Karen Millen hits out at “greed” of fast fashion in wake of Boohoo scandal

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The founder of Karen Millen today hit out at the state of the fashion industry in the wake of sweatshop allegations engulfing the brand’s current parent Boohoo.

The clothing entrepreneur set up her eponymous brand with ex-husband Kevin Stanford in 1981, sold it to Icelandic investors in 2004 and has not been involved since. It has changed hands several times since and Boohoo took ownership last year.

Millen told the Standard “greed has forced its way to the forefront” of the industry and consumers are “ignorant” in believing bargain basement clothes can be sold without a human cost.

Boohoo has this week faced fresh claims of malpractice in its supply chain after a Sunday Times investigation reported a Leicester supplier of its Nasty Gal label was not practising social distancing and paying workers £3.50. Boohoo denied some of the claims but hired a QC to probe its supply chain.

The online fast fashion group has grown rapidly and added a string of established fashion brands to its stable, including Oasis, Coast and Karen Millen. It bought the online divisions of the latter two last year for £18.2 million while all their 32 shops and 177 concessions closed.

Millen said of the brand bearing her name: “Karen Millen was once a premium brand. A brand that prided itself on delivering high-end fashion with attention to detail. Using the best fabrics and trims but keeping our prices affordable.

“It saddens me to see where it has been taken and how it has lost its way, but I have to accept that once you let go of something you have no control in where its future lies.”

She lamented: “On one hand our younger generation appear to be far more aware of our environment and the damage that’s been caused over the years but then in the other hand there is a large percentage who seem to think that this disposable fashion is OK and in fact the norm. Are they so out of touch with reality and ignorant enough to think that clothes can be bought for a few pounds?

“How on earth do they believe that what they are buying can ethically be made for such a price without some kind of sacrifice somewhere?”

She said that the low-price fast fashion industry had forced established businesses to cut standards to compete.

Today she said: “Shopping was an art to be enjoyed and now we seem to have lost that experience but I do believe now is a good time to reset our future and make amends to an industry that has sadly gotten out of control.”

Concerned: Karen Millen (Dave Benett / Getty Images)
Concerned: Karen Millen (Dave Benett / Getty Images)

Millen sold her business in 2004 to Icelandic investors and she was declared bankrupt in 2017 over an unpaid tax bill of £6 million. She has fought several legal battles with the estate of failed Icelandic bank Kaup-thing to try to recover millions lost in investments.

In 2016, she lost the right to trade under her own name after a ruling at the High Court.

Millen last year launched online homewares store Homemonger, which is on the hunt for its first physical store, likely to be in the south of England. The shop may include a café, farm shop and space for workshops and is likely to be in a rural location as Millen believes more people will move out of cities and increasingly work from home.

Boohoo, founded and built up in Manchester by the Kamani family and Carol Kane, has lost more than £1 billion from its value amid the fallout from the allegations. But support from investors and analysts has helped the stock recover some loses, and the shares rose 5% to 301p today.

Analysts at Peel Hunt this morning said in a Buy note on Boohoo that environment, social and governance issues remain a “work in progress” but there is “significant runway ahead for the business if they get this right”.

The history of Karen Millen: the founder and her brand

1981 – Millen and husband Kevin Stanford begin making and selling white shirts to friends

1983 – Couple open their first store in Kent, followed by expansion across Europe, Asia and Australia

2001 – Millen and Stanford divorce

2004 – Company is sold to Icelandic investors for £95m

2008 – Icelandic banking crash turns Millen’s investments sour, sparking string of legal cases

2009 – The brand becomes part of Aurora Fashions and is later spun out

2016 – Millen loses right to trader under her own name

2017 – Millen declared bankrupt in 2017 over an unpaid tax bill

2019 – Launches new retail venture Homemonger. Boohoo buys up the label