As Topshop closes its doors for the final time, fashion editor Laura Craik looks back at the store that transformed the high street and our wardrobes – and asks, what really went wrong?
Saturday afternoon in Edinburgh, some time in the late 1980s. Three schoolgirls are huddled in the basement of Topshop on Princes Street, hotly debating its tube skirts. Jenni wants a pink one. Joanne wants it in black. I – ever keen to be different (joke) – want the stripy version. But we only have a tenner, so we buy some hoop earrings instead. We exit happily, not too disappointed to miss out on new skirts because we have something better: inspiration, and the shared feeling that we’ve just spent an hour at the white-hot centre of the world.
That was the magic of Topshop in its heyday: it made you feel part of a club whose only membership criterion was that you loved fashion. As a teen, I thought the Edinburgh store was as exciting as shopping got. Then I clapped eyes on Topshop Oxford Circus.
The internet might have democratised fashion – anyone anywhere can buy a pair of Topshop jeans – but it can never replicate the heart-thumping joy of gliding down those escalators into 90,000 square feet of ‘It’ clothes and wondering whether you’d bump into Alexa Chung or Joan Collins (in my three decades as a Topshop customer, I saw both browsing the aisles). It lured you in, whether you were 18 or 80. And if you were Beyoncé, it smuggled you in after hours, via a secret entrance, to shop uninterrupted by the hordes.
Alas, Topshop Oxford Circus can no longer lure celebrities, time-pressed office workers, 40-something mums, starry-eyed tweens or eager tourists into its neon lair. On 1 February, online retailer Asos announced it had bought Topshop and Miss Selfridge in a £330 million deal, after parent company Arcadia collapsed into administration last year. As an ‘e-tailer’ founded on clicks rather than bricks, Asos declined to buy any of the brands’ remaining 70 stores, leaving 2,500 jobs at risk. But Topshop isn’t just another casualty of Covid. It’s also a casualty of fundamentally changed shopping habits, as well as greed, hubris and poor management that saddens anyone who worshipped at its altar or worked on its shop floor.
Founded in 1964 by Raymond Montague Burton, Topshop started humbly, in the basement of a store in Sheffield, and peaked as a billion-pound behemoth, with more than 500 stores in 37 countries. Its zenith and its nadir were both presided over by the disgraced Philip Green, who has been accused of racial, sexual and physical abuse, all of which he denied, and who in 2002 bought Arcadia in a £850 million deal.
It was PG (as he was known to friends) who made Topshop a headline sponsor of London Fashion Week; who supported young British design talent by funding programmes like NewGen, which helps up-and-coming designers to show at London Fashion Week; who persuaded Kate Moss to design her first-ever collection; who masterminded capsule collections by Celia Birtwell, JW Anderson, Preen and Christopher Kane; who signed Beyoncé to launch her Ivy Park brand and who presided over Topshop’s decline into bankruptcy.
But this isn’t a tribute to PG. This is a tribute to Topshop: to the people who shopped there, the people who worked there and the army of women working tirelessly behind the man who grabbed the headlines. Philip Green may have bankrolled the brand, but while he relished being its head, he could never be its heart.
‘We wanted to exceed our customers’ expectations in every way, from the quality of the clothes and the design credentials, to the service they received,’ remembers Jane Shepherdson, whose seven-year tenure until 2006 as brand director saw annual profits jump from £9 million to £100 million. ‘We wanted them to feel as special as a Harrods or Selfridges customer, sampling the coolest London designers, or having a one-to-one appointment with their own style adviser. We were so proud of what we were creating, we never gave a thought to whether or not it would make money. If the customers wanted it, we would give it to them with bells on.’
Kate Phelan, the revered Vogue stylist who joined Topshop as creative director in 2011, was pivotal in ensuring the brand remained cool among a new generation of shoppers who took their cues from social media more than magazines. ‘We’re very broad at Topshop, from a girl starting her first adventures in fashion at 16 to a woman like myself, who’s 51 and still gets excited to see something brilliant,’ she told me in 2015. ‘It’s important we consider that grown-up, working woman, and what she wants.’
That Topshop managed to be all things to all women was key to its huge success. It was one of those rare high-street brands that you could take your teenage daughter to and not have her cringe, or walk five steps behind you. More likely, you’d be fighting over the same coat.
No one epitomises this cross-generational appeal more than Kate Moss. The ‘girl next door’ from Croydon went from customer, to model, to capsule collection designer in the space of 20 years, growing up with the brand in tandem with its customers. When Kate launched her first collection in 2007, she brought Oxford Street to a standstill after posing in the flagship store’s window in a slinky long red chiffon dress (it sold out instantly, changing hands on Ebay for five times the price). Of the 14 collections she designed between then and 2014 almost everything sold out, from the swallow-print shirts and skinny sequined scarves to the lemon mini prom dresses.
