'I DON'T know anything about cricket,' says Shami Ahmed. 'I don't follow the game.' But he knows enough about publicity to recognise the sales value of the world's best batsman.
Shami Ahmed runs Joe Bloggs, Britain's trendiest clothes manufacturer. When he spotted the West Indies player Brian Lara, who had just thrashed a world-record 375 runs against England, stepping off the plane at Heathrow wearing a Joe Bloggs T-shirt, Ahmed pounced. 'I didn't even know they sold the stuff in the West Indies, let alone that Brian Lara wore it.'
He signed a sponsorship deal with the cricket star. To commemorate Lara's record- breaking feat in the Antigua Test, Joe Bloggs produced a special run of '375' T-shirts and jeans. But no sooner had the first batch been produced two weeks ago than Lara spoiled it all by scoring his astonishing 501 runs for Warwickshire, a world record in first- class cricket. Ahmed decided to bring out a '501' series of jeans and T-shirts - pitching him into a well-publicised confrontation with Levis. The giant American firm threatened to take legal action to protect their own 501 label. In fact the spat between Levis and Joe Bloggs has been just one big publicity scam. 'There never was any chance of legal action,' says Ahmed. 'The publicity men at Levis just dreamt it up. It was very clever. They've had more publicity over it than they could ever have hoped for.'
But anyone who knows Shami Ahmed will find it hard to believe that it was not he who dreamt it all up. For if there is one thing that Ahmed knows, it is how to make a little publicity go a long way. He has become a very rich man by adroitly exploiting the media to promote his products.
Shami came to Britain from Pakistan in 1965, when he was two. His father, Nizam, was an RAF mechanic. Nizam Ahmed left the service to run a stall in Burnley market, which soon developed into several shops. Young Shami began helping out with the family business while still at school. When he was 15, Shami persuaded his father to buy a cash-and-carry warehouse. Shami, still a schoolboy, managed it by working out of school hours. When he was 16, he started work full- time in the family business. In 1986, tired of selling other people's clothes, he decided to launch his own label. Thus was Joe Bloggs born.
The label was launched just at the time when the 'Madchester' club scene was taking off in Manchester. Ahmed was never part of it, but as with Brian Lara he knew how to seize an opportunity when it came along. 'We were lucky,' he admits. 'We didn't go to the bands. The bands came to us. They knew we were here, so they came to us to produce gear for them.' That is how Shami Ahmed persuaded thousands of Mancunians to wear 25in flares and turned himself into a millionaire in the process.
The Madchester scene has long since gone. But Joe Bloggs has survived by moving on and branching out. There are now Joe Bloggs bicycles, Joe Bloggs toiletries, Joe Bloggs underwear and Joe Bloggs soft drinks. The firm has an annual turnover of pounds 30m, employs 150 people directly (and another 1,500 indirectly), is the leading British jeans manufacturer and is now about to challenge the American giants - Levis, Lee, Wrangler, Pepe - on their home turf.
Shami Ahmed tells you all this at breakneck speed, but with great charm, verve and good humour. Along the way he adds little homilies about family values, business ethics and the importance of hard work. But Shami Ahmed is also a man who has been as successful in selling his own image as he has his jeans. He is so good at seamlessly stitching together fact and myth that it is often difficult to tell which is which. He has perfected the kind of meaningless banter that sounds very appealing. He told me at one point that honesty was the key to business success.
'My father told me that there are two roads you can take. There is the dishonest road which is cluttered up and the honest road which is empty. 'If you want to succeed' he said, 'take the honest road'.' When I asked him what he meant by 'honest' and 'dishonest' roads to success, he was, for once, stumped for words.
At the same time Ahmed is careful to avoid areas that might tarnish this image. He wants to play down the jet-setting, loose-living, playboy image that stuck to him in the past, nor will he talk about politics. 'I'm not interested in politics. It's businessmen who run the country.' He is even wary about discussing racism. 'I'm lucky,' he says. 'I haven't really come across it.'
He avoids discussing the darker areas of business, too. He insists, for instance, that his is no sweatshop operation. 'We have fully computerised factories,' he says. What he doesn't say is that he also employs many workers who work from home - that is how he is able to deliver new styles to shops so quickly. The fact is, you do not become a multi-millionaire, especially in a cut-throat business such as the rag trade, without being ruthless and hard as well as honest and hard-working.
The secret of Shami Ahmed's success is that he is a child of the Thatcher years who has astutely exploited the backlash against Thatcherite values. He lives the lifestyle of an Eighties yuppie - a Bentley and Ferrari, a penthouse flat on Park Lane, holidays in Cannes - and espouses Thatcherite individualist money-making ethics. But Joe Bloggs clothing appeals precisely because it is cheap and lacks exclusivity. The very name reflects a desire to be ordinary. As Ahmed's brand manager puts it, Joe Bloggs is 'a non-elitist designer brand'.
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