The menswear chain’s new store is fashion’s equivalent of a stealth bomber – it sells high street product but flies under the radar by looking like an indie.
Shoreditch, like Berlin’s Mitte in last week’s Drapers, is where brands go to mingle with the alternative crowd. Look around as you wander the seemingly indie-packed streets of this part of east London and you could be forgiven for thinking that the high street has yet to hit. It would appear this is an area where designers and ownera-operators flourish rather than the big chains.
Yet a second glance will reveal there are interlopers that have assumed the appearance more usually associated with the reach-me-down trend-setters that have made Shoreditch what it is. And the latest retailer attempting to pass itself off as a pure-bred one-off is men’s young fashion chain Topman. And to an extent it is.
Welcome to the Topman General Store. Even though the name Topman raises a certain set of expectations, these are dispersed by the logo in the window and on the bus stop-style sign projecting from the store frontage. The main word here is “General”, set in a 1940s-looking piece of typography – so much so that you might even miss the word Topman.
This is Topman, the stock is Topman, but it neither looks nor feels like the brand of which it is an extension. Instead, this has the sense of a made to look beat-up emporium selling expensive designer pieces, the normal modus operandi in these parts. For some it might also raise the spectre of the pop-up shop, but this is a permanent two-floor store, taking over from a shop that used to sell vintage Japanese fashion and haircuts.
It’s been open for three weeks and blends in stylishly with its modish neighbours.
Key looks and merchandise mix
The press release that accompanied the opening of Topman General Store said it was “curated” by Topman design director Gordon Richardson and Matthew Murphy, creative director of designer indie B Store in London. Under normal circumstances, when the “c” word is used like this you’d expect prices to be steep. Yet this is Topman and the prices are high street.
Somehow, although you know the provenance of the stock, it’s not until you examine the label that you realise that everything on offer is indeed Topman – the surroundings lead you to suppose otherwise. What has been done is to take some of Topman’s more outré elements and put them under one roof.
Practically, this means chunky knitwear, tweed jackets with patched elbows and the occasional well washed pair of jeans or soft-handle chinos. Owing to the fairly tight autumnal palette, it seems possible to combine pieces from around the shop without wondering whether they’ll fit together – they probably will.
The accessories impress, with everything from frog-green suede desert boots to retro digital Casio watches of the kind your correspondent might have found just the ticket about 35 years ago. Bags, fashion hardbacks, coloured deck shoes and sneakers complete the look, which does seem a world away from Topman Oxford Circus, even though the merchandise is the same.
The thing about this kind of fashion retailing is that for it to work, the props and visual merchandising have to be just so. Topman General Store is about retro and therefore as you notice the long, black and white photograph of Wisbech Grammar School, taken in 1947, positioned near the entrance, the mood is set. The fact there is another school photograph taken of the same institution in 1942 does make you wonder whether Mr Richardson has been raiding his tuck box for inspiration and indeed whether he is an old Wisbechian or some such.
Props that make this store and many of them will seem familiar to Shoreditch indie devotees. The pavement in front of the store boasts an A-stand bearing the retailer’s logo and the message “New Lines!” chalked on a blackboard. Blackboards are something of a feature in this store, used to inform shoppers that there is “really rather good coffee” on offer, that there is “more downstairs” and that students can benefit from a 20% discount. Messaging of this kind also adds to the old-school feel of the store, as do the vintage column radiators and the many posters that may, or may not, be new, depicting subjects as diverse as a wild horse or a piece of Russian revolutionary propaganda.
As far as the clothing is concerned, it’s tables, side-hung perimeter displays or glass cabinets that look as if they’ve been acquired from flea markets. All tasteful, all non-standard.
In this part of London you’d expect to be served by thin, young and good-looking people with a higher than average tattoo count. No sign of the tattoos, but the staff at Topman General Store ticked the box otherwise and did so in a friendly and engaged manner.
Sometimes, the right service means selecting staff who will fit appropriately with the brand, and on this reckoning Topman General Store is a good shop.
Brick walls, unvarnished fixtures and reclaimed wooden floorboards. If you like your shops rough and ready then this is for you. And although every piece of cabinetry and table is different, it looks almost as if a source has been located where everything looks of a similar age. All this and if you want that “rather good cup of coffee”, the checkout has a large cappuccino maker occupying about half its width.
There is a lot to please about Topman General Store and its chameleon-like ability to fit in with the general ambience of Shoreditch while selling mainstream Topman merchandise is something few high street operators could pull off, or would consider for that matter. It’s a pleasure to walk around and does have that other essential – it makes you want to inspect the merchandise.
Would I buy?
A purchase was very close to being made until reason prevailed and the money was spent on a grateful (younger) relative. It’s not often that this happens, as if it did and since this is a weekly contribution to Drapers, then even the generous stipend paid by this organ might prove insufficient for the task.
The only slight question mark is whether the Topman customer and the indie shopper are one and the same and what happens when, having wandered in, the discovery is made that almost everything bears a Topman label? A minor quibble and one that is probably unfounded.
This is a clever bit of work with everything from the name to the store layout having been carefully considered. In many ways it does the job of looking like an indie better than some of Shoreditch’s more established stores that trade under that label.
Address 98 Commercial Road, London E1
Opened September 23
Number of floors Two
Ambience Shoreditch indie (well, what else would it be?)
A one-off? Certainly
‘Curation’ Gordon Richardson, design director at Topman, and Matthew Murphy, creative director of B Store, London