As the news of 2020 descends further with the announcements of many high street retailers failing to stay afloat, Arcadia Group has entered administration. London College of Fashion is at home on Oxford Street, with Topshop marking one of our most renowned neighbours. What does this mean for the future of the high street? We caught up with Professor Finola Kerrigan, Director of Centre for Fashion Business and Innovation Research at LCF, to find out whether this will mark the beginning of a change to the high street and a shift in the industry.
Do you think the downfall of Arcadia was inevitable considering the issues they have faced over the previous years especially with Covid’s impact in 2020?
The retail sector has been struggling due to the continued combination of a shift to digital, the need to address sustainability agendas and the push to cheaper/ faster within fast fashion. A global crisis such a COVID is particularly challenging for large organisations, where pivoting to new ways of doing business can be a challenge.
What do you believe that Arcadia and in particular Topshop could have done differently to keep it as the ‘go-to’ shopping destination it once used to be? Including any insight you may have into Topshop’s history.
Topshop as a brand is very much associated with the 90s, where British music and fashion worlds gave a sense of glamour to the UK. In that period, Topshop provided more than a place to buy clothes, but it was a place to experience fashion at a broader level. Topshop can be viewed as an iconic British brand and my research on how to sustain brand longevity (focused on another Iconic British Brand, James Bond, showed the need to consider the external environment on a number of levels. Firstly, what is going on in terms of geopolitics, concern for the environment and for workers rights have taken more prominence in the mind of the consumer.
The ongoing aftermath of the 2008 global banking crisis has seen challenges for the retail sector as retail spending has taken a hit. Brexit and the uncertainty over trade deals is also a significant geopolitical concern for this sector. Brexit is also linked to another relevant geo-political issue, the rise of populism in the UK. The second area that brands need to consider is popular culture. We can see that this is where Topshop excelled in the 90s and into the early 2000s. Finally, looking at trends directly in the industry to ensure to keep up is essential. Topshop drove this to a great extent as they allowed the high street consumer to experience luxury through collaborations with high fashion brands and fashion royalty such as Kate Moss. They also engaged in showcasing young British designers through their involvement with New Generation and later Fashion East. This ensured that they retained their freshness and a sense of exclusivity which set them apart from others on the high street. Topshop was also involved in pushing Vintage through offering vintage fashion but taking out the hassle of trawling through markets and second hand clothes shops and presenting them side by side with the main collections. However, they have not been at the forefront in two big trends facing fashion retail in recent years. Firstly, the push for cheaper fashion, however, retaining brand value without racing to the bottom is not a bad things. Giving the previous position of Topshop as a trend setter, failure to invest in the online experience may be a more significant issue.
Topshop, Topman and Miss Selfridge, iconically situated near LCF’s Oxford Circus’ location were the staple of high street shopping, how do you think the loss of these shops will now affect the high street shopping experience?
Looking around Oxford Circus provides a good overview of the state of British retail. Particularly at this time of year, Oxford Circus has been a destination for Christmas shoppers looking for the convenience of proximity of key retail, particularly fashion brands, Hamley's toy store and the opportunity to see the Christmas lights. There is still a place for retail outlets to provide a pleasurable shopping experience, just as Topshop has done in the past. Understanding consumer taste and motivation is essential in designing these spaces and offering what online retail cannot offer at the moment.
Do you think this marks a turning point for the industry and does it signal the end of Fast Fashion?
The 2007-8 global financial crisis occurred during a time when environmental sustainability was moving from the margins to the mainstream. Marks and Spencer's Plan A, launched in January 2007 recognised the desire that consumers had for more sustainable options, and the need for retailers to step up to this challenge. However, the recession that followed provided an ideal get out clause where investing in sustainability was seen as an unaffordable luxury and the push for fast and cheap came to dominate. As always, consumers were urged to shop ourselves out of the recession, rather than push for more radical ways to reengineer the economy. Commentary on Arcadia's demise has compared the group with online retailers BooHoo and Misguided, pointing their ability to offer faster and cheaper clothes, in collaboration with influencers. There is a risk that the lesson taken away from this is that Arcadia wasn't fast and cheap enough. With even greater recognition of the climate emergency, a focus on working conditions of those involved in fast fashion production, the impact of COVID 19 and Brexit, this seems like an ideal opportunity to shift away from fast fashion to more sustainable meaningful forms of consumption, but this would require action from government as well as within the fashion industry.
What is next in the industry from your opinion?
COVID 19 has meant that investment in online retail and experimentation around more immersive online experiences have been fast tracked. Looking to the work done in the Fashion Innovation Agency, such as the recent collaboration between FIA, the Fashion Business Research Centre, Microsoft and Reactive Reality on the Personal Human Stylist is a great example of experimentation in this area. This should lead to increasing collaboration between fashion/ technology and other creative industries in providing online experiences that can improve shopping experiences and reduce the impact on the environment such as production on demand, online showrooming and so on. Working on reprogramming pleasure seeking away from variety and easy access to quality, design and creativity for consumers should be an area of focus moving forward.