On Monday, news broke that “Big Topshop” – the fashion chain’s flagship store in Oxford Circus, London – is closing, and honestly? I’m sad. It’s embarrassing to admit that a high street brand synonymous with fast fashion, skinny jeans and galling tax avoidance can make me ache with nostalgia, but grieving the loss of Big Topshop feels like crying over an unpleasant ex: Philip Green and your ex may both have treated you badly, but there’s no denying they gave you some good times, too. Going into a third lonely lockdown, with an uncertain future and stagnant present, fleeting comfort can be found in the indulgence of looking back to more innocent times, when pleasure and pain sat side by side, like Topshop and Miss Selfridge once so neatly did.
Big Topshop opened in 1994, and whether you dared to go there hungover on a busy Saturday or went after work, dead-eyed descending the escalators, it’s been a hallmark of the British high street ever since. The dodgy model scouts lingering outside, the bored boyfriends sat on the sofas by the doors, the inexplicable escalator down to but not up from the basement, the braids and blow-dry stations, the DJ playing Sean Paul on the top floor. Like marking your height against a door frame, my journey from childhood to adulthood can be tracked through my interactions with the store.
When I first entered that intimidatingly large shop, aged 13, on the threshold of adolescence, I felt as if I was trespassing on private property. Big Topshop belonged to prettier, richer, cooler, London girls – not for the likes of me, who had travelled from as far-flung a place as Sussex. I was paranoid about being accused of shoplifting, because I looked (or at least felt) so out of place that I acted suspiciously. This, coupled with the fact my Mum was obsessed with telling me to be wary of London pickpockets, meant I was incredibly stressed as I weighed up which fate would be worse: being robbed or being arrested for the crime of looking like a loser. I never had any money anyway; I was just there to touch every single piece of jewellery, avoid the mirrors and buy some overpriced Nerds on display near the register.
[see also: Philip Green: the emperor runs out of clothes]
I moved to London after university, and worked a crap job where the other two women were mean to me. On my lunch break, I’d charge up Oxford Street and flee to Topshop, spending all my day’s earnings in 15 minutes. Then, unable to afford lunch, I’d run to Selfridges and stuff myself with as many free samples as I could find in the food hall.
I’d go when I was poor and see 700 things I wanted (needed). I’d go on payday and become furious when I couldn’t find a single thing I liked. I’d go when I felt bad to treat myself; I’d go when I felt good to treat myself. I’d spot a devastatingly cool woman, feel sick to my stomach, then stalk her for a while, working out if by simply buying the clothes she was carrying I could become someone else entirely; someone better, thinner, kinder – and it would also somehow change my teeth. I’ve spent hours in the returns queue, and longer in the changing rooms looking at my pores. I don’t know how many times I’ve uttered “meet me outside Big Topshop” – a phrase that’s now consigned to history.
Topshop’s three floors of fashion was a Noughties teenager’s wonderland – with its heady mix of high street or designer brands and vintage one-offs, it was a pleasure dome with its own language: “Freedom”, “Boutique”, “Moto”. Along with Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins, Burton and Evans, Topshop was part of Philip Green’s aptly named Arcadia Group, but the others all felt like tertiary characters, ugly, less vital siblings in comparison. Topshop was in the centre of London and, at its peak in 2007, when Kate Moss released her own clothing line in store, it felt like the centre of the fashion universe. What could be more British than Philip Green, looking unnervingly like a bulldog, clasping the waif-waisted, smoky-eyed Kate Moss? I remember seeing him in the store, “the king of the high street”, and feeling I had witnessed a lion in the savannah.
This, however, was the beginning of the end of Topshop – and of the booming British high street. The smiles of New Labour were wavering, the promises turning out to be lies, and as power was handed over to the more cerebral Gordon Brown, the housing market crashed. Disposable income plummeted, and what little money there was was now being spent online. The high street began to suffer and has never recovered. Investigations into Green’s tax avoidance began, and accusations have dogged him ever since.
[see also: Leader: Reimagine the high street]
Last year, I made a trip to Big Topshop, and saw Extinction Rebellion setting up camp outside. As I stopped and watched them, I felt like I was standing at another threshold. Here was a group of people putting all their energy into protecting the planet, loudly insisting on our duty as humans to take care of it. And here was I, putting all my energy into finding the perfect white shirt. I joined them for a while, then casually sidled into Topshop. I was safe. This was a world I knew, a constant. Nothing changed in here, except my own reflection in the fitting rooms. When I went down to the basement floor, it smelt like sewage. I remembered that, for some unknown reason, it had smelt like sewage the last few times I’d been here. I thought of the battle going on above, in which protesters risked being arrested in an effort to save our environment, while others below were willing to walk around in the smell of excrement to find a pair of mules.
Since then, I’ve made a conscious effort to only buy vintage or eco-friendly clothes, and to buy much less. Whilst I have occasionally slipped up, I feel good about my choice. So it turns out I had almost outgrown Topshop anyway. But if I’m honest, I know I’d still take a trip there if things were different, and it would produce more endorphins than ever because of the illicitness of my visit. It’s so easy to trivialise and make fun of women’s shopping habits, and it’s tempting to dismiss Topshop because it doesn’t represent the kind of progressive values we expect of brands in 2021. But Big Topshop was, at a time, important to me. I went there many, many times and maybe you did, too. Today, as I sit in my jogging bottoms for the 18th day in a row, I can admit: I’m going to miss it.
Phoebe Walsh is a writer and comedian.