Sad final hours of iconic retailer
This weekend, all over Australia, stores were being emptied by panicked shoppers worried about a possible pandemic.
The store on the corner of George and Market streets in Sydney's CBD was looking empty too, emptier even. Its remaining shelves almost devoid of stock.
But it had nothing to do with fears about coronavirus.
Rather it was the last Australian gasp, the final sad shudder, of an international retail icon.
The British fashion chain Topshop Topman finally closed its last Australian store this weekend, 11 years after its spectacularly successful launch.
When news.com.au visited a fortnight ago, there were still a range of bargains to be had - grey suits here, pink and grey fleeces there. But when we returned on Saturday just a single floor of the former four storey space was open.
In one corner naked mannequins lay piled up. And in the centre of the store, the only clothing that remained was one lonely rack of jeans and knickers.
"Is there anything else on sale?" a bemused shopper asked one of the few staff members.
"Nope, that's it. This is all we have left," she replied.
It's likely the very last item sold by Topshop in Australia was a pair of size 32 black "Jamie" super skinny jeans. The firm says they are "iconic and forever cool" and a "true Topshop classic". Usually selling for $85, the last pair sold for just $5 - that's a 94 per cent saving. But why even pay that much? A sign said you could take it for a dollar. But don't expect to try them on as the changing rooms are closed. And you won't get a carrier bag either - they'd run out.
The last customers were a mixed bag, Topshop die hands and a few British backpackers familiar with the brand from back home.
"In fast fashion you have to be really sharp and I'm not convinced Topshop were that sharp. I think they lost their way," a retail analyst said.
Stores in the US and elsewhere have also shut as Topshop retreats back to its UK heartlands, to lick its wounds and wonder where it all went so wrong.
Its parent company has racked up losses in the billions - and its fair share of controversy too. The brand joins US giants Forever 21 and Gap as the fast fashion failures that couldn't break Australia.
RELATED: Gap closes final Australian store
Yet, minutes down the road on Sydney's shopping mecca of Pitt St, rivals Uniqlo, Zara and H&M were full to the gills.
It was all so different in 2011 and 2012 when, at round the same time as iconic supermodel Kate Moss was snipping the ribbon at Topshop's first New York store, the company was welcoming Australians into flagship branches in Melbourne and Sydney.
Long lines of excited young shoppers stretched into the distance eager to grab some fast fashion at a bargain price.
The Australian stores were described at the time as the brand's "most successful franchise opening ever".
"I think Topshop's early results in Australia were quite reasonable, so it probably gave them heart," Brian Walker of retail consultancy Retail Doctor told news.com.au.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
New stores were opened and a deal was inked with Myer that would see Topshop concessions appear in department stores, allowing the brand to expand across Australia at a breakneck pace.
But the cracks were already beginning to show, said Mr Walker.
"The shops just weren't that great. The lighting was poor, stock levels were low and they didn't have a lot of impact.
"There should always be momentum and buzz about fashion retailers. Uniqlo has bright colours, big category blocks with attentive staff and the stock is always changing so it's fresh and attention grabbing.
"Topshop just didn't capture that. They hung too much off the reputation of the parent brand."
Mr Walker said Topshop was perceived as expensive for a fast fashion brand. Customers grumbled when they saw online the same Topshop clothes were cheaper to buy in Britain.
Many of the Australian branches were in highly prized locations but with high rents to match.
In 2017, Topshop Australia went into administration with debts of $35 million. Management was taken over directly by the brand's owner, London based Arcadia Group. The Topshop concessions in Myer vanished almost overnight.
Later that year, Hilton Seskin, who had brought Topshop to Australia, and now runs the successful JD Sports footwear retailer in Australia, said it faltered because the Arcadia's system was "broken".
"When we launched Topshop (in Australia) we broke every record in the book for an opening day of Topshop. It was amazing," he said.
It didn't stay that way for long.
"Products that were made in Asia were shipped to the UK, put through a warehouse facility in the UK, converted from US dollars to GBP (British pounds), and flown out to Australia. So, the model was just broken."
He said the stock being sent to Topshop's Australian stores was made up of outdated items, left over from its British operation.
BEYONCE DITCHES TOPSHOP
Arcadia kept its Australian arm going but since 2017 has progressively shut down stores, including its Melbourne CBD flagship that once took up a sizeable chunk of the Emporium shopping centre. It's now a Nespresso store.
Mr Walker said Topshop Australia was never given the freedom to properly cater for its market.
"I don't know if Topshop understood the Australian psyche. You can't operate a business remotely, not in fast fashion. You have to be, figuratively, on the street and develop relevance, momentum and buzz in your ranges.
"I'm not sure if the local arm was allowed to run its own show."
Mr Walker said the one bright spot in Topshop's offer was the hugely successful Ivy Park range which was developed with singer Beyoncé Knowles and launched in 2014.
But in 2018, Knowles bought out Arcadia's half share in Ivy Park.
The loss of Ivy Park from Topshop came during a tumultuous time for Arcadia. Its long time CEO, former billionaire Sir Philip Green was facing claims he bullied some staff - accusations he strenuously denies.
Mr Green and Arcadia were also criticised for selling iconic UK retailer British Homes Stores for just one pound in 2015, only for the new owners to shut it down completely the following year putting thousands of people put of work.
Some MPs, unimpressed that Mr Green lived in the millionaire's enclave of Monaco, said he should be stripped of his knighthood.
It was all taking its toll on the shining star of the Arcadia Group. Last year, Topshop lost a staggering £500 million ($1.1 billon), around half of that was a writedown in the firm's "goodwill" which largely reflected the weakening lustre of the Topshop name.
TOPSHOP 'NOT THAT SHARP'
In contrast, the owners of Zara, H&M and Uniqlo - while challenged by weak consumer spending - are still making money, including from their Australian operations.
Last year Topshop announced it would close its final 11 US stores. Even in Britain, it has scaled back its network closing one of its most visible branches in the Westfield shopping centre in east London, adjacent to the 2012 Olympic stadium. Stores in New Zealand and Japan have also gone leaving the brand in a handful of international markets.
Founded in 1964, Mr Walker said Topshop had revolutionised how consumers could access on trend apparel.
"Topshop was the was poster child for culture, for glamour and it democratised fashion. But its success also spawned a lot of competition.
"In fast fashion, you have to be really sharp on the basics of retail and I'm not convinced Topshop were that sharp," he said.
"I think they lost their way. In the last couple of years they were looking over their shoulders at the UK parent at how they were performing."
Fighting fires at home, said Mr Walker, Topshop's modest operation in Australia was simply a distraction the bosses in London didn't need.
At around 4pm on Saturday the final pair of Jamie jeans was sold at George St's Topshop. The staff could have kept the store open until around 6pm, but it hardly seemed worth it - so they decided to call it a day.
As the last rack was stripped, the lights were turned off and the doors locked. The company's website remains open, but Topshop Australia's physical retail presence has - finally - come to an end.
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