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Will London fashion ever get over the death of Big Topshop?

The loss of the Oxford Street landmark has left a yawning gap in the market for somewhere that'll get London's shoppers excited again. Now, brands are duking it out for the souls of a new generation.

Image: Jamie Inglis
Image: Jamie Inglis
Written by
Alice Saville

‘Topshop really anchored retail in the UK in a way that is REALLY missed. Sounds dramatic but I don’t think British fashion has been the same without it.’

Two years since storied Oxford Street fashion destination Big Topshop closed its doors, shoe designer Aize Omoigui is still feeling the loss, and the reaction to her recent tweet suggests she’s not alone. When we catch up on the phone, her voice fills with warmth as she remembers its glory days.

‘Topshop defined fashion for a generation. You could go there straight after work on Friday and get a head-to-toe look to wear that night, whatever your style: jewellery, nails, hair, all in one place. I remember I re-styled one of my ex-boyfriends. Four hours in there and he was like a new person. It’s just such a shame it doesn’t exist anymore. I’m getting emotional!’

It might seem weird to feel such a deep connection to what was essentially a chain clothing store. But I get it. Oxford Street’s flagship Topshop was both a destination, and a rite of passage – stepping onto those escalators and gliding into its subterranean underbelly meant deciding what kind of person you were going to be. For me, it’s been a lifesaver. I’ve cemented teen friendships in its depths, searched sweatily through it for emergency Monday morning fits to save face in the office, or imagined whole new personas for myself among its rails. Whenever I pass it, I half-imagine its familiar landscape is still intact behind the hoardings, with bored guys still waiting on its infamous ‘boyfriend bench’, staring into a wasteland of dusty accessories like marooned astronauts surveying a desolate lunar landscape.

It’s not the only much-loved store that’s gone. In the past few years British fashion’s biggest players have been through a Game of Thrones-style bloodbath, with only a few left standing. Topshop closed when Philip Green’s Arcadia Group went bust in 2021, alongside stablemates Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins, Debenhams, and Warehouse. Oasis followed soon after. New Look is axeing seven shops this year.

So why are the brands that have filled British wardrobes for decades suddenly dying off? And what will it take for the high street to get its magic back?

Queues outside Topshop for Kate Moss's collab
Photograph: Alamy

Shop of dreams

For Henrietta Rix, founder of cult vintage-inspired brand Rixo, Big Topshop was a formative place. ‘Me and my friends would go most Saturdays,’ she says. ‘There was pick ‘n’ mix, a DJ, something new every time’. Underneath the teen-pleasing gimmicks, Topshop had serious fashion world credentials though, with visionary fashion buyer Jane Shepherson steering it from a naff ’90s youth retailer straight into the pages of noughties Vogue. Under her reign, it landed pioneering collabs with fashion luminaries like Christopher Kane – who got people queuing down the street for his alligator dress in 2009 – or Kate Moss, who had the paparazzi frothing over her rock chic line in 2007.

‘It created an audience for fashion that was younger and had less disposable income to spend,’ says Rix. ‘Realistically, a Chanel show in Paris is not attainable for you, but you could see the Topshop runway at London Fashion Week and think “I could actually buy that”.’

It’s hard to imagine Big Topshop’s total domination of Oxford Street now. Once, the steps down to Oxford Circus tube were crowded with shoppers with billowing Topshop paper bags crinkling with purchases that connected them to the fashion zeitgeist. But now, the site’s deserted. A big sign in the window reads ‘Hej, we can’t wait to meet you’ – a perky message from its new owners, Ikea, whose customers will soon be trying to cram bags full of bargain tealights onto the Victoria line once the store opens this autumn.

Why have so many long-standing British fashion brands crashed and burned in recent years?

So if Topshop was so loved, why did it vanish? And why have so many long-standing British fashion brands crashed and burned in recent years?

For British Retail Consortium’s spokesperson Kris Hamer, the answer is simple. ‘You can walk onto any high street and see lots of empty shops. That's a direct effect of over taxation,’ he says. ‘We’ve campaigned for a reduction in business rates for years. They add a huge drag on the viability of many businesses, because it's just so expensive to run the stores.’

