Top Shop is top of the fashion world with first catwalk show

It used to be so uncool, a byword for naff. Now it has become a catwalk star and is taking on New York. Susannah Frankel charts the rise and rise of Topshop
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Instead, with most of the city's major names having long moved on to the more high-profile and economically viable fashion capitals of Paris, Milan and New York - this season sees the loss of West London It girl Alice Temperley, following in the footsteps of aforementioned McQueen and Chalayan, Roland Mouret, Matthew Williamson and Luella Bartley, to name just a few - the top slot at the spring/summer 2006 London collections will go to none other than high street juggernaut Topshop. Yes, the mainstream fashion destination which is every young girl's, and increasingly boy's, fashion Mecca has made it on to the official designer schedule for the first time.

In a specially constructed marquee in Central London's Berkeley Square, the jewel in the crown of Philip Green's Arcadia Group will unveil its forthcoming collection for the top-of-the-range Topshop Unique line, introduced three years ago to allow the chain's in-house design team to express its creativity to the full. Or, as Jane Shepherdson, brand director at Topshop, puts it: "I got a bit sick of people saying, 'oh yes, Topshop is so good at ripping off stuff from the catwalks quickly', when that's not what we're about at all. In fact, we've got these incredibly talented designers in-house, so I thought let's put a collection out at the same time as everybody else and just see whether it looks derivative or not."

The powers behind Unique must be doing something right. As well as flexing its designer muscle during London Fashion Week, on Saturday night, a fashionable Downtown boutique in New York, called Opening Ceremony, held a "shopping soiree" to celebrate the arrival of the label's autumn collection - an entire mezzanine floor has been dedicated to its product. This, held at the opening of the New York collections, was, by all accounts, a suitably stylish affair, duly attended by any fashion follower worth his or her credentials. Actor Leo Fitzpatrick turned DJ for the duration and editors from powerful New York titles including W magazine and Teen Vogue were in attendance as well as British fashion journalists, some apparently so eager to buy the merchandise they snapped it up there and then, and this despite the fact it cost 15 per cent more than it would have had they bought it at home.

Next week in London, a new collection, not due to go on sale until early next year, will be modelled by big names the likes of which rarely grace London Fashion Week. Topshop has also employed the services of high profile industry figures to produce, cast, choreograph and style an event that looks set to rival the more slick and monied catwalks of Milan than anything London normally has to offer. With more cash at its disposal than even some of the most successful British designers, it is likely that Topshop will, depending on which way you look at it, either overshadow more modestly placed talent or - and this, unsurprisingly, is the official line - " underpin Topshop's active commitment to reinvigorate London Fashion Week".

The growth of discount retailers including Matalan and New Look in the 1990s led to the creation of Topshop as it is today. Until then, as Ms Shepherdson, who started her career at Topshop in the mid-1980s, freely admits, the store was seen as "cheap and cheerful, but a bit naff" . It could never have hoped to draw the fashion-forward crowd it does today. When Matalan began to encroach on Topshop's market share: "We had to take a position," Ms Shepherdson has said, "and our overheads were too high for it to be price. We decided we were going to be the home of fashion."

If today the store is intent on casting off its image as copycat par excellence, few would argue that it was its expert, well, let's call them interpretations of must-have designer garments by the likes of Marc Jacobs and Miuccia Prada which hit the stores almost before the originals that attracted attention in the first place. Not that this is anything new. High fashion has always been mimicked by a more accessible market, so much so that the late Coco Chanel herself sold her haute couture designs to Wallis, thereby not only ensuring that any copies made were of a high standard but also profiting from the process herself.

It was Debenhams, in the mid-Nineties, that took this process one step further, successfully introducing the Designers For Debenhams range which entailed some of British fashion's leading lights creating more reasonably priced capsule collections. This worked two ways. The store benefited from the kudos of high fashion names, and cash-strapped designers received the vital financial backing necessary to produce and show their main lines.

Today, Topshop has cornered the market where harnessing new talent is concerned. Often the names have barely left fashion college, and Topshop's support can mean the difference between having a business or not. With this in mind, as well as the London Fashion Week catwalk show and after-show party - at Home House, incidentally, the exclusive private members club frequented by, among others, Madonna - Topshop is now responsible for sponsoring upwards of 25 of London's young designers and to varying degrees. These range from the more established - Sophia Kokosalaki, responsible for dressing the opening and closing ceremonies of last summer's Athens Olympics - to up and coming names including Jonathan Saunders, Peter Jensen and Emma Cook. In return, they design a small collection for Topshop, sold exclusively in its Oxford Circus store, and are paid, according to perceived status.

