Topshop, once the buzziest store on the British high street, has become the latest COVID casualty – and the one that hurts the most. Last month it was announced that the beleaguered Arcadia group, which also owns Dorothy Perkins, Wallis, Miss Selfridge and Burton, had gone into administration, putting 13,000 jobs at risk. Meanwhile, Twitter is ablaze with fond memories of ‘Big Topshop’ in the wake of the Oxford Street store closing for good. A decade ago, the idea that Topshop, the jewel in Arcadia’s crown, could be on the brink of collapse would have been unimaginable.
In the mid 2000s, Topshop was at the peak of its popularity, collaborating with titans of fashion and music, from Kate Moss to Beyoncé. In an effort to prove that it was creating its own authentic trends, rather than being simply another catwalk copycat, the brand had its own much-anticipated spot on the London Fashion Week schedule. The show drew the top models of the day – the likes of Cara Delevingne and Jourdan Dunn – and Arcadia boss Philip Green sat on the front row, nestled between Anna Wintour and a bevy of contemporary It Girls.
But somewhere along the way, Topshop lost its lustre. The 90,000-square-foot Oxford Street emporium that was once the beating heart of London fashion, synonymous with cutting-edge clothes which could be worn by those within and outside the industry became just like any other fast fashion store, peddling unremarkable designs in cheap, disposable fabrics. My generation, once outfitted in head-to-toe Topshop, began to move onto fashion-forward, mid-range brands like Arket or Ganni, while younger Gen Zers flocked to online retailers like ASOS and Boohoo which had eclipsed Topshop with their ruthlessly low prices, rapid turnover and savvy influencer marketing strategies.
It also become impossible to dissociate Topshop from the tax-dodging man behind it, who has been mired in controversy in recent years. The hammer blow to Green’s reputation came in 2015, when he sold the ailing BHS for just £1, only for it to collapse a year later, resulting in the loss of 11,000 jobs and a £571 million pension deficit. In 2018, Green faced flak for cancelling a feminist pop-up curated by author Scarlett Curtis at Topshop’s flagship store after he reportedly saw the display and removed it; a few weeks later he was named in parliament as the businessman accused of multiple counts of sexual misconduct and racial abuse. Green denied the allegations but his reputation was irreparably tarnished. Soon, Beyoncé would pull her Ivy Park clothing line from stores and Topshop would be forced to cancel a launch party for its collaboration with London Fashion Week favourite Michael Halpern. By the end of 2019, Topshop had experienced losses of half a billion pounds and the value of sales had dropped by 9%. The spell had finally broken.
At the start of the pandemic, Arcadia’s cancellation of over £100 million worth of clothing orders from suppliers in some of the world’s poorest countries did nothing to cast the brand in a favourable light. In an age of more mindful consumption, it became hard to square shopping at Topshop with knowledge of Green’s tax avoidance and short-changing of pensioners while leading a champagne-soaked lifestyle of private jets and super yachts. Yet despite Topshop’s dramatic fall from grace, its collapse is tinged with sadness for millennials like me who grew up during its heyday. For those of us who came of age in the early noughties and 2010s, Topshop was our entry point into fashion, the go-to destination once we outgrew Tammy Girl’s sparkly slogan tees and through which we could envisage a life for ourselves beyond the humdrum of suburbia.
“Topshop was always on the horizon as the first place I ever wanted to buy clothes,” says Anna Loo, who works in publishing. “I feel like it was a gateway for pre-teens to discover your own style and it was where you shopped for the first time when your parents stopped buying your clothes. I used to go to the one in Cabot Circus in Bristol and that was like a classic weekend event with friends. We’d get on the train – it was only 15 minutes from Bath – and it was always so exciting to see what new stock they’d have.”
“I used to work at Café Rouge when I was 17 and I’d spend all my tips money in Topshop on the weekend,” says Jess Kerntiff, who now works in fashion PR. “I remember when I managed to get one of the Kate Moss dresses in the sale – it was a short, strapless pink dress and I was so happy about getting it. I feel like Topshop was the only affordable fashion at the time that was super on trend.”
Topshop democratised glamour and style by making catwalk trends available at accessible prices to fashion-obsessed teens like me, who spent hours poring over runway photos on the now-defunct style.com. It also gave us iconic designer collaborations which have become the stuff of fashion lore, from Christopher Kane’s grungy, grommet-studded 2009 collection to Kate Moss’ many sell-out lines, which saw scores of young women queue outside the flagship store for hours (the one-shoulder buttercup-yellow chiffon dress can still be found on eBay).
“Up until the age of 15 or 16 I thought it was just the epitome of aspirational cool,” says fashion writer Rosalind Jana. “This was the point where they’d just begun doing collaborations with young designers like Preen and the late Richard Nicoll. The Christopher Kane one is still particularly memorable. I was a big part of the fashion blogging community as a teenager and every single blogger was wearing either the studded minis or that tunic with the aggressive crocodile face.”
For many millennial women, Topshop will be entwined with adolescent milestones, from buying your first pair of Jamie jeans (or Joni, if that was your preference – both garnered cult status) to shopping for your prom dress (mine was a rather risqué slinky powder-pink slip dress which, in retrospect, looked a lot like a nightie). “I remember a pair of grey spike-heeled lace-up ankle boots I bought in the flagship Oxford Street store when I was 13. I’d come to London with my mum for a modelling shoot and the chance to go to all of these big shops still felt super thrilling, and very far removed from the small village where I lived,” says Rosalind. “I wore those boots for years and weirdly, even though my feet grew two sizes, they still fitted.”
Despite having bought nothing from Topshop in recent years, some of my favourite pieces remain from there, including a pair of Chloé lookalike cut-out leather pointed toe ankle boots which I’ve had resoled not once but twice. In fact, it’s only halfway through writing this sentence that I realise I’m wearing a Topshop blouse, bought in the sale many moons ago.
“I just think Topshop represents the kind of first foray into adult fashion for so many girls,” says Anna. “I think for a lot of people, Topshop will have been such a big part of their lives. It will be sad to see it go.”
“When I was at that age when Topshop was at its biggest, you would have thought that they would be untouchable,” says Jess. “So even though it’s probably been a long time coming, it still feels like the end of an era.”
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