For any fashion-loving student of the mid-2000s, Topshop’s Oxford Street store was a mecca. The retailer’s enormous flagship branch was an unofficial student union, a buzzing hub where you might discover a new DJ, or spot Kate Moss, and where the hottest new trends were launched nationwide.
It was also a tourist magnet, occupying what is arguably the best location in British retail; 214 Oxford Street, the heart of Oxford Circus and London’s high street shopping district.
But now, the store is for sale. Sir Philip Green's retail empire Arcadia went into administration in November, putting 13,000 jobs at risk. Just over a month later, estate agents Savills and Eastdil have put the three-storey building on the market, marking the end of an era in fashion, and Topshop’s reign as leader on the British high street.
Under the direction of Jane Shepherdson in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Topshop hit profits of £100 million by its heyday, in 2005. The goal during her tenure, Shepherdson told The Telegraph recently, was to create “in-store theatre on the high street” - a first, and the Oxford Street store became her stage.
Shepherdson launched the premium Topshop Unique catwalk line, shown at London Fashion Week, as well as sponsoring and collaborating with new generation designers, launching stars such as Christopher Kane. Kate Moss’s first sell-out Topshop collection was released in 2007, prompting hundreds of customers to queue outside to catch a glimpse of the supermodel herself, posing in the windows.
It all served to make 214 Oxford Street feel like the beating heart of the London fashion scene. Britain’s teenage girls would take the trains to the capital with their mothers, for a special day out shopping. It became a global fashion destination for tourists, who would fill suitcases with Joni jeans and sequinned party dresses. Future supermodels were scouted there. Celebrities would use the new VIP shopping suites, all of which added to the appeal for the throng of customers on the main shop floors.
News of the sale of the building has prompted reaction on social media, as many share fond memories of their experiences. A ‘communal space for young artists’, a ‘marketplace for small independent brands’, another ‘giant Zara’, and a ‘mass vaccination centre’ are among the suggestions floating around, as to what to do with the site.
It will likely be a hard sell at this time. In just December Green had remortgaged the £400 million location through a US-based private equity firm. It's questionable whether Arcadia will profit at all from the sale, or if it'll just about cover mortgage debts.
What was once the prime position in British retail is now a ghost town - all non-essential shops on Oxford Street are closed again with the latest national lockdown, and have rarely been open in the last year. But even when they were open, footfall hasn’t returned - the usual influx of international and domestic tourists has vanished and there are ironically few customers who could count the Oxford Street branch as their local store.
The coronavirus pandemic has sped up the demise of Topshop, certainly, but it was already in decline. By the end of 2019, it had experienced losses of nearly half a billion pounds. Stiff competition from online fashion sites such as Boohoo and ASOS, and fresher, more trend-led product offerings from competitors Zara and Mango, were already seeing it off. Much of bricks-and-mortar Regent Street in London, too, it must be noted, is occupied by the Swedish - H&M and its owned brands & Other Stories, Arket, Weekday and Cos. And they are weathering the storm far better.
So what does this sale say about the state of British retail? If Topshop on Oxford Street was to be deemed the jewel in the crown - a retail sensation since it opened in 1994, seemingly impossible to topple - then our high street really is in trouble.
The sale and closure of its most sparkly branch leaves Topshop with a fleet of empty, tired regional stores that haven’t seen anywhere near as much investment as their flagship in the last five years. But it also may leave an abandoned lot in a prime global retail spot, which few other British brands could fill.