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Umar Kamani's PrettyLittleThing is a pretty big deal

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As PrettyLittleThing founder and chief executive Umar Kamani is inducted into the Drapers Digital Awards Hall of Fame, he talks to Drapers about creating a legacy and taking the rapidly growing business global.

A pink Range Rover – decorated with flying unicorns – is waiting to take Drapers on the short drive from Manchester Piccadilly station to PrettyLittleThing’s headquarters nearby. The rosy theme continues at the etailer’s Ancoats home, where rooms are lined with flamingo-print wallpaper and a candy pink golf cart is on display among a 400-strong millennial workforce.

The man at the centre of this panoply of pink is founder and chief executive Umar Kamani. He launched PrettyLittleThing, which was then focused on accessories, in 2012, when he was still in his early twenties. Now known for its trend-led, celebrity-inspired fashion and keen pricing – customers can buy bodycon dresses for as little as £5 – the business has undergone a meteoric rise.

Revenue at PrettyLittleThing soared by 107% to £374.4m in the year to 28 February. The number of customers shopping at the etailer in the period rocketed by 70% to 5 million. It has more than 10 million followers on Instagram and has collaborated with famous faces including Kourtney Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez and plus-size model Ashley Graham. Since 2016, it has been owned by the Boohoo Group, which was co-founded by Kamani’s father, Mahmud.

“PrettyLittleThing has had an incredible year,” says retail analyst Nick Bubb. “The key decision from management was to target the Missguided market. We’ve seen the [challenges at] Missguided as the other side of the coin of PLT’s rise.” Fellow fast fashion etailer Missguided reported a £38m loss for the 53 weeks to 1 April 2018, down from £580,000 profit.

Drapers meets Kamani, who was inducted into the Drapers’ Digital Hall of Fame at the Drapers Digital Awards this month, at a typically whirlwind moment at the fast-paced business. PrettyLittleThing celebrated the opening of a new 7,000 sq ft office, also decorated in pink hues and home to a unicorn lounge, in Los Angeles earlier this year. At just 31, Kamani has a big ambition: to build a global brand that stands the test of time.

“We’re a reactive business,” he tells Drapers. “We react to what the customer wants and what the customer needs. That’s how we’ve got to this point. We don’t see ourselves as just as a website where you buy your clothes – we see ourselves as a brand that fulfils the aspirations of our girl.”

It’s our job to keep up with the customer and keep our head in the game

Umar Kamani

PrettyLittleThing’s success, he argues, is driven by an innate understanding of the target customer. To keep up with shoppers’ demand for a constant stream of new product, Kamani has to have his finger on the pulse of everything from trends to consumer behaviour and emerging social media platforms.

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PrettyLittleThing spring 19

“It’s our job to keep up with the customer and keep our head in the game,” he explains. “You have to keep up with the youth or give a place to the youth. That includes me. If one day I lose touch, then I have to get replaced, because that’s what’s best for the business. Social media gives me a massive insight and I also try and go to concerts – like [US rapper] Lil Pump – that might not be my taste. I went to watch the crowd and see how the young generation is behaving. There are also platforms like [video-sharing app] TikTok, which is aimed at 10-to-16-year-olds – which is targeting the customer before they actually become the customer.”

Visits to PrettyLittleThing’s website rose by 52% in the 12 months to 31 March 2019, consumer insights company Hitwise reports – this is compared with an average of 11% across the top ten fast fashion etailers in the UK.

Social smarts

“PLT’s success is driven by multiple factors,” explains global head of insights Lisa Luu. “It understands its customer inside out. The brand continues to be the first to identify, or even create, explosive new trends. And, critically, it has the agility to respond to trends with new merchandise or marketing campaigns at speed.”

A social media native, clever marketing has helped propel the business to the top. PrettyLittleThing launched a podcast, PLT: Behind Closed Doors, in January, which features interviews with influencers and social media stars.

“What’s so great about the podcast is that there’s no selling behind it – it is not there to generate any sales,” Kamani explains. “It’s girl chat, it gives our customer the kind of gossip or real life information she wants to listen to. [The podcast] looks like we’re doing something really clever, but all we’re doing is thinking about the customer and doing more than just selling to them.”

Getting inside the customer’s head is also the key, Kamani argues, to international success. Having conquered the UK, he has the rest of the world firmly in his sights.

Driven by Kamani’s refrain of “open countries, not stores”, the etailer is concentrating on building localised websites for overseas customers. Important international markets include Australia and France, which launched in 2016 and 2017 respectively. The US, where it launched in 2016, has been a particular focus. Currently, 60% of sales come from the UK, 20% from the US, and the remainder from other international territories. 

