Together with many millennial women, I am lamenting the demise of Topshop. Not so much the closing of its stores, but its decline from what it once represented: a gateway to urban fashion for the uninitiated. The collapse of the Arcadia Group’s flagship brand into administration may not have been wholly surprising. But it is sad and could have been avoided.
In my village just outside a commuter town, the arrival of a small Topshop in the shopping centre near school was huge news. When my friends and I were taking GCSE exams in 2010, we lied to our parents about what time they finished. We would then spend the afternoons drinking Shakeaway milkshakes and trying on the entire “Last Chance To Buy” rail. This was independence.
In sixth form, I got a job at Topshop, restocking shelves and eyeing up what to use my 60 per cent staff discount on. I was fully clad in Topshop when we took the train to London for my 17th birthday, on a pilgrimage to the Oxford Street store. That day, we spent five hours traipsing around its three floors and doing laps past people we thought might be model scouts, because that’s how “new faces” were discovered.
That was during Topshop’s heyday. The Oxford Street flagship was London’s fast-fashion lifeblood, and it became the first high street store to have a show in London Fashion Week in 2005. That same year its 300-odd stores recorded operating profits of £300m. Shoppers packed its much-hyped preview events, such as the launch of the Kate Moss collection in 2007, where the supermodel appeared in store windows before a crowd of hundreds.
Throughout the 2000s, the chain’s former brand director Jane Shepherdson responded to each season’s designer shows by rapidly recreating affordable looks for the store. Collaborations with new designers such as Christopher Kane and Meadham Kirchhoff flew off the shelves.
“As a teenager who was very into fashion, those collections felt like my ‘way in’ to wearing the clothes I pined for,” says 27-year-old fashion and culture writer Belle Hutton. “I read about the designer collaborations in Vogue and was shocked — I could actually afford something that graced its pages . . . It made Topshop feel extremely cool.”
Things started to go downhill for Topshop when Ms Shepherdson quit in 2007. Following her departure, the brand’s creativity, in-store experience and clothes quality began to decline, as did the reputation of Arcadia’s chief executive Philip Green. Since then, the retail tycoon has been accused of tax avoidance, using sweatshops, of attempting to avoid meeting employees’ pension obligations, sexual harassment and racial abuse of staff.
Faith in the Topshop brand dissipated. Pop star Rihanna successfully sued Arcadia in 2013 for illegally using an image of her face on Topshop T-shirts. Beyoncé bought Mr Green out of the Ivy Park brand that they had founded together when the #MeToo movement was in full swing in 2018.
Consumer trust was also eroded. Ms Hutton cites Mr Green and her “new sense of responsible consumerism” as the reasons she stopped shopping at Topshop. “Sustainability issues weren’t in our consciousness back in the 2000s, but now a lot of us are trying to buy less, buy better,” she says.
The Oxford Street store retained some of its prestige by hosting in-store experiences. But other stores around the UK felt tired and forgotten. The Topshop where I once worked shrank to become a concession within another shop. The store in my university town hosted seemingly constant sales.
And the clothes themselves suddenly seemed tawdry — and aimed at younger buyers. “Things fell apart after not much wear,” says Alexandra O’Donovan, a 26-year-old chef. “Topshop started feeling more like the lower end of the high street but it didn’t change its prices to match.”
Even as it lost older consumers, Topshop failed to capture the hearts of its new target demographic, Gen Z. “Topshop hasn’t been able to keep up with new competitors like Boohoo’s lower prices, digital presence, or fashion status,” says Chana Baram, senior retail analyst at consumer research group Mintel. Younger consumers are drawn to slick websites, collaborations with social media influencers and online campaigns such as the body positivity movement, Ms Baram adds. “Topshop’s lack of investment in these areas has been detrimental.”
I no longer fit into the Kate Moss for Topshop sequin flapper dress I bought in a 2007 sale but I just can’t bring myself to sell it. Topshop’s administrators have been seeking bids of up to £200m in hopes of rescuing the brand. But even if it can be salvaged, it needs to change to survive. As a friend on a WhatsApp group says, “Topshop died the day skinny jeans died”. Both were cool once but seem wildly out of touch today.
Letter in response to this column:
Recalling the Topshop motto that ‘retail is detail’ / From Simon Hawkes, London SW18, UK