Boohoo may be the retail giant that comes to mind for most when considering Manchester’s thriving fashion scene.
However, fewer will be aware of the city’s “best kept fashion secret” Whispering Smith – a firm claiming to be the UK’s largest creator, importer, wholesaler and distributor of clothing for major high street stores and e-tailers – and with showrooms across the globe including in London, New York, Düsseldorf and Madrid.
And the two fast fashion firms have more in common than just their selected North West city base.
Like Boohoo co-founder Mahmud Kamani having been the son of a market trader, Whispering Smith – which is a supplier to its city counterpart as well as other sector giants – has a rags to riches tale all of its own.
The firm was founded in Manchester in the 1960s, when chairman Lal Kumar began importing clothing from the Far East.
Over 50 years on, the family business is now led from its 500,000sq ft Great Ducie Street HQ by a group of directors including Lal’s grandson, Rohil. It owns a portfolio of fashion brands, and is a leading white label clothing manufacturer for international giants including Boohoo, ASOS and Footasylum, and independent retailers across the globe.
Rohil told BusinessLive: “It was very much a rags to riches story. My granddad set up the business in 1967, when he was selling leggings in market stores all across the country.
“My dad’s living room at the time was just the stockroom, it was quite old school in that sense – like a cash and carry business.
“And it just kind of grew from there. We needed a warehouse, so we got a warehouse, and then a bigger warehouse.
“Then when my dad joined during the 1990s, he accelerated a lot of the progress of the company and pretty much within a year, we were doing around £8m in sales.
“So it was really a crazy, crazy acceleration.”
Included in the Whispering Smith portfolio, which last month reported a £55.4m annual turnover, are brands including Brave Soul, Good for Nothing and Night Addict.
The latter of those, the brainchild of Rohil, also has an impressive story of its own – and had become a successful business in its own right just two years after he graduated from the London College of Fashion.
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Rohil launched streetwear business Night Addict with an investment of just £2,000 in 2018 – and it now generates over £6.5m in sales annually.
He explained: “At the time, I was working on our in-house brand Brave Soul, and I just had this idea for another brand, a streetwear brand, something very different to what we were doing.
“Despite the fact that we were doing such high quantities, a huge element of it was just commercial clothing that we were supplying.
“So I designed a capsule with that £2,000 investment, which was just spent on samples.
“We used existing suppliers that we already had, and got the full range together. It was just really simple.
“There was an Asos meeting happening with Brave Soul, and the buyer was leaving and I literally just dipped my head in and said ‘can I just have five minutes’.
“So I showed the buyer the range, and the rest is history. That was it, she bought the collection. It was the second best-selling brand at launch on the site, which was huge for me, and which gave me the confidence to just continue it.
“Since then, we’ve just grown from strength to strength.”
Rohil said he didn’t expect Night Addict to do so well, so quickly.
He said: “I was very focused just on the design, and I just thought the rest would follow.
“You know, we are very lucky in the way that it’s all happened.”
He said the reason the brand – and the Whispering Smith portfolio as a whole – has accelerated even faster over the past year has been the timing of the coronavirus pandemic.
Similar to Boohoo, it has profited from a switch to people sitting at home, buying clothes online – but the pandemic was not without its difficulties, particularly at the outset.
“Covid kind of really helped us in a way, but it was a very tough time at the start.
“We had a lot of orders cancelled by all of our retailers and it was a very uncertain time for all of us having quite difficult conversations with buyers, who had reductions in budgets.
“At one point, I was actually even told that we might have to drop the brand altogether with Asos.
“So it was really tough. And literally, within about three weeks of that conversation, everything changed. Consumer behaviour changed, people got used to the idea of being at home, and we still had our stock coming in, because by that time, it was too late for us to cancel.
“By mid-April, there was a sharp boost in online sales that continued for a few months.
“Night Addict is predominantly tracksuits and oversized t-shirts, and people were just sitting at home wanting to wear comfy clothing.
“And that, combined with the amazing weather that we experienced in the UK, was all a bit of a marriage and that really helped us accelerate growth.”
In terms of whether such incredible success will continue as physical retail reopens this week, Rohil said he was “a bit on the fence”.
“On the one hand it was great for us with the way that consumer behaviour changed, but at the same time, I do just hope that the UK, Europe and the world can get back to shopping on the high street and just have more of a physical experience when they go out.
“It’s a difficult one. I don’t know if online will continue. I think there’ll be a short boost in people just wanting to get out and shop. It’s quite a tough one, really.”
So with a presence in a long list of illustrious cities famous for their fashion scenes, why Manchester for Whispering Smith?
“It was where my granddad decided to come and it was then, and still is, the centre of the UK’s rag trade.
“It’s interesting when you look at some of the biggest e-commerce giants and how they’re just emerging from Manchester, that could date back to when we had the mills here, all up north. I suppose it’s just an evolution of that.
“We are 100% committed to Manchester. It’s been the centre of our success and we completely love it.”
There has been a huge increase in recent years of fast fashion brands adopting greener, more sustainable materials in its supply chains and shops – and Rohil said Whispering Smith is no different.
“Obviously, sustainability is a huge buzzword at the minute. Within all of our e-tailers, and all the buyers we speak with, it’s something that’s a constant topic. I think it’s amazing and really positive.
“I remember in university, we studied Stella McCartney, and the way she was pushing eco-friendly fashion. At the time, I even thought ‘God, that’s only going to be possible for the high end luxury brands’.
“At the time, having no end to end product cycle meant spending more on these changes within the product cycle.
“But, as usual, the world’s caught up and we’re finding it a lot easier to source organic cottons, recycled polyester, and all of our suppliers are taking a lot of care over their supply chain.”
Rohil said the firm uses 50% recycled polythene bags, and that by Q3, 2022, that figure will be 100%.
He said: “In addition to that, we’re in the process of launching some diffusion lines for our brands, which will be sourced with low emissions in mind, using recycled and organic fabrics. We’re doing everything we can and I think it’s amazing, really.”
This month, Whispering Smith also reported a sharp rise in its ‘Made to Order’ service – designed to help ambitious fashion designers and start-up brands get off the ground.
Demand for its design, production and distribution services have risen by over 1,600% in the past year, fueled by Generation Z turning to self-employment on the back of the Covid pandemic.
In the past six months alone, Whispering Smith has worked with over 1,100 start-up brands, as well as established labels looking to adapt to the new retail landscape post-Covid and Brexit.