The rise and fall of Topshop

Just a decade ago, Topshop was the undisputed queen of the British high street. 

With its trendy clothes, sell-out designer collaborations and 100,000 sq ft Oxford Street flagship store, the brand attracted everyone from tourists and teenagers to It Girls and fashion editors.

But fast forward to today and Topshop, along with the rest of the Arcadia Group, is on the brink of collapse. 

Plans for an emergency multimillion-pound loan to Sir Philip Green’s struggling fashion empire have fallen through, it was reported this morning, putting roughly 15,000 jobs at risk. 

Such a demise would have at one point been unthinkable. So how did Topshop – once the coolest name in high street fashion – get to this point?  

Queen of the British high street: With its trendy clothes, sell-out designer collaborations and 100,000 sq ft Oxford Street flagship store, Topshop attracted everyone from tourists and teenagers to It Girls and fashion editors in its heyday. Pictured, Kate Moss and Sir Philip Green at the launch of the first Kate Moss x Topshop range in 2007

Queen of the British high street: With its trendy clothes, sell-out designer collaborations and 100,000 sq ft Oxford Street flagship store, Topshop attracted everyone from tourists and teenagers to It Girls and fashion editors in its heyday. Pictured, Kate Moss and Sir Philip Green at the launch of the first Kate Moss x Topshop range in 2007

Poster girls: British supermodel Cara Delevingne was the face of Topshop's a/w 2014 campaign. Topshop, along with the rest of the Arcadia Group, is now on the brink of collapse

Poster girls: British supermodel Cara Delevingne was the face of Topshop’s a/w 2014 campaign. Topshop, along with the rest of the Arcadia Group, is now on the brink of collapse

The battle for Gen Z: Topshop has lost its younger shoppers to aggressive digital e-tailers like Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing. Pictured, a Topshop social media post shared in September

The battle for Gen Z: Topshop has lost its younger shoppers to aggressive digital e-tailers like Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing. Pictured, a Topshop social media post shared in September

The answer is a combination of cumbersome brick-and-mortar stores, a slow digital strategy and aggressive competition from the likes of PrettyLittleThing, Boohoo and Missguided, which have lured Gen Z shoppers with their ultra fast fashion and even faster delivery times – perfect for a generation focused on showcasing style on social media.

The burden of Topshop’s 510 branches, including some 300 in the UK, has been felt more keenly than ever in recent months, with the Covid-19 pandemic leading to a dramatic drop in footfall and a record number of shops closing during the first half of 2020.

Then there is the issue of Sir Philip Green himself, with retail experts, including Topshop’s former brand director, pointing to how the BHS pension scandal and accusations of sexual harassment (which he denies) put off the brand customer base, largely made up of women and woke Gen Z shoppers.

Here, a closer look at the rise and fall of Topshop… 

DEPARTMENT STORE BEGINNINGS 

Demand for department stores: Topshop started life in 1964 as the 'Top Shop' concession within the now defunct Peter Robinson department store in Sheffield. Pictured, shoppers queue up outside the entrance to the Peter Robinson Oxford Street store in 1978

Demand for department stores: Topshop started life in 1964 as the ‘Top Shop’ concession within the now defunct Peter Robinson department store in Sheffield. Pictured, shoppers queue up outside the entrance to the Peter Robinson Oxford Street store in 1978

Teenage dreams: Peter Robinson had spotted a growing need for fashion made specifically for teenage girls who wanted to embrace modern design. Pictured, the Rag Doll Boutique in the Peter Robinson Sheffield store in 1966. The Top Shop concession wold have been a similar

Teenage dreams: Peter Robinson had spotted a growing need for fashion made specifically for teenage girls who wanted to embrace modern design. Pictured, the Rag Doll Boutique in the Peter Robinson Sheffield store in 1966. The Top Shop concession wold have been a similar

Branching out: By 1974, Peter Robinson, which had been a mainstay of British retail since the 1830s, was floundering and reduced its 22 branches to just six. Meanwhile its Top Shop offering was booming. Pictured, a Top Shop and Top Man store in Liverpool, 1984

Branching out: By 1974, Peter Robinson, which had been a mainstay of British retail since the 1830s, was floundering and reduced its 22 branches to just six. Meanwhile its Top Shop offering was booming. Pictured, a Top Shop and Top Man store in Liverpool, 1984

Topshop started life in 1964 as the ‘Top Shop’ concession within the now defunct Peter Robinson department store in Sheffield. 

