When I was growing up in Belfast in the mid-00s, the recently opened Victoria Square shopping centre offered a trifecta of coolness to teenage girls: Topshop, Urban Outfitters and Hollister. While each store had its own appeal, the barometer of desire swung most often towards Topshop. The “Topshop Girl” was ahead of trends, easily cast as the Kate or Cara of her provincial town in a statement chunky necklace or boho gilet. Whether in Belfast’s Victoria Square, the Trafford Centre in Manchester or a concession in a regional department store, Topshop was, for many young women, a beacon of aspiration.
If you lived outside a major city, a pilgrimage into town wasn’t complete without a visit to Topshop. The brand’s flagship store on London’s Oxford Street was the teenage girl equivalent of Lourdes, with three sprawling floors of clothes, shoes and accessories, a cavernous basement housing the brand’s premium Boutique range, and a curated selection of vintage clothing. Any visit was a multi-sensory experience: the labyrinth of mirrored escalators were always packed with bewildered tourists as the sound of pummelling house music from a resident DJ permeated the building.
But after a 27-year tenure on London’s main shopping drag, the company’s flagship has now been put up for sale. Topshop’s parent company, the Arcadia Group, has gone into administration and a buyer is being sought for the brand. Last year was tumultuous for high street staples as social distancing measures meant a reduction in the sales of clothing and an overall shift to online retail. Though you won’t catch me shedding any tears for Arcadia owner Philip Green – his family are set to pocket £50m from the sale of Topshop – the demise of his retail empire is a tragic blow for the 13,000 employees across the group whose jobs are at risk.
The sale of Topshop is also a symptom of our changing relationship with fashion. Founded in 1964, Topshop’s zenith was arguably during the past two decades, when the chain brought the catwalk to the high street. Previously, mass-market clothing production ran months behind the pieces luxury designers showcased at catwalk shows, until Topshop and its peers – including Zara and Mango – began to match these trends, almost like-for-like. Fashion shows were once heavily guarded events to which high-street designers weren’t invited (some even paid for blackmarket catwalk footage). But the advent of social media and blogging made catwalk trends more accessible, and Topshop was well placed to meet them.
The brand established itself as a high-street contender in the world of high fashion, and was one of the first chains to launch its own runway shows, with celebrities and models dotting front rows. It pioneered high-end collaborations with designers and celebrities such as Kate Moss, Christopher Kane and Preen – a business model that has since become an industry standard. The brand drip-fed trends to consumers who had previously relied on glossy magazines and the occasional blog for fashion forecasts. At Topshop’s peak, a pair of the brand’s popular Joni skinny jeans sold every 10 seconds, and queues snaked around the block for its limited designer collections.
But the trend cycle that Topshop once stoked continued to pick up speed, and more dexterous competitors started to meet the demand for increasingly faster fashion. Brands such as Boohoo, PrettyLittleThing and Missguided had rapid production rates and even more cut-price offerings – these retailers could sell “going out-out” dresses, once a Topshop staple, for under £5. While Topshop’s bland website has remained much the same for years, new fast-fashion brands nimbly adapted to the age of influencers and social media; PrettyLittleThing launched a sell-out line with Love Island’s Molly Mae, for instance, while Boohoo is known for its meme-machine Instagram page.
In many ways, Topshop has been the victim of its own success. The fashion playing field it once helped to level has evolved; the business model it once pioneered now seems old-fashioned alongside social media-savvy competitors that don’t even have brick and mortar stores (or the overheads that go with them). But it wasn’t just the voracious appetite for fast fashion that led to Topshop’s demise. As its key demographic grew older – with more disposable income and an eye on quality – they graduated to new offerings, such as the H&M group’s Cos, and & Other Stories. These brands emphasise higher-quality fabrics and boutique-style stores (though even they are beginning to face a reckoning, as shoppers cotton on to issues around faux sustainability claims).
Indeed, consumers have become increasingly aware that fast fashion carries a huge cost for the environment and workers’ rights. One in three Generation Z and millennial consumers in the UK are now on the fashion marketplace Depop, a hive for vintage and second-hand clothing. The slow fashion activists I know – and the hubs of like-minded teens who proliferate on Depop and TikTok – are interrogating the brokers of consumer culture and finding a sense of community in clothes that have more of a purpose than the comfort of trend-safe replica outfits.
Young women’s shopping habits continue to change the world of fashion as we know it. Hopefully, some of that change is for the better. Somewhere in the sartorial hinterland between fast fashion shoppers and more critical consumers, Topshop lost its purpose. Whatever comes next for the brand, we may be bidding a tentative, bittersweet farewell to the three undisputed demigods of denim that Topshop made so popular: Joni, Jamie and Leigh.
Anna Cafolla is a journalist specialising in women’s rights, Northern Ireland, youth culture and activism