After The Fact

Why does it take a close-down to get consumers lamenting that an era is no more? Or, realising that a brand will be missed?

Today’s edition of Life. Photo by Chin Boh Kay

By Emma Ng

Regret: As in if we knew then? Or, if we could turn back time? Or, we’re sorry? TopShop closed their last physical store for good yesterday after 20 years here. It is rather puzzling to me that in the two decades of the brand’s presence across the island, there was not enough fervour in them to negate the need to bemoan, as reported in the The Straits Times’s Life today, that an era is over (repeated thrice!). We’re now a seething mass of lamentation? (The online, “premium” version of the article even declared in its headline that “fans mourn”!) According to the cover story, devotees “say they will miss the brand for its statement pieces, on-trend celebrity collaborations, petite range and innovative consumer engagement.” That is quite a pile of reasons to keep the brand going, but TopShop was not able to latch on to our spaghetti straps to stay on.

For quite a while, no one really connected Topshop (at its peak, a 10-store chain) with FOMO. I mean, no one, it seemed, feared missing out on anything in TopShop, let alone its bowing out of the local market. But people did not want to be beaten to H&M’s last fall collaboration—with Giambattista Valli (but a Mercury-organised preview did allow tai-tais and their offsprings to beat most). Never mind that those gowns will make even the BFF who knows you well—really well—wonder if you’re getting married. Or, playing Cinderella going to a ball in the nearest istana with real royalty living in it—in Johor Bahru. Despite TopShop’s fading popularity, ST’s Amanda Chai, who wrote the generously-allotted, full-page piece, happily claimed that shoppers “had only fond memories” of the store.

Remembrances, however loving, do not, of course, equate to sales. A fast fashion store may bank on past accolades, but it can’t hope that customers will continue to buy because they can’t forget what the store had churned out in the past

Remembrances, however loving, do not, of course, equate to sales. A fast fashion store may bank on past accolades, but it can’t hope that customers will continue to buy because they can’t forget what the store had churned out in the past. Ms Chai herself could go no further than TopShop’s Knightsbridge store (2010—2015), recalling that it “boasted phone-charging stations and a bespoke personal shopping service”. As we have noted here on SOTD, TopShop’s debut at Wisma Atria in 2000 (they stayed till 2008, and it was here that the ‘Style Advisor’ service that Life noted was first introduced) offered more than just clothes, it had atmosphere, a rare quality in retail then. Inside, I recall, was evocative of the brand’s London flagship on Oxford Street. It was dotted with iMacs (yes, those antiquated triangular-sided PCs) that offered free access to the Internet. There was energy derived from the Brit-retro-cool vibe it projected. This was augmented by the music—nothing ambient about it—and the massive video wall in the rear that, for those of us with no access to MTV, was a definite highlight when shopping there. I will always remember choosing carrot jeans accompanied by Oasis or Arctic Monkeys. And, for sure, Coldplay.

I think many of the shoppers, who made a last-minute attempt to cop whatever it was they were hoping to at TopShop, did so just to partake in a closure that had been predicted to be the norm for fashion retail: let’s go to another closing-down sale. That, and the cheap prices. Weeks later, when Shopee conducts a 10.10 sale after the 9.9, TopShop would sound like a brand from long ago. But shrugging off their physical self does not mean they don’t exists any longer. Google the conflated name and the first result (really an ad) will show up as “We Are Now Online”. A store-less brand won’t be quite the same as one that exists in the off-line sphere. TopShop has as much cultural presence here as the “cami top” it sells. I doubt e-commerce will change that. It would need more than a re-branding strategy for a digital non-native to appeal to those born into a connected world, who are unlikely to miss the brand’s brick-and-mortar self.

Kate Moss X TopShop in 2014. File photo: SOTD

TopShop, in its last years, had not been the crowd-puller that H&M—opened 11 years later— has been. After their (final?) collaboration with Kate Moss in 2014, TopShop (and its brother brand TopMan) seemed unable to go further than young-hipster cool. The Kate Moss “wardrobe” appeared to me to appeal mostly to teens with the understandable desire to be dressed like glamour girls. While other brands with similar aesthetical starting point had moved on to embrace more trending looks, TopShop had not done so likewise; at least not as fervently, or convincingly. By the time of its impending closure, many of those who discovered TopShop via their debut store in Wisma Atria in 2000 have grown up, as I have. The kids today aren’t like the kids of twenty years ago.

Frankly, I remember what Topshop was; I do not register what it has become. In my last visit to TopShop at ION Orchard two CNYs ago, I left with disappointment rather than purchases. The store was not just a mere shadow of its former self, it was a dump of throwaway clothes and forgotten fashion. I wonder if things would have looked less dismal if it had more support as an on-trend brand (rather than purportedly a place for “statement pieces”). I don’t regret that TopShop is closed; I have nothing to lament. I believe in the saying that when one door shuts, another may open. Yet, it’s hard to say if, given the troubles of the brand’s parent company, the Arcadia Group, TopShop is able to re-buff and restore the shine it has lost, or dramatically reinvent itself. I doubt many are hoping.

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