The company had spotted a growing need for fashion made specifically for teenage girls who wanted to embrace modern, forward-thinking design. 

Under the leadership of buyer Diane Wadey, Top Shop stocked styles by young British designers including Royal College of Art graduate Jane Whiteside, Jeff Cooper and Ronnie Stirling.

The idea was a success and a concession in the Oxford Street branch of Peter Robinson soon followed, marking the start of the brand’s decades-long presence in the West End. 

In the early 1970s, parent company the Burton Group split off Top Shop into its own independent chain of stores focusing solely on shoppers aged 13 to 24. Peter Robinson would continue to focus on shoppers over the age of 24. 

But by 1974, Peter Robinson, which had been a mainstay of British retail since the 1830s, was floundering and reduced its 22 branches to just six. 

Meanwhile Top Shop was booming. Within two years, Top Shop had 55 standalone branches and was reporting annual profits of £1million. 

FROM TEEN BRAND TO FASHION FAVOURITE 

It Girls: Denise Van Outen launches Bikini Line at Topshop Oxford Street in 1999

It Girls: Denise Van Outen launches Bikini Line at Topshop Oxford Street in 1999

Fashion heavyweight: In 2005, Topshop became the first high street label to show at London Fashion Week.

Sara Cox and Zoe Ball at a Topshop party in London in 2005

Fashion heavyweight: In 2005, Topshop became the first high street label to show at London Fashion Week (left). Right, Sara Cox and Zoe Ball at a Topshop party in London in 2005

Sell-out success: Shoppers queued to get their hands on the first ever Kate Moss x Topshop collection in 2007. The model made 14 collections with the high street store

Sell-out success: Shoppers queued to get their hands on the first ever Kate Moss x Topshop collection in 2007. The model made 14 collections with the high street store

Model friends: Sir Philip Green with models (from left) Suki Waterhouse, Kate Moss, Cara Delevingne, Sienna Miller and Naomi Campbell at the Kate Moss x Topshop launch in 2014

Model friends: Sir Philip Green with models (from left) Suki Waterhouse, Kate Moss, Cara Delevingne, Sienna Miller and Naomi Campbell at the Kate Moss x Topshop launch in 2014

Its next major image revamp came in the 1990s, the same decade that the Oxford Street flagship opened in its current location.

Under the stewardship of Jane Shepherdson CBE, who was Topshop brand manager from 1999 to 2006, the brand went from teen clothing store to a serious fashion brand with industry clout. 

‘It was a time when we were trying to prove Topshop had its own design credibility compared to a cheap high street retailer that used to copy everyone else,’ Shepherdson told the Evening Standard. 

A timeline of Topshop’s triumphs and losses 

1964: The launch of Topshop as a concession in Peter Robinson in Sheffield

Early 1970s: First standalone Topshop stores open

1980s: Top Shop becomes Topshop  

1994: Topshop opens at its current site on London’s Oxford Street 

2000: Topshop launches its online presence  

2001: Launch of Topshop Unique

2002: Sir Philip Green buys Arcadia Group, the owner of Topshop, through family business Taveta.

2005: Topshop becomes first high street label to show at London Fashion Week

2005: Topshop records £100million profit

2007: First of 14 Kate Moss x Topshop collaborations launches. Each collection sells out within hours. 

2018: Arcadia reports a £93.4million pre-tax loss compared with a £164.6million profit in the previous 12 months. It also said sales fell 4.5 per cent to £1.8bn.

2020: Covid-19 hits the high street. Arcadia closes 550 stores and furloughs 14,500 employees. Group is now set to enter administration, putting some 15,000 jobs at risk.

In 2001, Topshop launched its own label, Topshop Unique, and in 2005 became the first high street label to show at London Fashion Week. 

