Life

My Bittersweet Memories of Working at 'Big Topshop'

The closure of the flagship Oxford Street store is a reminder that nothing lasts forever.
January 6, 2021, 11:46am
Topshop on Oxford Street, London
The Topshop on Oxford Street, London. Photo: marc zakian / Alamy Stock Photo

I’d always wanted to work at a Topshop. In the 2000s, it was the peak of fashion and had already usurped Tammy Girl and Quiz Clothing in my teenage wardrobe. But there was no Topshop more impressive, more stately and iconic than 214 Oxford Street in London, the flagship store that offered own-brand clothes, footwear and accessories across four floors, including niche independent labels, pop-up concessions and even a blow-dry bar. There were personal shoppers and a DJ; there was even an in-store cafe and a piercing salon.

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The Topshop flagship was more than a fashion destination – it was a landmark of girlhood. Linking up with your girls in town? Meet outside the Big Topshop. Got separated from your family? Meet outside the Big Topshop. Need the loo to change your tampon? Big Topshop.

When I moved down to London after uni in 2009, the Arcadia Group job site was the first place I looked to for a gap year job. I’d had no luck at the Topshop stores at home in Doncaster or during uni at Nottingham, but the flagship had a high turnover of staff, with plenty of minimum wage roles to fill, and management was hosting a hiring drive.

I arrived at the HQ entrance on Great Portland Street – in Topshop garms, thinking that would improve my chances – and joined the sea of budding employees hoping to land a full-time job. Most of us were in our teens or early twenties; a mix of school leavers, students or graduates looking to earn cash while studying, to travel on gap years or get a foot on the job ladder.

As someone who had worked at a corner shop, a Che Guevara-themed bar and a call centre that may or may not have been investigated by an episode of BBC Watchdog, saying I worked at the flagship Topshop was a step up. At the time, it was becoming a global brand and pushing out an increasing number of premium collaborations, including Kate Moss and Christopher Kane. Famous people dropped in to shop under the radar or arrived with fanfare and an entourage. I once served Stoker actress Mia Wasikowska on the tills. When Eve turned up, the rapper had personal shoppers falling over themselves to get the sizes she needed.

But the most important name we needed to cater for was owner Sir Phillip Green. You’d know he was here because of the call sign “Papa One!” ringing out from supervisors’ walkie talkies and clearing rails being rushed back to stockrooms so he wouldn’t see them on the shop floor. He hated “bananaraming” the most, a term of unknown origin that indicates when a clothes rail (or “fixture”) would have too many hangers shoved on and curve upwards at the end of the row.

Shoppers lining up outside Topshop Oxford Circus for the Kate Moss collection in 2007

Shoppers lining up outside Topshop Oxford Circus for the Kate Moss collection in 2007. Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Green would berate the closest staff member if there was anything out of place. I’ve never seen the colour drain from a person’s face quicker than when a supervisor heard “Papa One is in the building” crackle from the radio. And given the allegations of racism, sexism and other misdeeds – all claims he denies – it’s no wonder he ran the store with an iron grip of fear.

The glamour soon wore off. The work was repetitive, the days were long and hearing Darwin Deez 10 times a day was enough to drive you mad. I was assigned to Store 2, the section between the two elevators on the lower ground floor, and I spent my nine-hour shifts either clearing clothes from the changing room back to rails, refilling rails from the stockroom, manning the tills or mostly doing “standards” which was the worst. I could spend 30 minutes folding every colour of Jamie jeans into neat rows, only for a customer to mess it up in seconds. If you’ve ever tried on clothes by a mirror and dumped your unwanted items in a pile on the floor or a fixture nearby, know that I would have loathed you with every ounce of my being.

The cherry on the cake was finding out the 60 percent clothing allowance discount was restricted to bottoms only for flagship store workers, because we had to wear official Topshop logo T-shirts. And I could only get the regular staff discount if I opened a store credit card, which was not ideal for a 21-year-old with an unhealthy fast fashion habit.

My coworkers were good people who kept me sane. We’d cover for each other to sneak an extra break in the stockroom and hold sale items, Boutique pieces or limited edition stock behind the till so we could purchase them after our shift ended. (I still have an Emma Cook jumper courtesy of this grift.) We kept our spirits up by chatting and joking about our lives, romances, futures and dreams before drowning our sorrows on payday at the nearest pub. 

I’ve walked back through those doors plenty of times in the decade since I last clocked in. When I’ve looked in those vast mirrors descending the escalators, there’s always a fond but weary smile on my face. Now that it’s closing for good, I’m filled with the bittersweet knowledge that I used to be part of the fabric of a once-great leader in fashion at the most important landmark in its history. 

Topshop closing its flagship store is the end of a 27-year era. No matter what your thoughts are on its legacy, it’s important to remember that it was about more than just fast fashion or its problematic owner. It was the home of ordinary workers, too. The Big Topshop might be no more, but the people who filled it are still here. I hope they’ll be OK.

@HannaFlint