“As a kid, the US always fascinated me. All the films I watched were made there and it always looked like such an exciting place. There were a lot of people who said before we launched in the US that I had to be careful. The fact that people were warning me made me want crack it even more – it made me think: ‘What can be so difficult about this market?’ We spent a lot of time there, learning about the culture and what Americans want. When you understand how the shopper lives, you can go into a market with a purpose.”

Africa and Latin America have been earmarked as other potential new international markets.

“Africa is somewhere we want to look at. It is broken into so many markets and [to be successful] we have to understand what resonates with a customer in Ghana compared with a customer in Nigeria or Kenya. That’s interesting to me, because it allows me to understand different cultures. That’s something you need as an [retail] international leader, which I believe I am, and something I want to develop more.”

Like much of the retail industry, sustainability is also on Kamani’s mind. PrettyLittleThing, alongside fellow etailers Boohoo, Asos, Amazon and Missguided, was asked to give evidence on the impact of its business to the Environmental Audit Committee at the end of last year. In April, the business unveiled its first recycled collection, which retails from £8 for crop tops to £20 for hoodies. It also partnered with clothing recycling app Regain, which diverts unwanted clothing from landfill.

“We haven’t got the perfect answer to saving the planet,” Kamani admits. “As we become a bigger business, the environmental issues are something that I have become increasingly aware of, and I completely agree that there’s a lot of things we can and should be doing.

“The recycled collection isn’t a perfect solution – you could look at it and argue, ‘Well, it’s just one collection in a big range.’ But it’s a step in the right direction and Regain is a step in the right direction. We’re not just ticking a box and saying: ‘We’ve got a sustainable collection now so we’re doing everything right’ – it’s an issue I want to get my teeth into more.”

PrettyLittleThing has also been busy investing in its infrastructure over the past 12 months – it moved into a new 615,000 sq ft warehouse in Sheffield last summer. Hamstrung by limited capacity at its previous home, Kamani was forced to dampen demand at PrettyLittleThing before the move, and temporarily suspended next-day delivery.

“The new warehouse is operating well and has helped with capacity and scalability issues. We now have a lot more space,” Kamani explains. “Our move to Sheffield gave us significant headroom to support our growth and keep up with customer demand.”

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Expanded offer

Further category expansion, particularly among the etailer’s tall, petite and beauty offers, will help PrettyLittleThing to maintain its impressive growth.

“We do petite already, but do we do it well enough? No, so that’s an opportunity for us – and the same with our tall range. Plus-size and shape [the etailer’s range for shoppers with an hourglass figure] are flying. We’ve mastered them, but there’s lots more opportunity in other categories.”

PrettyLittleThing launched its first own-brand beauty range, which includes cosmetics, make-up bags and body jewels, last year. It also stocks a range of third-party cosmetic brands, such as Morphe, Maybelline, L’Oréal and Rimmel.

I can look at women’s clothing objectively but, in men’s, it would be hard to detach myself from what I want

Umar Kamani

“I want to improve beauty. Our beauty range is good, but I don’t think it’s excellent. We launched beauty because when the customer comes to us to buy an outfit for the weekend, it’s way more convenient for them to have their favourite beauty brands in the same place. It also educates the customer that PLT isn’t just a fashion house, and that you can buy other things.”

Unisex styles launched on PrettyLittleThing for the first time at the start of this year as part of its second collaboration with designer Karl Kani. However, although Kamani does not rule it out completely, a move into menswear is not on the horizon.

“I’m so passionate about fashion myself that my personal style would get in the way. I can look at women’s clothing objectively but, in men’s, it would be hard to detach myself from what I want. I love what fashion does to you – what an outfit can do for your mind and your personality is so powerful.”

The journey from new entrant to established player can bring growing pains, but Kamani is determined to keep the business focused as it develops: “My job is to keep all the pieces of the clock ticking as they should be. As brands get bigger, things can start to drift without the leader even knowing about it. We have to stick to our values, and make sure that as the business gets bigger and our overheads get bigger, that we don’t start increasing our prices.”

PrettyLittleThing has carved itself a slice of the competitive fast fashion market, and its growth – both in customer numbers and revenue – is hard to argue with. However, Kamani is adamant that he does not have time to stand around congratulating himself: “What happens with some businesses is that they start to pat themselves on the back. If we sit here saying, ‘Well done, us’, then someone will catch us up. We’ve still got a big job to do.” 

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