“What’s this I’m reading in the paper? It’s a load of absolute shit, that’s what it is. What’s the matter with you? Are you stupid or what? I’ve never read so much rubbish in my life.”
It was February 2010, and I was at my desk in the Guardian office. Philip Green didn’t need to introduce himself. His habit of bellowing down the phone was unmistakable, and I had just written an article about how I was falling out of love with Topshop after a decade being in thrall to its shop floor. Green never did take kindly to criticism of the golden child of his Arcadia empire.
Of the thousands of businesses that have been brought to their knees by the pandemic, Topshop is the most high-profile scalp; Arcadia Group collapsed into administration on Monday. In its prime, it was the most glamorous store the British high street has ever had. From late 1990 until a few years ago, it was the rock star of retail. Its dresses regularly featured on the pages of Vogue. Every Saturday, the 90,000 sq feet of its flagship store on Oxford Circus were packed with shoppers high on catwalk-adjacent clothes at accessible prices. When Beyoncé flew into London, the store opened an hour early so that she and her team could shop privately on their way to rehearsals. At London Fashion Week, where the brand staged a bi-annual show from 2005 until 2018, the Topshop front row regularly outshone designer labels with the glossiest celebrities, the sharpest new trends, the most copious champagne. At those catwalk shows, Green would position himself in the place of honour, with Anna Wintour on one side and Kate Moss on the other. He was the uncontested king of the high street.
The story of Topshop’s glory years – and of its fall – is closely tied to Green, but the story of its rise belongs to someone else. Topshop’s ascendancy was a phenomenon under the stewardship of Jane Shepherdson, several years before Green arrived. As brand director, Shepherdson created at Topshop the kind of brand that had never before existed. Until then, high street fashion had tended to fall into two generational camps. There were sensible skirts-and-blouses for grownups, and then there was “youth” fashion – basic denim, brightly coloured T-shirts, generically skimpy party dresses, cheap rip-offs of catwalk silhouettes. Topshop changed this, thanks to Shepherdson’s unerring taste and her eye for the best fashion school graduate talent with which to fill the design studio. Topshop offered high-fashion sophistication at a high street price. In 2006, Paolo Roversi shot a Topshop advertising campaign between shooting covers for Italian Vogue.
Fashion is never just about clothes, and Topshop on a Saturday in the noughties was a playground. The democratisation of style that it represented felt like a progressive and cheering development, and the loud music and video screens lent the stores a festival mood. There were on-floor stylists and walk-up nail bars.