The move cemented its place as a brand worthy of the coolest names in British fashion, with It Girls including Zoe Ball, Sara Cox, Donna Air and Jemima Khan sitting front row. 

At the same time, Shepherdson focused on collaborations with young British designers like Christopher Kane, and turned the Oxford Street store into a must-visit destination for schoolgirls, tourists and fashionistas alike. 

Shepherdson added: ‘We wanted to make it everything that a young girl wanted from a fashion store and for it to feel like a real luxury, special experience. I think for a time we achieved that.’ 

In 2005 Topshop reported profits of £100million.  

After Shepherdson’s departure came another great Topshop milestone: the first Topshop x Kate Moss collaboration.

The 2007 release was a hit with shoppers and graced the pages of fashion magazines. The supermodel would go on to produce 14 collections with the retailer up until 2014, with each one selling out within hours. 

‘The Kate Moss collaboration cemented the Topshop brand and allowed it to expand worldwide piggybacking off the name of the world’s most famous supermodel,’ noted pop culture commentator Nick Ede. 

‘It was the biggest fashion breakthrough and led to his products being featured in magazines that would normally turn a blind eye to his designs in a snobbish fashion.’

Other high profile designer collaborators include Mary Katrantzou, Richard Nicoll, Jonathan Saunders and Meadham Kirchhoff. 

The idea was replicated at Arcadia’s other brands including Dorothy Perkins, which launched a Kardashian Kollection in 2012.

Mr Ede added: ‘These iconic collaborations were the top of their game. Many imitated but none were as good at tapping into the fashion zeitgeist of the times.’ 

In 2009, Topshop arrived in the US, with Kate Moss and Sir Philip jetting to New York for the launch that saw shoppers queue up around the block. 

STRUGGLING TO KEEP UP 

Fighting to stay relevant: On the high street Topshop has faced greater competition from new rivals like & Other Stories, Urban Outfitters and Arket, as well as established retailers like H&M and Zara. Pictured, the Topshop flagship on Oxford Street

Fighting to stay relevant: On the high street Topshop has faced greater competition from new rivals like & Other Stories, Urban Outfitters and Arket, as well as established retailers like H&M and Zara. Pictured, the Topshop flagship on Oxford Street

Slow on the uptake: Topshop lagged on introducing an innovative e-commerce and social media strategy, according to experts. Pictured, a snap shared by Topshop on Instagram

Slow on the uptake: Topshop lagged on introducing an innovative e-commerce and social media strategy, according to experts. Pictured, a snap shared by Topshop on Instagram

However over the last 10 years, Topshop’s shine has started to fade. 

On the high street it has faced greater competition from new rivals like & Other Stories, Urban Outfitters and Arket, as well as from established retailers like H&M and Zara, which offer designer lookalikes within weeks of their catwalk debut. 

Topshop also has a large number of brick-and-mortar stores – some 510 around the world, including 300 in the UK – which have become less and less of a draw in the age of online shopping. In 2019 all of Topshop’s US stores closed, just 10 years after opening.

Compounding the problem is Topshop’s sluggish digital investment and the aggressive rise in online, fast fashion retailers like Boohoo, PrettyLittleThing and Missguided, which have become the go-to destinations for Gen Z shoppers looking to snap up new, social-media worthy looks.  

Liam Patterson, CEO and founder at Bidnamic, a marketing technology platform, said: ‘Rather than adapting to modern customer needs with a strong ecommerce offering, the brand resisted innovation and was late to the digital party. 

‘COVID-19 lockdowns only exacerbated these issues as the business lost customers to digital natives like ASOS and Boohoo that had more engaging online presence and more reputable brands.’  

Then there is  Arcadia’s owner: Sir Philip Green.

Mr Patterson explained younger, socially aware shoppers are put off by allegations of sexual harassment (which Sir Philip denies) as well as the sale of BHS and subsequent pension scandal. The opinion is echoed by Mr Ede and by Shepherdson.

She told the Evening Standard: ‘A brand that’s supposed to appeal to young women, having someone like that at the helm of it, it’s a recipe for disaster. I don’t think that helped at all.’

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