Ping! Six days a week, just before 6am BST, nearly half a million people receive an email from Imran Amed. Among these recipients are the most influential designers, CEOs and mavens in the fashion industry. They are based in around 190 countries around the world and, tellingly, almost two-thirds are under 34 years old – the cherished, all-important millennials.
The message – sent under the banner of Amed’s company the Business of Fashion, or BoF – contains a series of links, simply presented. Some stories are generated by BoF staff, the rest are aggregated from external media companies, from Vogue and the New York Times to the Chinese dailies. Sometimes there will be a global exclusive: Kate Moss chose to launch her new modelling agency on the BoF website; the exits of designers Jenna Lyons and Phoebe Philo from J Crew and Céline respectively were revealed first on the site. Alternatively, the email might direct the reader to one of their long reads: a three-part investigation into the merger of Yoox and Net-a-Porter, for example, or a report into the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, which uncovered depression, drug abuse and suicide at the prestigious fashion school.
Amed, the effusive, 43-year-old British-Canadian founder and CEO of the media and technology company, is often told that BoF’s daily email is “an addiction”. The accessories designer Anya Hindmarch said in Vogue: “It’s the first thing I read every day in bed before I even see my children, I’m ashamed to admit.”
But as much as people come to BoF for a digest of what’s happened, they also now look to it for insight on what’s going to happen. Amed started the website in early 2007 as a blog that he would write in his spare time at night in his flat in Notting Hill. Until 2013, he was the sole contributor to BoF. The rapid growth of the company and interest in its content – it now has 75 employees spread between London, New York and Shanghai – has coincided with a deeply precarious period for the fashion industry.
“It’s been a very challenging 12 months,” sighs Amed. “A very challenging three years. A very challenging decade. Fashion is no different from any other industry in that respect. A lot of the forces that are shaping the world we live in, whether that be technological disruption and the resulting changes in consumer behaviour, the globalisation of the economy, particularly the rise of China as a huge force in consumption, geopolitical forces, the election of Donald Trump and the resulting trade wars, the onset of Brexit here in the UK. Turmoil in major markets like Brazil and Turkey, and social currents, like the #MeToo movement. All of these things are shaping the world we live in and they are also shaping the fashion industry.
“And I think our role has been really from the beginning to help the industry and the people who work in it to navigate these changes,” he goes on.
Today, BoF is a many tentacled operation. Some articles on the site are free, but in October 2016 it launched paid subscriptions for full access to the content. This costs £216 annually, or £18 a month. Amed declines to reveal exactly how many subscribers BoF has – only that the numbers have exceeded his wildest expectations. “It’s already by far the core driving force of our business,” he says. “It was a risk, of course. But it turns out people find they can’t get content like ours anywhere else. They trust what we have to say.”
That’s not the only revenue stream for BoF. It has a Careers section where brands pay to advertise jobs, an events wing called Voices, and an Education department offering online courses delivered by fashion insiders. There’s a biannual print magazine that has high-end advertising: the last issue had a double cover featuring Kim Kardashian West (interviewed by Amed) and the activist Sinéad Burke. Then, every September, the company announces the BoF 500, a power list for the fashion industry. It’s a validation to be included and embarrassing to drop from the line-up (as 99 people did last year). The selection for 2018 is revealed tomorrow.
“Our competitors really differ, depending on what part of the business you look at,” says Amed. “Our events business competes with TED. Our online recruitment business competes with Linked In. Our online education business competes with business schools and fashion schools. And our content competes with everyone from Women’s Wear Daily to the New York Times to the Economist. And Instagram. And Facebook. We live in the attention economy. You have a limited amount of time in the day, you have a limited real estate on someone’s phone. So that’s the way I think about it: there is no single competitor.”
I meet Amed first at his offices in central London, and we go for lunch at a Greek restaurant, where he talks so much he scarcely eats a mouthful. He has a slight build and favours capacious knitwear; this afternoon, it’s a jumper by the LA-based label The Elder Statesman. He travels relentlessly and his outfit shows it: T-shirt (Japan), jeans and slippers – yes, slippers (France), necklace (Bali) and rings (India).
