Revealed: The unknown women influencing your wardrobe

The women shaping YOUR wardrobe who you’ve never heard of: Retail Week names the most influential women in British fashion – from Boohoos embattled co-founder to H&M’s first female CEO

  • Boohoo co-founder Carol Kane been named most influential woman in UK retail
  • She’s one of just 20 influential women profiled in the Retail 100 list 
  • Sharon White took over as Chair of John Lewis Partnership at the start of 2020
  • H&M Group chief executive Helena Helmersson came in at 28 on Retail 100 list 
  • In 2019 Alannah Weston took over from father Galen as chairman of Selfridges

Carol Kane has just been named the most influential woman in UK retail, according to the Retail 100 list – but do you know who she is?

While Mahmud Kamani – the billionaire boss of the fashion empire Boohoo – is a name that regularly pops up in tabloids, little is known about the company’s other co-founder, currently facing a shareholder revolt over her role in the sweatshop scandal in the Leicester supply chain.

The female entrepreneur,  54, from Staffordshire, has just become the highest-ranking female leader for the second consecutive year in Retail 100, which celebrates leaders who are transforming retail, speaking out, innovating and driving growth.

Boohoo sales have soared during the pandemic, with revenues rising 41% to £1.75bn in the year to February 28 under her leadership skills, but will it be enough to save her job on June 18 when there’s a vote on her re-election at the AGM? 

Carol is one of 20 influential women profiled in the Retail 100 list. So, who are the women influencing your wardrobe who you’ve probably never even heard of? 

CAROL KANE – Co-founder, Boohoo

Carol Kane attends the Boohoo Christmas party at the Hilton Deansgate on December 14, 2018 in Manchester

Carol, a designer by trade who aspired to be an artist when she was older, grew up in the North East with her builder father and mother, who worked in the menswear shop Burton.

The 54-year-old, who lives in the Staffordshire countryside with her husband Mark and their four jack russell terriers, attended art college and ended up working in the rag trade, where she met Mahmud Kamani, her future business partner.

They ran a wholesale business together, before they founded Boohoo in 2006. The company is now worth more than £3billion and had a total of 13 brands under its group umbrella.

Before Boohoo shot onto the ever-growing fast fashion scene, Kamani sold handbags in traders’ stall.

He spotted the potential of internet sales and set up his online retailer in 2006 with the aim of delivering their own-branded fashion at rock bottom prices.

The company started out with just three staff and operated out of a Manchester warehouse.

‘Money has never been my driver,’ said Carol, speaking to You in 2018. ‘Obviously, it buys things and rewards hard work, but my ambition was always to build a value fashion brand offering something for every girl in ‘that decade’ of her life. We’re not just reacting to what we see in celebrity magazines. 

‘We create the trends, too.’ 

Carol Kane attends Boohoo.com’s Pop-Up Launch Party in Los Angeles on 1 April, 2016

Carol previously won the NatWest Everywoman Awards for being a role model for young women. 

Speaking to You, she told how she was overjoyed that her hard work was paying off and bringing value to ‘the youth end’ of the market. 

But the last year has been quite the rollercoaster for Boohoo’s co-founders Mahmud Kamani and Carol. 

Online sales continued to soar, with group revenues increasing 41% to £1.75bn in the year to February 28, while the fast fashion chain also nabbed Debenhams’ brand and website after the department store group’s collapse. 

However, Boohoo was drawn into controversy over claims they were using an alleged £3.50-an-hour sweatshop in Leicester to produce cheap clothing during the coronavirus pandemic. 

On Friday it was revealed that shareholder advisory Glass Lewis has urged City investors to sack Carol Kane from the board saying she had a ‘direct role’ in the ‘inadequate governance practices’.

A report published last year found workers doing ‘excessive’ hours in life-threatening conditions, often on illegal low pay, across much of its UK supply chain.

No senior director has lost their job over the failures, and Kane (pictured) and co-founder Mahmud Kamani are still eligible for a £50m bonus if Boohoo’s market capitalisation hits £7.5billion by June 2023.

Glass Lewis said ‘senior directors were aware of the serious issues regarding the treatment of Leicester factory workers for at least six months before the scandal broke’, but ‘did not move quickly enough to remedy the situation’.

The group is advising shareholders to vote against Kane’s re-election at the annual general meeting on June 18.

SHARON WHITE – Chair, John Lewis Partnership 

John Lewis Partnership chair Sharon White (pictured), 54, polled at number 20 on the list after facing some of the industry’s biggest challenges since taking over from Sir Charlie Mayfield at the beginning of 2020.

John Lewis Partnership chair Sharon White, 54, polled at number 20 on the Retail 100 list after facing some of the industry’s biggest challenges since taking over from Sir Charlie Mayfield at the beginning of 2020.

She took on structural, organisational and morale issues and also rose to the challenge when it came to appointing new bosses for Waitrose and John Lewis after they were left without leaders in the restructuring ahead of her arrival.

Not only that, but during the pandemic, JLP also suffered a major blow when it experienced its first ever full-year loss. It was Sharon’s job to take control, make tough decisions, cut jobs and close stores.   

White, who was previously chief executive of Ofcom, became the first ever female chairwoman to be employed in John Lewis’ 155-year history. 

Cambridge-educated White had a number of senior civil servant roles at the Treasury and Ministry of Justice before she joined the media watchdog in 2015.

She had no formal retail experience and was previously described as an ‘unlikely candidate’ by her predecessor.

She is married to Robert Chote, who is head of the Office for Budget Responsibility, with whom she has two children.