He’s got a point: taxes aren’t easy for high street brands that are already struggling with the cozzy livs and the shift to online shopping. But it’s far from the full story. If conditions on the British high street are so uniquely tough, why are international brands rushing in?

Polish fashion brand Reserved is opening several new stores across the UK this year. Its chief financial officer Przemyslaw Lutkiewicz is dreaming big, saying ‘We hope we can fill that Topshop-shaped hole on the high street.’ And Swedish brand H&M is aiming to double sales by 2030, while at the same time halving its carbon footprint.

‘The brands that have done well are the ones that embraced the mega trend of the 2000s, which was online shopping being the future,’ summarises Hamer.

But that doesn’t mean he’s giving up hope on the high street. Instead, he reckons that online and IRL shopping feed into each other.

‘People might look at clothes in stores and then purchase online. Or they might return something they bought online to a store and buy something else while they’re in there,’ he reasons. ‘Retailers need to embrace the change. If you don’t adapt, you die.’

The interior of Topshop
Photograph: Alamy

London’s micro-brand explosion

The pandemic wasn’t a disaster for all British fashion brands. A plethora of small labels exploded onto the scene in those fallow years, building up rich, borderline-obsessive relationships with their fans on instagram and TikTok. Playful dungaree brand Lucy & Yak offered free online yoga seshes from practitioners wearing their signature bold prints, and got fans to #showoffyouryaks in selfies. House of Sunny has an exclusive member’s club where superfans get first dibs on new drops. Elevated cottagecore label Meadows seduced nature-starved city dwellers with gorgeous shoots in natural locations and posts about ancient folklore traditions. And Miista hosted livestreams from inside its factory, then kept the post-pandemic party going with DJ-fuelled pop-ups that East Londoners now queue for three hours to get into (and are duly mocked on insta account Real Housewives of Clapton).
For Topshop, having a relationship with customers meant being a physical landmark in their lives: a destination, a place to gather. But for its successors, a bricks and mortar shop is just part of a wider story that seduces and enthrals customers both online and offline.

Designer Erin Markey is the brains behind both pastoral cottagecore retailer Meadows and edgier workwear-inspired brand L F Markey, which recently opened a Dalston shop. She explains that her expectations were initially low: ‘I saw it as a testing ground, a place just to show people what we’re about, and felt I could justify it mainly as a marketing expense.’

At night, the space hosts artist-led workshops in things like abstract collage or rug tufting. ‘Creativity is a big part of our customers’ lives,’ says Markey, ‘so we wanted to get them into the space, socialising and learning new crafts and skills.’

More pragmatically, these workshops also get people through the doors, which is invaluable for a shop that’s miles away from the classic well-trodden fashion high streets.

Conditions for fashion brands are seriously tough right now. Brexit has made it extra difficult to buy fabrics from the EU or develop European customer bases, commercial rents on premises are sky high, and staff are hard to come by. But as they feel the pinch, these brands are also being held to higher ethical standards than Topshop ever was.

‘Our customers are super engaged with issues of sustainability, and so are we,’ says Markey, ‘but it’s hard when you’re not producing huge numbers of clothes because you don’t have the buying power [to ask suppliers to make moves towards sustainability]’. Meanwhile, she explains, bigger brands are able to sugarcoat their ethical credentials by trumpeting the fact that they’re using tiny percentages of recycled textiles in their products. ‘There’s a huge greenwashing issue,’ says Markey. Last year, a federal lawsuit filed in New York against H&M accused the company of misleading info on the sustainability of its clothes.

Fashion’s next generation

There’s a bit of a paradox about Gen Z fashion fans. On the one hand, they’re keener than ever on sustainability. But on the other, they’re also contributing to the massive rise of youth-led, hyper-cheap online brands like Shein, and spreading the word by unboxing massive clothing hauls on Tiktok.

Rixo has recently opened a giant new flagship shop – a 5,000 square-foot space on Kings Road which is hoping to lure in customers with both its signature print midi dresses and extras like a bridal boutique, a sustainability-friendly clothing rental service, and rails of vintage to rummage through. I wondered if Rix is worried that a new generation are more into Shein hauls than splashing out on £335 tea dresses, but she’s not concerned: ‘The younger generation are renting clothes like there’s no tomorrow, and they’re also asking more questions about where things are made. We really want our customers to cherish the item and for it to become future vintage.’

