Image: Boohoo.com [@boohoo]
While continuing to push slogans such as #BoohooInTheHouse and #StayHomeWithPLT, the Boohoo Group has been flouting social distancing rules in order to continue shooting their never-ending influx of new product. Sustainable fashion journalist Sophie Benson investigates.
When Boris Johnson announced that the UK was going into a state of effective lockdown on the 23rd March, Mahmud Kamani, founder of Boohoo, responded to the news with an Instagram post captioned, “Stay at home, save lives! We can do this together.” It was a message most could get behind, but it seemed those sentiments didn’t extend to his studio staff. From the following day, Boohoo Group’s teams of stylists, photographers, makeup artists and models were forced to go to work and continue to shoot products to list online.
The fast fashion group, which owns brands including Boohoo, BoohooMAN, Pretty Little Thing, and Nasty Gal, left staff to choose between their health and their livelihood; go to work and risk exposure to the virus or stay home and risk their job.
Angry and anxious employees, their friends, and family began to comment under Kamani’s post, which was swiftly deleted, yet their concerns weren’t heard. Staff were told that if they chose to stay at home they would not be paid, and their absence would be marked as unauthorised.
As fashion brands around the world began to face up to the reality of the impact Coronavirus would have on their day to day operations, some sought to think around the problem in order to keep orders flowing while reducing staff exposure after social distancing rules came into place. Commercial photographers such as Bekky Calver have been sharing their makeshift set ups on Instagram as brands send them product to shoot safely at home. Some labels who want to keep the human element have tasked influencers to shoot their online content, while others have utilised AR imagery for ‘model’ images, without the need for a model.
Boohoo Group, however, took the decision to continue to shoot with full teams as normal. The company continued to fly in models from different countries as late as the 20th March, then had models travel from London to Manchester during the first week of lockdown. Models, like staff, may have had concerns about their income going forward, or external pressures from agencies, leaving them with a difficult choice to make. Once models travelling from elsewhere was no longer feasible, the company reportedly discussed using local models instead at the end of March. Whether or not the models booked during lockdown were local to Manchester is difficult to ascertain, but it is certain that Boohoo did continue to shoot with models throughout.
When questioned why they were still asking studio staff to work as usual in such close proximity, a representative from the company said, “Where it is not possible for a very small handful of our team to do their jobs from home we have implemented stringent hygiene and self-distancing measures and have lots of support in place for them whilst we find a suitable alternative.”
“The problem,” one studio employee told me in response, “is that we are physically unable to social distance ourselves whilst on set and in this type of environment. The teams have been supplied with antibacterial gel, gloves and masks but that appears to be the extent of what the company is willing to do.”
Images: Slogan tees available from Boohoo, Boohoo,com
“The sets themselves are very small,” they continued, “and require all four bodies [model, photographer, stylist and makeup artist] to work within a 2-3 metre radius.” The nature of e-commerce studio work also requires makeup artists to apply makeup and carry out touch-ups throughout the day, stylists to dress models and adjust garments, and photographers to get models into position. This makes social distancing an impossible task, no matter the size of the set.
Working in such close proximity is particularly troubling when a number of employees reported stories of colleagues contracting the virus. Others, meanwhile, heard nothing of any infections, told that if it were to happen, the studio would close immediately.
In regards to worries about contracting and spreading Coronavirus, the Boohoo representative also went on to say that, “…If anyone in our team has a concern about coming into work then they simply have to raise this with their manager.” Yet the employees who reached out to me spoke of their concerns being continually dismissed or met with silence. Others who initially wanted to speak out, ultimately decided against it as they felt too scared of being ‘found out.’ “I can’t chance anything coming back on me,” said one employee, painting a picture of an anxious staff wary of an unapproachable upper management team.
After overlooking staff concerns and initially attempting to keep as many people working in the studio as possible, Boohoo furloughed a number of studio staff in April. They asked the remaining employees to work five days a week plus overtime, shooting approximately 50 to 70 looks per day, according to one source. They also reduced the number of sets they were shooting on for a brief time but, as of the 1st May, began to ask staff to return to work in order to increase the number of active sets, before any official word from the government about easing lockdown. And since the ‘Stay Alert’ update, the company have been “working fast” at getting people back to work, with one source reporting they were offered no phased return, expecting to work full time hours as of this week.
Due to their determination to operate as close to ‘business as usual’ for as long as possible, and likely because of staff feeling unable to speak up and draw attention to the situation, Boohoo have managed to “thrive” throughout the pandemic. One member of the studio team I spoke to early on in lockdown questioned the sense in going to work and shooting festival wear for festivals that aren’t going to happen, but the fast fashion giant soon pivoted to pushing increased levels of stay home-appropriate loungewear, which has proved a successful move.
Speaking on the phone, they also pointed to the tone-deaf nature of the slogans which have permeated Boohoo’s recent designs, capitalising on the pandemic, and highlighting the acute hypocrisy of how they’ve run their studio during lockdown. From “If in doubt, don’t go out”, to “Hanging with bae 2 metres away”, such products seem particularly insulting when the brand isn’t allowing its staff to live by its own slogans. It’s yet another example of fast fashion marketing hiding what’s really going on behind the scenes. While others were doing their best to stop the spread, it seems Boohoo only had their eyes on profit.
Read Aja Barber’s op-ed on why fast fashion chains kept their doors open at the start of lockdown.
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