The Demise of Topshop: The End Of An Era?

As seen in Fashion Roundtable.

By now the news that Topshop has gone into liquidation is common knowledge. Although this comes as no surprise, as a millennial it did leave me with a sense of nostalgia for a by-gone era that has vanquished along with much of our traditional high-street. As much of my generation will remember, there was a time in our lives where a trip to Topshop was a prominent part of the weekend, offering up a first taste of high-end fashion at accessible prices. And at a point in my life, it was the most coveted high-street label you could own.

Back in 2002, Topshop launched the NEWGEN scheme to champion new designers, which included Alexander McQueen and Christopher Kane and aided many more careers along the way. Perhaps my fondest fashion moment, as an unashamed Kate Moss superfan, was their collaboration with the supermodel. Inspired by her own wardrobe and emulating a sense of her unique and sought-after style — it sold-out instantly, boosting profits by 10%. Topshop were also the first high-street brand to show at London Fashion Week and with so many firsts up their sleeve, it was only fitting to dig a little deeper.

So, what went wrong?

Arcadia Group own not only Topshop but also Dorothy Perkins, Burton and Miss Selfridge, and their demise has put around 13,000 jobs in jeopardy. While the global pandemic has seen a record-number of casualties on the British high-street, their administration has been a gradual process, with lockdown serving as an acceleration of sorts. One of the most prominent issues with Topshop’s business model was that they didn’t shift their values to match what Gen Z were demanding as consumers.

For some time now, Gen Z have proven time and time again that they are socially woke and are looking for brands that offer authenticity and credibility in the sustainable fashion space. Unlike my generation, where your identity was largely reflected by what brand you wore, fashion for this particular generation has been more about aligning with brands that reflect their own identities and less about buying the latest It-bag. These shoppers are value-oriented and are far more open to alternative fashion systems from mending clothes; supporting resale sites like peer-to-peer shopping app Depop, which has seen a 90% increase in sales since April; and also fashion-rental sites like Hurr. Gen Z are far more in tune with the fact that this isn’t about giving up on fashion, it's about changing the way we approach consumption and the more we rewear pieces, the better for the planet.

There is however another side to Gen Z and as one of the most photographed generations, there has never been more pressure to keep-up on social media, meaning that affordability is a key driver. Topshop fell out of fashion with the Instagram generation, who for some time, have favoured companies who moved at the same pace as the instagrammable trends on their feed – offering fast-fashion at far lower-prices. And while Topshop have remained fairly antiquated with their online presence, favouring their bricks and mortar stores, companies like Boohoo who are solely based online are expecting a 28 – 32% revenue growth. Analysts have suggested this is down to a ‘winning formula’ — using influencer marketing and competitive pricing to drive social engagement. And with a local supply-chain, new and on-trend products are almost instantaneous.

What this shows is that traditional high-street stores like Topshop, are somewhere in the middle of what this particular demographic are looking for. Without being nimble enough to meet these expectations, they also failed to recognise Gen Z’s mistrust for the high-street. As a generation that has grown-up with far more information surrounding sustainability than previous generations, it’s worth considering that Topshop didn’t do enough in this space. Good on You (a site which ranks brands based on their ethical and sustainable credentials) rates Topshop’s fast-fashion business model as “inherently unsustainable.” Like many fast-fashion high-street stores, Topshop has proven that its far more interested in profit than the people making its clothes, receiving a 31 - 40% in the Fashion Transparency Index. Seemingly, the pandemic has also magnified transparency as a paramount issue within the fashion industry and Arcadia Group were one of many fast-fashion brands to come under scrutiny for cancelling orders; breaking contracts; and withholding payments with Bangladeshi manufacturers.

And while Boohoo came under fire earlier this year as evidence of low wages and poor working conditions surfaced in Leicester, despite these shocking findings, Boohoo have continued to grow. This shows is that there isn’t a competitor strong enough to take their place. Ostensibly they are also predicted to be the forerunners to buy the Arcadia Group, meaning that profit will continue to be the number one driver, over people caught in the murkiness of the fast-fashion supply chain.

Topshop’s administration has proven that the domino-effect of this business model’s downfall will be catastrophic for staff, small suppliers and garment workers, with insurance business Nimbla estimating £130 million in unpaid invoices. And as consumers are becoming far more compelled to listen to concerns of the social impacts of these profit-driven, and tired business models, concerned fashion researchers are calling for a fresh perspective for the future model of the fashion sector.

“The path to transformation requires constant learning, whether this is about capitalistic business models or environmental and ethical dimensions. This includes learning at the level of the purpose and drivers of the fashion sector. This needs to be changed from placing profit and economic growth first, to prioritising health and survival of earth, humans and all species. Earth Logic provides a framework for this. Companies who do not engage in this transformative learning will not have a place on the high-street.”

— Professor Kate Fletcher, Centre for Sustainable Fashion, UAL, UK and Professor Mathilda Tham, Linnaeus University, Sweden; co-authors of Earth Logic Fashion Action Research Plan.