never do this; Amed thinks they should. “They are not being transparent enough. The readers need to know.” Are they committing fraud on their readers? “They operate a different kind of journalism. There are all sorts of relationships between media and the brands.” Sounds like a yes to me.
He goes on: “There’s a lot of issues that the industry is not willing or open to discuss — sustainability, ethics, the role of women, the modelling industry and size, the fact that old white men are running businesses targeted at women. BoF provokes conversation and reactions. We’re proud of talking about the taboo topics. There are already enough publications out there that cover fashion from a sycophantic point of view.”
It seems the right time to ask Mr Clean Hands Smart(y) Pants a few sharp questions, such as: with sales and profits down at many of the big brands as the global economy slows and new threats, notably terrorism, emerge, how bad are things in the industry? “I haven’t seen an environment with this much long-term uncertainty or worry,” he replies without hesitation.
Who in fashion is cocking up at the moment? “Prada and Ralph Lauren.” How? “Prada opened way too many stores, way too quickly, and its product mix isn’t innovating or changing enough. It hasn’t adopted or understood the digital opportunity.” And Ralph Lauren? “It is going through a huge restructuring and has laid off a bunch of people. Plus, it has a hierarchy of brands that maybe people don’t understand any more. What’s the difference between Ralph Lauren, Purple Label, Polo — all of those other sub-brands? The brand is also too available, with an overreliance on department stores.” Later, he dismisses Armani as “not super-creative any more”.
Department stores have reported dire results recently. Are they dying? “The ones whose original value was that they were a one-stop shop, but which didn’t really have a point of view, are at risk.” Name and shame? “Saks.” Any bright lights in the otherwise gloomy fashion firmament? Gucci — “a remarkable turnaround” — and the new US modern-basics brand Everlane — “great transparent pricing model”. What does he think of the launch of Style.com, Condé Nast’s new online shopping portal? “At first glance, it is not nearly as comprehensive on brands as I expected.”
Is the gatecrasher on the front row quite as tough as he makes out, I wonder. Critics say he is not averse to the odd puff piece himself. They cite an exclusive interview with the Burberry designer Christopher Bailey, on the day he stepped down as CEO of the company after a troubled stint. Amed managed to avoid asking the half-dozen vital questions any junior business hack would pose. “Look at the collective balance of all the pieces that we put out on Burberry and you’ll see that, actually, there are some that have been critical,” he says. His detractors also point out that he does not rank the BoF Fashion 500 in any order for fear, they claim, of alienating key players.
Is he on this year’s list? “No,” he laughs. Why not? “That wouldn’t be appropriate.” You’re not a modest man, are you? “Of course I am,” he insists. He’s fibbing, of course. You don’t get as far as he has by being modest. But he has earned his place on his list — even if he won’t put himself on it.