Missy Empire’s website says the brand is for “kick-ass females.”Photo: Missy Empire
Former employees of a fast-fashion brand that prides itself on empowering young women have told the Guardian they were subjected to a toxic culture of bullying, insulting and demeaning comments.
The claims about Missy Empire, a Manchester-based retailer now owned by Frasers Group, were made by female employees.
The company was co-founded in 2015 by brothers Ash and Ish Siddique, and according to the website, it is “for the go-getters, the goal scorers, the badass women who buck convention and create their own kind of beautiful creations.” ”.
The brand logo is XX, which stands for “the female chromosome,” which the website says is “a subliminal reminder that we are for women and we will continue to empower you through the power of clothing.”
However, eighteen former employees who spoke to the Guardian described what they claimed was a “toxic” workplace culture, in which young women in particular were targets of abuse by the managing director, Ash Siddique.
The staff was bullied, shouted at and sworn at.
He made derogatory comments about models’ body shape and physical appearance.
The staff was asked to model clothes for the director.
Seven employees said they were fired without cause, and two employees claimed they were unable to keep copies of their employment contracts.
Missy Empire’s owners ignored formal complaints.
Their claims are supported by emails, screenshots and testimonials seen by the Guardian. The Guardian submitted all the claims to Ash Siddique, but he did not respond.
Testimony to the Guardian suggests that Missy Empire’s lower ranks are staffed by predominantly young female employees, many in their first jobs, and that there is a very high rate of departures and resignations.
Drawn to a career in fashion, employees reported they were excited to get involved, but their enthusiasm and confidence were shattered. None of the employees who spoke to The Guardian stayed with the company for more than a year and a half; many stayed only a few months.
“I was crying in the toilet all day because I was being bullied,” says an employee who started at the end of 2022 and left for a new job a year later.
“During my first week there, I was called into the office so many times and yelled at about mistakes and the failure of the company. He [Ash Siddique] pretended it was my fault.”
She added that her experience there left her feeling “anxious and depressed.”
Bury-based JD Sports, valued at £8 billion, acquired a majority stake in Missy Empire in June 2021 and sold it to Frasers Group in December 2022. Both are FTSE 100 companies that own several smaller brands.
Staff told the Guardian that JD Sports and Frasers Group had been made aware of the issues at Missy Empire, with at least seven emails containing seven separate complaints having been sent to their human resources departments since April 2022.
Some of the allegations made to the Guardian related to staff leaving in recent months, raising questions about the action taken.
Frasers Group did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesperson for JD Group said it was the majority shareholder for 18 months, but Missy Empire was “responsible for the day-to-day management of the business, including its own HR procedures”.
‘I was called a damn idiot’
Missy Empire staff submitted written complaints to the Frasers Group late last year.
Entrepreneur Mike Ashley controls Frasers Group with a nearly 72% stake, having made his name at Sports Direct before taking over department stores House of Fraser and a string of retail brands including Missguided and Jack Wills.
An email to Frasers Group’s HR employee relations manager by a female employee, who left in summer 2023, raised issues of swearing-in in a conversation about vacation.
She told the HR manager: “In the conversation I was often called an idiot, laughed at and told that I wasn’t needed, so I should be able to walk out the door. Ash also said I can’t take a vacation because he can decide when I do, and he doesn’t feel like giving it to me, and if I want to take a vacation I can do it without pay.”
She added: “Myself and the other employees are often spoken to in this way. Ash’s behavior while I was working at Missy Empire has caused me to have feelings of anxiety and depression.”
In an earlier email, sent in March 2023, the same employee claimed that there was what appeared to be a voice recorder in the ceiling of the staff kitchen. She shared a photo of it with Frasers Group and asked for an investigation.
The employee says no action was taken after either email, although the employee relations manager did respond on March 20 saying, “Missy Empire does not currently have an HR position.” They asked for further details after the complaint about the fear of being admitted.
‘A toxic workplace where people feared for their jobs’
In early 2023, another staff member, who worked at Missy Empire from summer 2022 but claims she was fired after Ash Siddique found a list she had compiled of her grievances, also sent an email to the HR employee relations manager Frasers Group.
She raised a range of issues, including allegations of swearing and derogatory comments about staff members’ performance and models’ body shapes. The employee claimed that she had undergone this treatment and witnessed others being treated similarly.
The email alleged that Ash Siddique “treats staff as if they are worthless; patronizing, demeaning. Swears consistently [sic] talks to you like you’re dirty and belittles you until you surrender.”
It also said: “[Ash Siddique] commented on people’s bodies and appearances and described a previous model as ‘fat with the pig nose’.”
It went on to say that the director “created a toxic work environment where people feared for their jobs.” The woman, who worked as a staff member in a creative role, said Ash Siddique asked a colleague “would she rather he said please or would she rather he paid her.”
The employee states that her complaint was not taken seriously.
The staff claims that the email address of the HR department at Missy Empire was not monitored and controlled by an HR manager, but by Ash’s brother Ish Siddique, co-founder and director, so they had nowhere to turn with their complaints to JD Sports or, since its acquisition by Frasers Group.
A contract obtained by the Guardian shows that women were not paid for overtime. The lunch breaks were unpaid and they claim their wages were withheld if they returned late.
Two female employees who felt they had been fired without reason and left in 2023 claimed to have been at a meeting in late 2022 where women, when discussing pay increases, were told to join OnlyFans, a service used by sex workers to obtain payment for pornographic videos.
“We just had a conversation about raises and him [Ash Siddique] said we should all do OnlyFans as a side income and he would be our agent,” one employee claimed.
Missy Empire’s creations include bodycon outfits, bikinis, crop tops and pants in a lower price range. The website says the designs “take influence from celebrities with sex appeal, current pop culture and the latest global trends.”
A woman in her 20s, who also felt like she had been fired without reason, said she was told during the job interview that she would be one of many in her department, but when she started, this was not the case.
“Two people were fired in the first week and that was very normal for everyone who worked there. In the months I was there, I saw a lot of people leaving,” she claimed.
She claimed staff were asked to try on clothes to see how they fit, despite this not being in their job description, and were told to write down their measurements. “One time a revealing piece of clothing came in too small and he… [Ash Siddique] wanted me to try it on and I said no,” she said.
An employee who worked at Missy Empire for more than five months in 2022 described it as a “bizarre place” to work.
“There was no privacy,” she said. “Ash was very inappropriate towards some staff members.” She claimed the director had “raging arguments” with suppliers and staff in his office.
‘He only wanted women with big butts and big breasts’
An employee who worked there until spring 2023 and says she was fired without good reason says: “He told us models were too fat and we couldn’t use them. He only wanted women with big butts, big breasts and a small waist.”
Another former employee said the director would approve photos of which influencers could be used to promote the brand. “He was convinced that all women should have sex appeal. He openly called women fat or skinny. He was very vocal.”
Three employees have raised privacy concerns, claiming they were not given a company phone and were expected to use WhatsApp on their phones and laptops to talk to colleagues. They claim that the company’s managers had access to all laptops and could therefore read all their personal WhatsApp messages if they wanted.
JD Group said Missy Empire’s colleagues, as a “major shareholder”, could “escalate any concerns through JD’s department or through its whistleblowing policy”. It said a “small number of issues” were “formally reported to the company” and “were investigated and addressed” in accordance with procedures.
The spokesperson said: “Everyone has the fundamental right to feel safe and respected at work.”