However many millions it was that ‘Uncle Phil’ (as Kate called him) spent on signing her, it was worth every penny. It gave credibility and visibility in equal measure, and put a rocket under Topshop’s international expansion plans. I’ll always remember the strange familiarity of visiting Topshop’s New York store when it opened on Broadway in 2009: seeing the same army jackets, Baxter jeans and slip dresses on the rails made me feel both discombobulated and proud.
Another vivid memory is of attending Topshop’s first catwalk show in 2005. Some fashion editors were sniffy about a high-street chain daring to show alongside designers such as Matthew Williamson and Giles Deacon, but Topshop was ahead of its time. Credit to Jane Shepherdson, who recognised that if the most stylish shoppers had been wearing high street and designer labels together for years, why not blur the lines further with a catwalk show?
In the 13 years that Topshop showed at London Fashion Week (its last show was in 2018), it was always one of the highlights, with a celebrity-heavy front row (Kendall Jenner, Ellie Goulding and, of course, Kate Moss – in recent years flanked by her daughter Lila) that made the requisite splash on social media. As a brand, Topshop was hard to define: it didn’t have a heritage check, just a name above a door. Catwalk shows gave it an identity.
But identities change, and customers are fickle. Even loyal ones who had grown up with Topshop found themselves tempted by the catwalk-adjacent looks in Zara, the cheaper offers in Primark and the sleek, minimal designs in Scandi-owned chains such as Cos and Arket. Their daughters, meanwhile, were lured by the cheap fast-fashion offerings of Boohoo, Missguided and PrettyLittleThing – all marketed directly via paid ads with influencers on their mobile phones. Kate Moss? She’s old enough to be their mother. And no girl wants to dress like her mother.
As my teen pulls out another pair of Nike sweatpants and another Fruit of the Loom tee, I remember Jenni, Joanne and me at the same age: how sweatpants were for losers, how we eventually saved up for those tube skirts and how we waddled into the school disco with pride. Maybe my two daughters will spend the rest of their natural lives dressed in trainers and trackies, but I’ve kept my favourite Topshop buys just in case. Times change, tastes change, but a cute tea dress is a cute tea dress.
Five iconic Topshop buys
These trendsetting pieces were all instant sellouts.
The black satin slip skirt, 1993
Very Galliano, very Kate Moss. The floor-length skirt cut on the bias was Topshop at its best, nailing catwalk trends at affordable prices. The style was brought back in 2019, thanks to the 90s revival.
The ribbed vest, 2001
They came in every colour, and were a snip at £4.99. Which was possibly why we wore them two at a time: white under pink, khaki under black. Extra points for protruding neon bra straps.
The Jamie jeans, 2004
So sought after that whenever they were in town for London Fashion Week, the entire French Vogue team would prioritise a pitstop at Topshop Oxford Circus to bulk-buy the flattering style.
The Celia Birtwell dress, 2006
Fans queued in their droves to snap up long, 70s-style dresses adorned with prints by Celia Birtwell with designs reminiscent of her late husband Ossie Clark.
The Kate Moss pansy print tea dress, 2007
Not the most va-va-voom item in Kate’s first collection but it stood the test of time. Remade in several fabrics over the years, but the pansy print remains most covetable.
Other high-street heroes we’ve loved and lost
Established in the 1960s by Polish fashion designer Barbara Hulanicki, the Kensington store was popular for its affordability and fast-changing stock. After Hulanicki sold to Dorothy Perkins she lost control of the business and it closed in 1976.
One of the UK’s first fashion boutique chains, Chelsea Girl opened in 1965 and became a rite of passage for teenagers thanks to its denim A-line midi skirts and cheesecloth shirts. It merged with menswear brand Concept Man in 1988 and became River Island.
Parisian high-street brand Morgan was known for its minidresses and black bootcut trousers before it fell victim to the financial crisis in 2008. It went into administration and closed its 19 stores and 47 department store concessions.
Remembered for its sparkly tops and clubbing handbags, Australian retailer Kookaï was the only place to get an outfit for a night out in the 90s. The UK arm of the brand went into administration in 2006, before pulling out of the UK by 2013. It’s still available online.
Founded by Norman Freed in 1952, it was the go-to in the 90s and early noughties for figure-hugging floral dresses and its iconic plastic bags. The company went into administration in 2011, then again three years later before finally folding in 2018.
Additional reporting: Charlotte Vossen