It’s tough days in fashion retail. There’s lots of competition, from online and traditional, and margins have been cut finer than a Savile Row suit. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the UK, especially among High Street retailers. One of those retailers feeling the bite is Topshop, which recently reported a £12.6 million hit to its bottom line.
So when it abruptly cancelled an in-store promotion recently with Penguin Books for a book called “Feminists Don’t Wear Pink”, it earned the ire of a decent chunk of its customer base, young and fashionable women, and put its brand reputation among this influential group in serious jeopardy.
Topshop cited creative and production reasons for pulling the plug on the promotion. However, the media and the Twitterverse quickly looked past this explanation, and pinned the blame on Topshop’s 66-year-old owner, Sir Philip Green, who has become the villain of the piece.
Actress Thandie Newton, one of the book's contributors, summed up the outrage when she tweeted: “Yesterday #PhilipGreen used his big muscles to smash up the @Topshop @penguinrandom #FeministsDontWearPink pop-up because he thought it was too controversial!!? LOSER.”
Whether it was actually Green who ordered the promotion be stopped is unclear. As some background to the story, it should be noted Green is not exactly a fan of Penguin Books, after it published a scathing unauthorised biography of him this year. The fact is Green might well have been pissed off that one of his managers signed off on a promotion partnership with the publisher of a book that had done so much damage to his reputation, rather than taking any offence to one of his stores being used to promote a feminist book.
However, as PR people put it, the optics are bad. And the optics can get very blown out and ugly once fed through the lens of social media.
Topshop issued an apology the next day but by then the impression had been well and truly cast that theirs was a brand that does not support the empowerment of young women. That’s not a good place to be for a retailer which is reliant upon the custom of young women, especially when competition is hot and new retail outlets are breathing down your neck.
Topshop has been one of the leading fashion retail brands among young women in the UK for decades now. It started out as a youth-oriented offshoot of department store Peter Robinson and soon became part of the Swinging London fashion scene of the 1960s with its flagship store in Oxford Street. It was one of the earliest of the UK fashion retailers to take its online presence seriously, launching the UK’s first online fashion store in the 1990s. It is also seen as one of the most progressive of the High Street fashion retailers, initiating policies on everything from gender-free change rooms to animal-friendly PETA-approved fashion.
However, Topshop, which is owned by Green’s Arcadia Group, has recently faced challenges on several fronts.
Last year, its foray into the Australian market came to an acrimonious end, with the $30 million collapse of its Australian franchise. Its efforts to take on the American market have also placed it under strain, with some analysts believing the US expansion has distracted it from the robust competition it faces in the UK from the likes of River Island, H&M and Primark, plus up-and-comers like PrettyLittleThing and Missguided.
“Topshop has lost some of its edge and I suspect that’s because it has been trying to please the American market, which is less fashion forward. It’s had to dumb down a bit. It’s very subtle, but that means it’s lost some of its edge in the UK,” retail analyst Richard Hyman told fashion business journal Drapers.
Contrast Topshop’s feminist fashion faux pas to the body positive coverage PrettyLittleThing has received recently, and you get an idea of how important it is for fashion brands to be seen to be doing the right thing by their customers.
PrettyLittleThing launched a campaign featuring ‘plus size’ models, which is not revolutionary, but when placed next to Topshop’s feminist shutdown, it shines as an example of a brand supporting and empowering women: “At PrettyLittleThing we are all about celebrating body diversity and we believe everybody is beautiful.”
What a lot of people don’t recognise is that fashion has always been a highly politicised and even ideological arena, especially so in the UK: fashion has meaning. Women are very awake to this and they can quickly sniff out brands that align with their beliefs and those that don’t. What brands stand for, and how they communicate that with their customers, is vitally important. Brands that can’t keep up with their customers’ expectations on this count will lose their respect and trust.
The old guard of fashion retail, like Sir Philip Green, should tread carefully because never have women been as vociferous about their place in the world as they are now. Fashion moves quickly, even more so in the age of fast fashion and social media. Today’s cutting edge fashion brands could soon become tomorrow’s remaindered stock.
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