Having come of age loitering among the rails of Big Topshop, Rix is aiming to bring some of the same magic to her new store, albeit for a slightly bougier demographic. ‘The store needs to offer a real experience to get people to come in,’ she says, ‘so we’ll have a coffee shop and a cocktail bar so that people can hang out with their friends.’

Rixo's new flagshop store
Photograph: courtesy of Rixo

With knockout South African cocktail spot Smokey Kudu in residence, comfy sofas everywhere, and witty design touches like Venetian glass chandeliers and giant palm trees, Rixo’s new store feels more like a boutique hotel than a high street clothes shop.

‘You want that social connection,’ says Rix. ‘People will come to the communal mirror and comment and help each other. I don’t think the high street is dead, and that’s why we’ve invested in creating this space.’

A rich heritage

If you lose British fashion brands from the high street, you lose something big: decades of heritage and distinctness lost in favour of the blur of globalisation. ‘There’s a quirkiness that we love, and a kind of natural, boho look that’s less put together,’ says Rix, trying to describe what makes London fashion different. ‘We’re always inspired by Ozzy Clark and Celia Birtwell and Biba, those true British icons.’

Omigoui agrees. ‘At Topshop’s peak, it was part of this Cool Britannia fashion mood, and the people at the forefront of it were very British cool girls – we managed to export that look quite successfully. At the moment, because that is missing, British fashion is kind of directionless. We just have recycled trends, and an online marketplace of copies.’

Big Topshop was an exercise in curatorial genius

She reckons that the reason that Gen Z is so in thrall to the Y2K aesthetic is that it’s a return to the last time that British fashion felt genuinely forward-looking. Conventional fashion wisdom is that trends resurface every 20-30 years, as younger people take inspiration from rummaging through their parents’ wardrobes, but this time round the big comeback feels even more omnipresent, thanks to the arrival of easy secondhand marketplaces like Depop and Vinted.

Still, not everything about the ’00s is making a triumphant comeback.

The fashion landscape back then was fearsome as well as exciting, the boundaries of fashion acceptability policed by catty blogs like ‘Go Fug Yourself’ and professional mean girls Trinny and Susannah, who made a telly career out of dissecting ordinary women’s wardrobes and perceived figure flaws.

In this somewhat-terrifying landscape, Topshop was an exercise in curatorial genius. It collaborated with the most exciting designers, handpicked the most interesting emerging labels to showcase in its downstairs space, and selected vintage gems. ‘Your customer knows, if it’s in Topshop, it’s okay’ said Jane Shepherson in the BBC documentary, explaining that her role was to guide women through a wilderness of options towards reliably on trend choices.

That idea seems hopelessly out of date now. Gen Z are less willing to be told what to wear and how to wear it. Instead, we’ve entered the micro-aesthetic era, where Tiktokers show off their Shrek t-shirts, Depoppers flog corsets made out of football shirts, and tiny Instagram brands build fanatical fanbases for borderline unwearable crochet numbers.But in this wild new fashion jungle, there’s still something missing. Londoners need somewhere that acts as a physical destination for shoppers, somewhere where people can hang out and try aesthetics on for size, before they drop their cash.

Big Topshop might have been behind the curve in some ways, missing out on the massive cultural shifts towards online shopping and sustainability. But in other ways, it was ahead of its time. Its DJ sets, celeb appearances and spots for socialising made it forward-thinking for creating an experience, not just a shop. And the most successful high street players of the future will need to learn from it.

76% of people would rather spend their money on experiences, rather than products, according to a recent Momentum study. It’s a stat that could spell disaster for the retail industry, until you consider that for fashion fans, going shopping is an experience. Running your hands over the rails, sharing opinions with friends, trying stuff on, playing around, and getting gently coerced and complimented into trying on something that transforms you into a whole new, better person – it’s magic. And it’s a feeling that scrolling past endless online garms can never replace.

‘There’s a massive opportunity for someone to have a physical location and a British point of view the way Topshop did,’ concludes Omigoui. ‘Speaking to all my friends, if they brought something like that back, our lives would change.’

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