Fashion victims: is this the death of the high street?

The collapse of Arcadia and Debenhams has been described as a ‘high street blood bath’. HELEN MCGURK looks back with fondness on the stores that fashioned her youth

Sunday, 6th December 2020, 7:00 am
Updated Sunday, 6th December 2020, 2:29 pm
Topshop was a mecca for many fashion conscious shoppers

I can clearly remember the first item of clothing I bought in Topshop - a fluorescent yellow mini-skirt with black stripes. I thought I was the bee’s knees and probably looked like them.

As a teenager from the back-of-beyond, where they only clothes shop had yellow Lucozade-type film on the windows and stocked an array of house coats, gabardines and girdles, going to Tophshop in Belfast for rah-rah skirts, ripped jeans and other dreadful 1980s fashion, was like travelling to Shangri-la.

For me, and the hordes or other blank-faced, perm-haired teenage girls lured to rails of puffball skirts and frilly Princess Diana-inspired blouses, Topshop was undoubtedly top of the shops and if you couldn’t find something in that temple of trendiness, you’d surely find it in Miss Selfridge or Dorothy Perkins. To learn then, that this trinity of iconic shops, along with sister stores Wallis, Outfit, Evans, Burton and Topman, all part of the Arcadia group, are facing closure, was to feel a rush of nostalgia for a youth long gone; for the woolly leg warmers that unleashed one’s inner Coco from Fame, and the fingerless fishnet gloves worn during the Madonna years.

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The Debenhams store in Belfast's city centre

The closure of these stores and the thousands of job losses which will follow is absolutely devastating for individuals and families in Northern Ireland and across the UK. The real lives behind the statistics is truly heartbreaking.

The pandemic, which has wrecked havoc on the high street, has not been wholly to blame for Arcadia’s demise, but it sure can’t have helped.

Earlier this week Debenhams, a mainstay on UK high streets for 242, announced it is to shut all its stores for good, putting an eye-watering 12,000 jobs at risk.

Debenhams and the Arcadia group follow a list of retailers that have fallen into administration since the pandemic began.

Cathy Martin, founder, Belfast Fashion Week

Stores including Peacocks and Jaeger, part of the Edinburgh Woollen Mill (EWM) Group, and the Oasis and Warehouse group, which went into administration in April.

The sportswear and gym retailer, DW Sports, owned by Dave Whelan, fell into administration in August, putting, 1,700 jobs put at risk.

The retro fashion chain Cath Kidston also called in the administrators and although its owner has secured a deal to buy back the brand and its online operations, this does not include bricks and mortar shops.

Irish-owned book and stationery retailer Easons succumbed to what it described as the ‘devastating impact’ of Covid-19 in July, closing its seven Northern Irish stores with the lose of some 140 jobs.

There were other victims, Monsoon, Go Outdoors, Quiz, LK Bennett, Laura Ashley and Bonmarche.

Losing a beloved high street name is about much more than not being able to buy goods - the loss evokes poignant nostalgia. Just mention Woolworths to anyone of a certain age, and they’ll smile, perhaps get a little misty-eyed, as they recall the happy days spent mulling over whether to go for strawberry shoelaces or cola bottles in the pic ‘n ‘mix, or the pocket money wasted on dreadful chart singles from Kajagoogoo.

Over the years so many beloved names have left a gaping hole in our high street.

In Belfast, in my lifetime, I can recall the closure of C&A, BHS, Craftworld, and grand dames Anderson McAuley and Robinson & Cleaver.

Before the pandemic, the growth of online shopping helped fuel the evisceration of the high street, but one wonders where it will all end? Will any bricks and mortar stores remain?

Cathy Martin, founder, Belfast Fashion Week, said: “I am always saddened when I hear of businesses closing.

“I can’t help but think of those employed within each of the stores right across the UK, but specifically for local friends who work at the Arcadia and Debenhams stores.

“If the administrators cannot get a rescue package sorted, as is rumoured, then the loss of Topshop will mean a big gap in Victoria Square and the same for CastleCourt and Rushmere with Debenhams.

“Our shopping habits have changed irreversibly since the pandemic struck; they were going that way anyway, but Covid 19 has hastened the changes.

“Increasing unemployment and job losses in other sectors and an impending recession mean that people are being more cautious; and those who are spending are spending increasingly online.

“It always baffled me when working with retailers when they dismissed the importance of e-commerce and more recently, social media. My view is that successful bricks and mortar stores in the future will be much more than just merchandised stock, they will have to up their game and be more experiential to survive and thrive.”

Fashion blogger Avril Keys remembers the most exciting thing about moving to Belfast from a small town in County Kildare in 1995 were the “retail opportunities that suddenly opened up” to her.

“A committed shopper, I fully embraced all that the city had to offer and was permanently overdrawn as a consequence.

“Heading up the escalator of Topshop in Donegall Place was like ascending into shopping heaven. I would call in once a week to see what was new and regularly had requests to buy for family and friends down south. What’s significant with Topshop is that I still shop here 25 years on - their denim is unrivalled. They could always be relied on to bring out an amazing coat or dress each season - something you just HAD to have and although quality was becoming an issue with some of their pieces and they certainly weren’t doing enough in the sustainability space, they will leave a void in our high street…and a ‘high waisted coated Joni jeans’ shaped void in my wardrobe...”

Whatever the future may hold for the remaining retailers in towns and cities, many would argue that shopping on the high street is a more leisurely and sociable experience, to the newer milieu of online shopping and seemingly endless choice.

When it comes to clothes shopping, many of us actually like to try a garment on in a store, rather than wait for it to arrive and discover that what looked like a beautiful yellow dress on a svelte model, makes us look like a plump canary.

When well-known stores die, it leaves us with memories of ostensibly happier times. We grew up with those stores, and when they go, just possibly, a little of ourselves dies too. We may feel like that about ASOS or Amazon one day, but somehow I doubt it.