John Lewis appointed Sharon White, 54, as the first ever female chairwoman in its 155-year history 

Cambridge-educated Ms White (pictured giving evidence to a digital culture media and sport committee) had a number of senior civil servant roles at the Treasury and Ministry of Justice before she joined the media watchdog in 2015

After becoming Second Permanent Secretary in 2013, The Voice named Ms White as the seventh most powerful black person in Britain.

She was born to Jamaican immigrant parents and was brought up in Leyton, east London, where she went to a state secondary school.

The mother-of-two graduated from Cambridge with an economics degree before studying for her Master’s at University College London.

Sir Charlie said: ‘I readily recognise that Sharon is not the conventional retail choice. But these are not conventional retail times, nor is the Partnership a conventional company.’

The 54-year-old (pictured at the Royal Television society Cambridge Convention in September 2017) had no formal retail experience and was previously described as an ‘unlikely candidate’ by her predecessor

‘Sharon is an inspirational leader with the personal and professional skills to ensure the Partnership continues to innovate and change while at the same time retaining and strengthening our distinctive character and democratic vitality.’

At the time, Sharon said: ‘I am a passionate believer in the Partnership: Partners working together for each other’s wellbeing with the confidence to invest for the long-term and a focus on delivering for our customers in a rapidly changing retail environment.

‘John Lewis & Partners and Waitrose & Partners are not merely British retail icons, but also a model of a better way to do business.’

As for the future of John Lewis Partnership, White foresees the majority of sales taking places online and ‘aims to make services such as financial products a bigger part of the mix,’ according to Retail 100.

Helena Helmersson – H&M Group chief executive  

H&M Group chief executive Helena Helmersson came in at 28 on the Retail 100 list. Pictured, Helen and Karl Johan Persson, H&M Chairman H&M financial report presentation in Stockholm, Sweden on 30 January  2020

H&M Group chief executive Helena Helmerssoncame in at number 28 on the Retail 100 list – and for good reason, too. 

The Swedish business executive, who completed a master’s degree in international business administration in 1997, started at H&M the same year as an economist in the company’s buying department, before moving into Buying and Production. 

Working her way up in the company, she then spent five years as a sustainability manager and then moved to Hong Kong where she took on the role of production manager. 

She became the first female CEO of the brand in January 2020, taking over the role from Karl-Johan Persson, who is the grandson of the founder and had been in the position since 2009.

Due to her loyalty and experience within the company – with H&M being her very first job – Helmersson rightfully earned the title of ‘Most Powerful Woman in Business’ from the weekly business magazine Veckans Affärer.

Helmersson rightfully earned the title of ‘Most Powerful Woman in Business’ from the weekly business magazine Veckans Affärer Pictured, at the H&M financial report presentation, Stockholm in Sweden on 30 January 2020

Speaking to Greenbiz about the news, she said: ‘I’m super proud and very happy. There is a gigantic amount of teamwork behind everything we do, and I take this as proof that it’s been visible.’

In her time spent as CEO, Helmersson has seen profits fall, with announcements last year that H&M planned to to shut 250 stores worldwide, and recent threats of a Chinese boycott which could also add to the damage. 

In October 2020, Helena said: ‘Although the challenges are far from over, we believe that the worst is behind us and we are well placed to come out of the crisis stronger.

‘Demand for good-value, sustainable products is expected to grow in the wake of the pandemic and our customer offering is well positioned for this.

‘We are now accelerating our transformation work so that we continue to add value for our customers.’

According to the Retail 100 List, ‘Helmersson has led the business through several sustainability initiatives including launching its Looop recycling machine in Sweden.’

She is also responsible for the the rapid growth of H&M’s members club, which has increased to an impressive 120 million members across 26 countries. 

The initiative not only allows members to receive enticing discounts and free delivery, but also rewards ‘green points’ for being more sustainable – such as bringing their own bags to shop with. 

ALANNAH WESTON – Chair, Selfridges Group 

Alannah Weston, heiress to her billionaire father’s retail empire, has been the creative director of British department store chain Selfridges since her family bought it for a reported £598million in 2004. Pictured, during the Olympus Fashion Week Spring 2005, September 12, 2004 in New York

Alannah Weston attends the Pinkification of Young Girls talk held at the Salon, a pop-up forum for talks launched as part of The Beauty Project in Selfridges on June 5 2014 in London

Alannah Weston, heiress to her billionaire father’s retail empire, has been the creative director of British department store chain Selfridges since her family bought it for a reported £598million in 2004. 

In 2014, the mother-of-two, who is married to architect Alexander Cochrane and lives in South Kensington, was named deputy chairman of Selfridges Group and in 2019 she took over from her father Galen Weston as chairman of the luxury store.

The family owns several of the UK’s biggest retailers, with a majority stake in Primark owner Associated British Foods and full ownership of Fortnum & Mason, in adddition to upmarket furniture store Heal’s.

The family is worth £10.1billion, according to the Sunday Times Rich List.

Much of Alannah’s focus has been to shine a spotlight on sustainable retail practices – most notably with the launch of Project Ocean in 2011.

The partnership with the Zoological Society London aims to help save our oceans from plastic pollution and overfishing and saw Selfridges develop a new means of ‘retail activism’. 

However, it’s been a struggle for the high-end store in recent months, with the pandemic seeing all but the food hall remain closed in keeping with the government guidelines. 

With restrictions on travel also meaning a stop on overseas visitors – an important trade for the luxury store – Allanah is hoping to return Selfridges back into the thriving tourist hotspot it’s renowned for being.

Alannah Weston attends the launch of ‘Denim Lovers’, Selfridges’ new advertising campaign featuring Jourdan Dunn and Rosie Tapner co-created by a 300-strong flashmob, at the Old Selfridges Hotel on June 20, 2013 in London

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