Top Down

TopShop/TopMan closes in five days. People are queuing to buy. Can fashion labels, as with lovers, only be appreciated when they shall be no more?

The closures of clothing stores on our island tend to show unambiguously that in fashion, we don’t appreciate or desire brands until they exit our retail scene. Or, when they are sold cheaply so that stocks can be cleared/disposed. It was officially announced last week that TopShop/Topman will close its last brick-and-mortar store at VivoCity on Thursday, 17 September, day 261 of an unforgettable 2020. Many observers—including us—already foresaw this doom. We noted that after we were sure that the two-storey ION Orchard store was closed in June. Yet, it didn’t seem to affect those who consider TopShop or co-brand TopMan a favourite or worthy of support. The British brand isn’t considered to be expensive, but we couldn’t keep the business going. We’re only keen on them a week before it will shutter permanently.

This afternoon, there was a long queue—at least 2 metres long (social distancing be damned)—outside TopShop/Topman. Both men and women came to partake in the brand’s final chapter here (although distributor Wing Tai Retail did say that the online operation will remain). Most in the line were young—below 25, and in the company of the like; in twos, threes, fives. VivoCity, as with, say, JEM in Jurong, is considered (or treated as) a suburban mall, never mind that it is neighbour to one of the most expensive real estate clusters in our nation. As such, visitors here are attired in the same fashion as one would see in other heartland shopping malls: T-shirt and shorts, and slippers. Those waiting to get into Topshop/Topman were no different. Could there be more T-shirts and shorts inside to buy?

We asked three women, who looked like they might have spent most of their professional lives in full-service co-working spaces, if they were here because the store was closing down. “Actually, we didn’t know that,” one of them said. “We were walking around, and saw the queue, so join, lah.” What were they hoping to buy? “Anything cheap.” We caught sight of a massive poster at the entrance of the store. It read, “Final sale. Buy 2 Get 1 Free. Limited Time Only.” We continued: You buy only cheap? “Of course, lah!” Where do you mostly go to buy cheap? “We shop online, like Lazada.” It’s cheap on Lazada? “Okay, lah. They usually have discounts. So, quite cheap.”

Most of the mechandise inside the store were marked down—“up to 70%.” We saw that many pieces could be had for S$9, or close to McDonald’s Big Mac Extra Value Meal (S$8.65). Or, about a quarter of the price of one mooncake. The result of last year’s quinquennial Household Expenditure Survey, with calculations from 2017’s data, showed that most people spent less on clothing, compared to food. Some data analysts, however, thought that this might not necessarily mean we were buying fewer clothes—we were just buying cheaper clothes. Or, as witnessed in TopShop/TopMan today, those from stores closing down.

It is, perhaps, understandable why TopShop/TopMan needed to wind up its physical-store operations here. The troubles of the parent company, declining brand identity, and the store’s increasingly irrelevant merchandise aside, the British clothier was also facing competition from stronger players such as Uniqlo and H&M, and catering to consumers who want commodities than keepsakes, rock-bottom cheap than reasonable mid-price. Our un-quenched thirst for clothing that can be bought for less than a meal is seriously posing a threat to not only the survival of foreign fashion brands, but also a deterrent to those seeking to make an entry here.

TopShop/TopMan is the third British fashion brand to close down at the 14-year-old VivoCity. Back in 2011, River Island exited Singapore for good after a mere three years here, even with merchandising that was generally considered “strong”. A few years earlier, Ben Sherman, the “quintessential” menswear clothier, closed their level-one store. Other British labels with standalone outlets to bid farewell to our island that we can remember include French Connection (the label is now available at Robinsons) and Jack Wills. But it isn’t just the British brands that had it hard. American labels, too, didn’t last. Few Gen-Z shoppers now remember that we once had the likes of Gap. Regardless of country of origin, it is clear that garment retail faces a bleak future when courting consumers who only want to buy—and wear—cheap.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

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