Amed’s own background is something of a mish-mash, too. His parents are of Indian descent, but were both raised in Africa and met in Nairobi. Shortly before Amed was born, they moved to Calgary and that’s where he grew up. He studied in Canada (McGill University), the US (Harvard Business School), but when it came time to pick somewhere to work he chose the UK and the management consultants McKinsey & Co. Every three months or so, he would be parachuted into a new industry and have to ascertain, very quickly, why a company was not reaching its potential. It might seem a long way between corporate life and what he’s doing now, but Amed insists it’s very similar: it’s just his “client” is not one firm, but a whole industry.
McKinsey seemed a perfect fit for Amed and he rose quickly. But then one day he was sitting in a meeting with eight colleagues and he realised three things: one, all of them were men; two, they were all wearing blue checked shirts; and three, the bigger the checks on their blue shirts the more senior they were. “And I was wearing an orange shirt,” he says, smiling. “I’m a very analytical person and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m a real fish out of water here.’”
Furthermore, Amed was borderline depressed. “I was 29 and I was waking up in the morning and feeling deeply unhappy and unfulfilled,” he recalls. “Although I had ticked off all the boxes of going to the right schools, working in the right companies, I wasn’t happy.”
Amed gets miffed sometimes when people call BoF an “overnight success”. It’s been anything but, he insists. The kernel of an idea came in 2006 when he took a sabbatical from McKinsey and went on a 10-day silent retreat at a Vipassana meditation camp in South Africa. “Ten days, that’s hard,” he sighs, “but I’m fairly certain that was the most transformative experience of my life. If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today.”
Fashion wasn’t an obvious pick for Amed. But he had friends in the industry, and he started to realise that there might be a place for someone like him who was obsessed with data and market trends. “There was a gulf,” he says. “The creative people kind of looked down their nose at the business people. The business people were really fascinated by the creative people, but they didn’t really understand the creative process. And those two things are absolutely essential and they need to work together.”
Amed’s initial idea was a bust: an incubator for young, British fashion designers. But it got his foot in the door and meetings with industry titans, such as Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet. Amed began consulting for LVMH, and writing a blog called the Business of Fashion on the side. “Natalie was the first person to tell me, ‘This little blog of yours, it could become really big,’” he says.
Looking back, Amed realises his timing was propitious: 2007 saw the launch of the first iPhone and the dawn of social media; the financial crisis of 2008 rocked everyone in the fashion industry and focused attention on the bottom line. But BoF’s main leap didn’t come until 2013, when Amed raised £1.25m investment from sources including LVHM and Carmen Busquets, a director of Net-a-Porter.
Amed is clearly no longer an outsider: BoF has the ears of everyone important in the industry. Last year, he was awarded an MBE for services to fashion. The question is then: would he still be prepared to criticise, say, LVHM or report negative stories about a brand that he has built a relationship with? Amed insists he would. He does.
“With a lot of fashion media, there’s this tacit, unspoken agreement about how the exchange works between editorial and advertising,” he says. “The very reason why we’ve moved this model around, having our subscribers pay for the content, is because it focuses our attention on satisfying those individual readers. If a big brand gets upset with a major fashion magazine because of something, they call and say: ‘We’re cancelling 50 pages of advertising’ – which happens – that is a big deal. If one of our subscribers gets upset because we’ve written something, but it’s a service for our larger community for that information to be out there, it’s not an issue for us. Our accountability is to our community.”
Amed is serious on this point, and he clearly takes his work very seriously. “No partner, no children, no pets,” he says. “But I have lots of people in my life who support me and care for me. I’m very well loved.” Being an entrepreneur doesn’t allow much time for hobbies, but he still meditates, exercises and is early to bed, early to rise: “My team sometimes gets emails from me at 4am and they’re not surprised because they know that’s when I do a lot of my thinking.”
What keeps Amed awake, right now, is Brexit. “I’ve been really thrown by it,” he says. “If we crash out of the EU with no deal, there are all sorts of trade barriers and issues that are going to arise. Let alone the lack of access to talent: go into any of the young fashion businesses here in London or even the big behemoth ones like Burberry, they are filled with creative people from all over the place.”
The same is true of the BoF offices: at one point Amed worked out that there were 17 different nationalities among a team of 25. He’s yet to decide where he will be based after the UK breaks from Europe, but, wherever it is, he’s confident of one thing. “We will continue to grow – rapidly,” he says. “I’ve no doubt about that.”
The BoF 500 power list is published tomorrow
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