As Topshop’s uncertain future unfolds, fashion features editor Billie Bhatia, looks back on the formative fashion moments from the high street giant and where it all went wrong.
Growing up in the suburbs of Leicester, my teenage existence was like that of most other millennials. I met my friends on a Saturday by the city’s clock tower to spend the afternoon perusing the great British high street, ready and willing to cash in our saved ennies for the most-desired items: a Lancôme Juicy Tube and anything from Topshop – the coolest clothes shop in existence.
This week, as the news circled that Arcadia Group consisting of Dorothy Perkins, Miss Selfridge, Wallis, Burton and Topshop was to become the latest Covid casualty putting 13,000 jobs at risk, I had to refresh my news app. Not Topshop! Surely what was once the buzziest store on the British high street and the ultimate style destination couldn’t be going under.
Like most of my relationships as a teenager and in my early twenties, Topshop was an unrequited love. I remember visiting the Leicester store with my friends as regularly as we washed out hair. “Shall we have a look in Toppers?” A line used with such frequency it could have been classed as an after school activity.
My friends would hurry to try on Jamie jeans and floral mini dresses, while I would carefully scan through every piece of clothing hoping that on this occasion there might possibly be something that fit me. I vividly remember being ecstatic when I stumbled across a mustard cape (yes, you read that right) that, thanks to its oversized shape actually fit me. At the time I was in my last year of school where uniform was ditched in favour of “business attire”. I use inverted commas here because I considered a hanky hem skirt with a giant brown belt and a Ralph Lauren jumper business attire, but I’m getting distracted.
The mustard cape became an essential part of my school wardrobe and I felt validated. “OMG I love your cape!” (Said no one). But that didn’t stop me from being armed with my answer, “Oh, it’s Topshop!” That meant something. Wearing Topshop was more than a sartorial choice, it was a club – granted one that didn’t really want me – but didn’t stop me from desperately wanting to be part of it.
I always thought that Topshop on Leicester’s Gallowtree Gate was pretty impressive as far as stores went, it did have four floors after all. But that was nothing on the sheer magnitude of the iconic Oxford Street store. At 18, I made my pilgrimage. What followed was four hours spent getting lost in the high street’s Mecca. The accessories, the concessions, the rails upon rails of clothes, the club music, the hordes of cool London teenagers casually throwing mini skirts over their arm. Visiting this store was a rite of passage that nearly all of us have experienced. That overwhelming feeling of “Where the hell do I start?”, but giddy with excitement to take home a piece of something that felt so much bigger than the small lives we were living was electrifying.
Remember the designer collaborations? Christopher Kane (I still regret not buying that wildly aggressive crocodile vest top), Mary Katrantzou, Meadham Kirchhoff (a niche but brilliant collection of brightly coloured crotchet pieces ), Preen and the late great Richard Nicoll. These collaborations were so legendary people still talk about them. The Kate Moss collections: was there fashion hysteria like that before? The iconic Kate Moss prom dress didn’t even come close to being squeezed over my body – I really thought I was going to have an Andie Anderson in How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days moment in that dress, alas the cruel Topshop sizing brought back to reality with a crash, bang wallop. However, the billowing one-shouldered Grecian dress was added to basket as soon as it dropped even if it slightly sliced into my underarm when I wore it.
Fashion editor Polly Knight reflects on her Kate Moss moment, “I wish I still had my Kate Moss one shoulder dress in black. That was such a moment for me, that dress was iconic. I felt iconic in it, like I was entering the fashion elite. Every time I put in on I would internally be screaming, “KATE BLOODY MOSS!” But it was the Topshop Aggies I was desperate for. They were suede shoe boots, with patent sky scrapper heels and platforms (I was pushing 6ft 2” in them). I searched high and low for these boots. Regular visits to the Oxford Street store were fruitless. I was devastated, I needed those boots! They were the shoes everybody had and bloody hell you were the epitome of cool if you had them. On Christmas Day I opened a present from my then boyfriend and it was the boots. My beloved Aggies. I don’t think I had ever been happier. I went back to university feeling like a real fashion insider, just waiting for someone to stop me and say, “Oh my God, you have the Aggies!”
Like all good things, the Topshop I remember as the pinnacle of fashion for young women came to an end. A disregard for customers above a (small) size 16 and the impossibly fast rise of fast fashion brands presenting cheaper and more diverse offerings, meant that even with a standout London Fashion Week show that saw Anna Wintour in attendance and Cara Delevingne, Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid walking the catwalk, the jewel of the British high street began to flounder.
I’m still sad for the loss of Topshop, despite not really having a place there to exist. I look back at its height with fond memories that sparked a fashion frenzy in me that encouraged me to pursue my career in the industry. But let this unrequited love letter end on a note of reflection: in order to achieve success now you must adapt, change, diversify and develop. I just hope the rest of the high street knows that.