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Just Curious Ep.22

Top of the Shops

It wasn’t really a surprise when Arcadia finally entered administration on 30th November 2020. It was a business founded on gritty British high streets and built with Philip Green’s ‘distinctive’ business acumen. Both belonged to a different era. Those few heady years of fantastic design, catwalk shows, and supermodel endorsements are a distant memory and with the arrival of fast fashion in the early 2000s: Primark in shopping centres and ASOS online, combined with defections at the top of the shop, it was already over and only a matter of time before being nudged over the line by COVID.

But fashion brands are curious things. They are ephemeral. They are relevant to a certain demographic and only occasionally outlive them. Next – one of the most innovative fashion retail concepts ever – emerged from dreary Hepworth’s in 1984 to meet the needs of young professionals with coordinated ranges of smart, affordable workwear. For those consumers, it replaced the already declining M&S – and as their lives developed, became the place they bought their underwear and clothes for the kids.

Superdry was cool for young teenagers, until their parents started buying it. And, even now, you occasionally see a Hollister shirt stretched over the swelling midriff of a ‘cool dad’. Both had their moment. Both are history.

People shopping at a shopping centre
A Shopping Centre circa 1980

The Whitgift Centre, Croydon in the 1980s was where brands like Coles (menswear) and Chelsea Girl (before it became River Island) were deluged in the Saturday afternoon ritual of young shoppers, hauling home carrier bags like trophies on the bus ahead of a night out. Just like those Saturday shoppers, they are long-gone.

What Topshop ignored was the fact that anyone under 30 had already gravitated to buying clothes (buying anything) online. The brand was out of step with its core GenZ consumers who were just doing what came naturally, long before it became a ‘thing’. This is a cultural shift more than a technical challenge. We align to the zeitgeist of our learned environment.

ASOS has limitless quantity of real-time data to fuel its product development, tone of voice and visual identity.

The ASOS phenomenon begins long before it became a leading fast-fashion player. In its formative years it was a sort of gift shop selling movie memorabilia and gadgets. What it has become is the result of successfully tracking the new cultural norms so when the time came it was ready and waiting for smartphone-savvy consumers who had already pretty much stopped going-out-to the-shops.

In contrast, Topshop’s Oxford Street experience store, with its DJ at the door and wild-west style environment became a destination for tourists – like Paris or Rome - packed out, but no longer where the real power is, and masking the gloomy reality of the rest of the estate.

Really interesting is the change in how clothes are bought: bright colours and stretch fabrics work better online; instore it’s black and neutrals and fabrics that feel nice to the touch. Tailored clothes are less predictable in a ‘hit-or-miss’ online purchase – relying on fit and the opportunity to try on. Along with its global reach, ASOS has limitless quantity of real-time data to fuel its product development, tone of voice and visual identity. If a product is a slow seller, they can try it on another model in an instant. No rails of tired rags.

I doubt ASOS envies BooHoo, who got to pick up Arcadia’s odds and ends and a few forgotten brands (Wallis, anyone?). If they do Topshop right, if it’s successfully established in their portfolio as a thing of value, it they celebrate its innate optimism (it’s still one of the best brand names ever), then maybe they will recreate something great.

Just saying...


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