Liz Moseley: Shops are culture

Wednesday 13 January 2021

The demise of the ‘Big Topshop’ in London will leave a gap in our Saturday afternoons – and our lives


The first outfit I ever bought from the flagship Topshop at London’s Oxford Circus was a pair of second-hand, pale blue, corduroy flares and a deep pink, skinny t-shirt with ‘76’ (the year I was born) in silver glitter on the front.

It was 1994. I’d failed to get into university, so was left behind in Leeds working in a pub. My best friend from school had left for King’s College, London. From the shared phone in her halls of residence one evening she’d issued an impossibly glamorous and absolutely terrifying instruction: “Meet me at Big Topshop tomorrow at 4pm.”

I got the train to Kings Cross the next morning, and took the Victoria Line to Oxford Circus. I was two hours early. Not knowing what else to do, I went inside for a mooch around expecting to find a supersized version of the Topshop I knew from home – all jersey t-shirts and leggings. How wrong I was. That afternoon, those blue cords marked the start of a retail love affair that would last for the best part of 30 years. 

I read last week that the lease on the Topshop Oxford Circus store is up for grabs. Arcadia – owners of the Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and Burton brands, and the already defunct Miss Selfridge – have bungled the switch to online shopping and won’t survive the pandemic. For the business press, the likely closure of the flagship Topshop store is a sad, though not unexpected, detail in the changing geography of shopping. For a lot of women, including me, it’s more than that. 

Considering how much they feature in our lives, the cultural significance of shops is massively underplayed. There are few shops that, when they close, are deemed worthy of an obituary in the way that, say, The Marquee Club or the Haçienda were. British retail history has mustered a space for BIBA, the iconic 60s boutique, and for SEX on the King’s Road, where Malcolm Mclaren, Vivienne Westwood and Chrissie Hynde literally designed punk. The likes of Slam City Skates and Affleck’s Palace in Manchester – both still going, to be fair – are cherished shopping destinations for particular tribes. But Topshop Oxford Circus isn’t quite like any of these.

The first outfit I ever bought from the flagship Topshop at London’s Oxford Circus was a pair of second-hand, pale blue, corduroy flares and a deep pink, skinny t-shirt with ‘76’ (the year I was born) in silver glitter on the front.

It was 1994. I’d failed to get into university, so was left behind in Leeds working in a pub. My best friend from school had left for King’s College, London. From the shared phone in her halls of residence one evening she’d issued an impossibly glamorous and absolutely terrifying instruction: “Meet me at Big Topshop tomorrow at 4pm.”

I got the train to Kings Cross the next morning, and took the Victoria Line to Oxford Circus. I was two hours early. Not knowing what else to do, I went inside for a mooch around expecting to find a supersized version of the Topshop I knew from home – all jersey t-shirts and leggings. How wrong I was. That afternoon, those blue cords marked the start of a retail love affair that would last for the best part of 30 years. 

I read last week that the lease on the Topshop Oxford Circus store is up for grabs. Arcadia – owners of the Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and Burton brands, and the already defunct Miss Selfridge – have bungled the switch to online shopping and won’t survive the pandemic. For the business press, the likely closure of the flagship Topshop store is a sad, though not unexpected, detail in the changing geography of shopping. For a lot of women, including me, it’s more than that. 

Considering how much they feature in our lives, the cultural significance of shops is massively underplayed. There are few shops that, when they close, are deemed worthy of an obituary in the way that, say, The Marquee Club or the Haçienda were. British retail history has mustered a space for BIBA, the iconic 60s boutique, and for SEX on the King’s Road, where Malcolm Mclaren, Vivienne Westwood and Chrissie Hynde literally designed punk. The likes of Slam City Skates and Affleck’s Palace in Manchester – both still going, to be fair – are cherished shopping destinations for particular tribes. But Topshop Oxford Circus isn’t quite like any of these.

That’s because Topshop Oxford Circus is a “chainstore” dressed up like a mega-boutique, with its own fashion micro climate. 

Younger women than me, those who’ve grown up on ASOS, won’t know just how influential Topshop was in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The brand, especially its buying and marketing team, were revered across the fashion industry for raising the fashion consciousness of “ordinary women”, and thereby fuelling the whole industry, not just the high street. Topshop was a lot more than a catwalk copycat factory. Its adverts would run in the most prestigious positions in ELLE and Vogue, alongside Gucci and Prada, and in terms of retail real estate there are few more audacious addresses than 214 Oxford Street.

Its power was its paradox – an undeniably cool, rather sullen brand brought to life in a store that was absolutely brilliant fun. The music was loud, the price point accessible, the changing rooms communal and labyrinthine. Most importantly, the clothes were witty and the range exhilarating. 

It was easy to lose track of time in the subterraneous geography of the store, which, like those endless Las Vegas casinos, had almost no natural light. Shoppers were funneled straight down the escalators to level -1, for “new in”, sportswear, denim, the “designer” ranges and coats, and from there to the basement, which was a haze of vintage and student fashion – fur, glitter, netting and, joy of joys, shoes. Over the years, “experiences” were added – various branded iterations of the cafe (first EAT, then Benugo), a nail and blow-out bar, and maternity wear (which opened just too late for my pregnancies, dammit). The toilets in the far back corner deserve an (dis)honorable mention of their own for being much too small and stubbornly horrible, despite repeated refurbs.

The interior was never over-designed, so unlike competitors the store itself didn’t date. The way the stock was merchandised became increasingly editorial – more self-consciously styled – over time, but the essence of the place remained casual and chaotic. For a Very Serious Brand (even by fashion industry standards), Big Topshop always seemed to wear a smile. 

Topshop twigged before any other high street brand that trends happen because people get bored. It set the standard for the kind of blistering stock turnover that people just expect these days. It indulged our noughties flightiness, our optimism and consumerism. 

When I fell in love with Topshop, “fast fashion” was in its infancy. Seasons were still discernible in the ranges. More often than not, you’d go in and there’d be no sale. Imagine that. I am not proud to admit that the working conditions in the factories, or the sustainability of the supply chain, just didn’t figure into the hot, headachey Saturday scrum of Topshop, circa 2001. Buying clothes back then was a less fraught, less deliberate experience than it is now. 

I wonder if the reason that shops get overlooked in cultural history is because people don’t like to admit that we are what we buy. Trying on a new outfit is a potent way to test a new version of yourself. Topshop Oxford Circus made it easy to play with identity like that, stocking and merchandising gear that was sexy, or chic, or cute, or whimsical, or fierce. You could try on a whole other self for about thirty quid. 

The prospective end of Topshop Oxford Circus has triggered memories I haven’t had for years: the time my flatmate fell and cut her leg so badly on the escalators she passed out and was taken “backstage” by store security; the last-minute, drunken trip to buy a dress for my best friend’s 40th birthday party; the time I dropped my purse in the accessories section and, miraculously, found it again some 20 minutes later. Even though I have more often walked past than gone in over the last couple of years, I am sorry that I likely won’t get to take my daughter, now eight, for a scoot around “Top of the Shops” on a weekend.

The saddest thing about losing Big Topshop is that I can’t think of another space in London that has been, for so long, so wonderfully and defiantly female. Within a given demographic, admittedly – women aged 15 to 40-ish, and only up to a size 16 or so – Big Topshop offered something for everybody. You’d see goths, skaters and hipsters, Mums and their tweens. Black people, white people, tourists and locals. It was inclusive in a way that other shops weren’t, and still aren’t. 

If it mattered at all, it mattered to young women. That’s perhaps another reason why Big Topshop won’t be granted room in the official cultural histories, which really is sad. If it goes, London will miss it – and so will I.