Kokosalaki, in particular, who has now outgrown London and shows her main line in Paris, is one of the store's most long-standing beneficiaries. " They are great people," she says. "And I'm not just saying it because they sponsor me." To Topshop's detractors - and there are plenty who believe the store bleeds design talent for too little reward - Kokosalaki has this to say: "It's not exploitation. I've felt very grateful to them more times than one. I mean, thank God this system exists in Britain. Okay you do a small line in return but it doesn't affect your main collection. You do it as a gesture really because I don't believe that the sales of that line make up for the sponsorship. Okay they do use your name but that's fair enough, that's how it works."

Representing the newer generation, and still very much part of the London fashion scene, Peter Jensen is equally supportive of Topshop. "It's great that Topshop sponsors young designers," he says from his East London studio where he is putting the finishing touches to his own spring/summer collection. "It's saved us. Everyone who has received any money from them really needs it. Not only that but they make it really easy for you because they understand the process."

As fashion insiders, it is true that the creative brains behind Topshop make for relatively enlightened sponsors. For example, any branding at a show supported by Topshop is surprisingly discrete.

It is no secret that London remains the fashion kindergarten where the international collections are concerned. With money thin on the ground, a link-up between young British designers and the high street may seem, to many, the obvious way forward. In the meantime, Topshop is fast succeeding in throwing aside copycat accusations and attaining designer status in its own right.

'Designers now copy the high street'

Paula Reed, style director, Grazia magazine

"It's great that Topshop are putting a show on. I hope that there won't be any snobbery directed towards them, it wouldn't be very typical of the London fashion scene if there were. I think what makes London fashion so dynamic is its diversity, and the strength of Topshop is a big part of that. Topshop has always managed to have a unique creative vision. They may have set out to copy the catwalk, but actually what they have ended up doing is to develop something that has much more personality and character of its own. "

Sarah Mower, contributing editor, American Vogue and

"Topshop is becoming a bigger and bigger name internationally. Americans in the fashion world and beyond tell me that when someone travels to London, they are always asked, 'Can you bring something back from Topshop?' The thing about Topshop is that it is very spontaneous. They see something happening, they respond to it. The fashion system has changed dramatically in the past five years and Topshop has been at the forefront of that. Nobody can pretend, and nobody even aspires to dress entirely in designer clothes any more. The way people shop is to mix and match all kinds of prices and styles, and that is very much prevalent in London."

Jo-Ann Furniss, editor in chief, Arena Homme Plus magazine

"Topman has been very smart over the past four years. They have picked up on the fact that menswear as a creative force is now overtaking womenswear. Also, it is not as disposable as womenswear. The tyranny of the cheap top does not exist in menswear, and Topshop has tried, very successfully, to move away from that."

James Sherwood, fashion writer

"Whereas you used to have the high street copying designers, now it is invariably the other way around, you've got the designers copying the shops, who are initiating the trends. We saw that with gypsy skirts, which went into production for selling in the high street some time before they appeared on the catwalks. Much of all that is down to their brand director: Jane Shepherdson really is visionary. She spotted young designers before a lot of the fashion journalists did. For a while, people underestimated them. Topshop is speed-reading the zeitgeist with their next move, the fashion show. That could never have happened in the 1970s, 1980s, or perhaps in the 1990s. Fashion was a different beast then."

Nicki Bidder, editor-in-chief, Dazed and Confused

"In terms of the cat walk show in London, I think there is a lot of curiosity. They have been very careful not to compete with other designers and have been genuinely generous in supporting young designers, often without press, which I think has been key to how they will be received. It would be quite a different case if Marks & Spencer or Zara suddenly decided to do it, that would be likely to provoke a lot more ill feeling. It seems to me a lot of things that Topshop have done has been imitated by other high-street lines. I think it's great that Topshop are doing it, and they have almost earned the right to do it, but I wouldn't like to see other lines follow suit."

Roksanda Ilincic, 30, fashion designer about to launch own show after being sponsored by Topshop

"They are sponsoring a new generation of designers and are looking for new talent. It's not like being sponsored by a mobile phone company or a car company, they are within the industry and understand the clothes, but are still giving me the freedom to do whatever I want to do. What they are doing is incredibly important for emerging designers. They are aware of the value of doing that and are ahead of their competitors in that way."

Mandi Lennard, fashion publicist

"Topshop's store in Oxford Circus has become a hub for people within the industry. Six years ago, if you went in there, you'd be looking left and right, worried about whether someone would spot you. Now, and for some time, you walk in there, and you will always spot someone you know. It all changed when they started hooking up with new designers. They have people in charge of their young designers who really go beyond the call of duty. It's almost become a sort of pseudo-fashion academy."

Sophia Kokosalaki, Greek fashion designer

"I first started working with Topshop in 2000, when I was very young. The people there have helped my career in many ways, not just me but a lot of young designers. It is difficult for me to say whether I would be in the position I am in today without their assistance, but maybe things would have been different. I fully support the fact that they are doing a show. It shouldn't just be the privilege of individual designers. I don't think it is necessarily the case that they could only do this in London, it is just that London is where they have built up the reputation that they have acquired so far. I think that they can pull it off, but I don't know whether that is the case for other stores."