Retailer to bring 'quirky' fashion across the pond

Topshop has become a U.K. sensation, but will Americans like its style?

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ehall@crain.com

[london] In the U.K., it's almost a fashion faux pas for females not to shop at Topshop-frequently. Now, with the affordable fashion chain's international expansion plan well under way, the big question is whether American young women will soon feel the same urge for a Topshop "fix."

A Topshop spokeswoman confirmed the retailer is "looking to expand in the U.S." American consumers also will be able to shop online in early 2007 at topshop.com.

The buzz among insiders is that Topshop soon will decide on one or more of three U.S. options: A jeans bar at Barneys on Madison Avenue; stores-within-stores in New York, Miami and Chicago; and flagships in Manhattan and Los Angeles.

"It's a very British, quirky look, so it could do well in New York and L.A., but I'm not sure the rest of the country will get it," said Deborah Brown, picture director at U.K. weekly fashion title Grazia.

Maureen Hinton, senior retail analyst at Verdict Research, calls the U.S. move "a risk," noting there's "not such a strong national fashion taste in the U.S. as in the U.K., but it has the potential to make a mark. It's easier to assimilate younger fashion globally because the internet and music make youth a larger market than older fashion, which tends to be more localized and influenced by traditional tastes."

Topshop has the advantage of being a fashion leader, showing its Unique collection at London Fashion Week and commissioning capsule collections by up-and-coming designers. This month young U.K. women will flock to the Topshop Vogue Fashion Show, a series of catwalk previews of Topshop fashions over cocktails.

Topshop's flagship store in London's Oxford Circus is a mandatory stop for visiting celebrities. According to tabloids, Lindsay Lohan spent $3,200 there in one recent visit. Sarah Jessica Parker, Madonna, Scarlett Johansson, Nicole Kidman and Beyonce shop there as well. In fact, Gwyneth Paltrow told U.K. daily Metro: "I love the fact that people say, 'Where did you get that?' And I've spent $20 on it. I get such a lot of stuff from Topshop. I love it."

Grazia's Ms. Brown added: "Nine times out of 10, when you ask someone where they got something, it is from Topshop. No matter how many designer freebies we get on a fashion magazine, we all still shop there."

"Topshop's huge store in Oxford Circus is a major fashion experience, and they are now managing to translate that experience more successfully to other stores," Ms. Hinton said. "It's not particularly cheap-just reasonable midmarket prices-but it works because of the attraction of the product and because it's distinctive."

Blueprint for expansion

Each week, 200,000 shoppers visit the Oxford Circus store, which is a blueprint for Topshop's expansion. Seventy percent are women ages 16 to 34. Topshop, with 298 U.K. stores and annual sales of $1.1 billion, already has 63 outlets outside the U.K., mainly in continental Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The first store in Russia opens next month, and flagship stores in Paris are planned.

Topshop opened in 1964 but spent three decades as a rather low-rent presence. In the '90s, as discount retailers boomed, Topshop eschewed price cuts and reinvented itself as "the home of fashion." Around 300 lines are introduced every week, and the retailer's sponsorship of young designers gives it an edge over rivals. Sir Philip Green, the high-profile billionaire owner of Topshop parent Arcadia Group, has signed up supermodel Kate Moss to design her own Topshop range.

Ms. Hinton said similar brands have succeeded abroad. "Look at Zara. If you can build a brand at the right level to appeal globally, there's lots of potential for global expansion."
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