Interviewing Kate Phelan, creative director of Topshop and the former-former fashion editor for British Vogue (she returned as a contributing editor in 2013), was utterly weird because I was sealed in the calm confines of the yet-to-be-opened Topshop Sydney store with a group of other journalists and a gaggle of style bloggers wearing, like, mechanic's jumpsuits over glittery crop tops. Girls on the street kept trying to enter the store only to be vetoed by security and I swanned around the floor like I knew what the hell I was doing. I was nervous as hell and genuinely terrified that I'd make some kind of Zoolander reference during the interview, but managed to refrain. Phelan was a gem to interview, both for her sartorial knowledge and comprehension and her very apparent appreciation for the personal style of every woman in the store.
It's the day before Topshop Sydney’s public opening and it’s hard not to be intimidated by the thought of interviewing Kate Phelan. As the creative director of Topshop, she plays a formidable role in the creation and shape of each Topshop collection. Her job is relatively fresh, having left British Vogue as fashion director in June 2011, a publication which Phelan has been inextricably associated with since returning as fashion editor in 1993. In the interim, she has become a hugely influential editorial stylist. It is, however, at Topshop – rather than Vogue – that she and her colleagues have, a little more literally, reached into the wardrobes of millions of men and women across the globe.
On the day of our interview Phelan wears a J.W. Anderson for Topshop shirt dress, navy blue and cut large and loose, rolled above the elbow and falling below the knee. Her wooden wedges are lightly scuffed on the outer toe and heel. It’s immediately comforting to know that her clothes are lived-in things, objects of utility to be used and re-used. She is after all, at the creative helm of a sartorial empire for which the term ‘fast fashion’ was coined.
She is also genuinely charming and engaging. She speaks decisively, fluidly and earnestly about anything style-centric.
Phelan describes the Sydney and Melbourne stores as “a slice of Oxford Circus”. It’s an understandable sentiment for anyone who has crossed the threshold of Topshop’s flagship store, the largest single fashion store in the world. The Oxford Circus store is a sartorial smorgasbord. You’re never quite sure when you’re in the middle of the floor because it is so vast; it would take 50 Sydney stores to match it in terms of floor space. Filling that space is a hair salon, a blow-dry bar, a tailor, a cafe, a nail bar, racks brimming with stunning limited edition dresses and an extraordinary number of concession brands, among other fixtures. In truth, every other Topshop store will only ever be a slice of Oxford Circus.
Topshop’s delayed arrival in Australia came down to finding the right location. “We wouldn’t want to do it unless we thought we were in the right place, the right spot. So I think being in this position here is fantastic. It’s really important to be where the hub is.”
Indeed, Melbourne and Sydney have done quite well for themselves. The spaces feature a clean, modern fit-out, but one barely notices the bones of the space. It’s the flesh – the racks of clothing, textured, beaded, printed and baroque – that catches the eye. The sheer diversity and range of styles that makes Topshop so inherently clickable as an online store assumes an equally entrancing physical form in Melbourne and Sydney.
Part of what makes Topshop compelling is its true sense of design and detail, something echoed by the former fashion director’s styling background. “I think ultimately, from where my experience with magazines takes me into retail is, you just have that eye, you just know whether something’s right or wrong, whether it’s the right sort of zip on a bag or the right cut of a trouser. It’s those things. It’s about perfecting those elements and I think only then do you create something which becomes a must-have item. It’s fine-tuning.”
While there is a certain crossover between editorial and retail, they’re vastly different beasts. What are the similarities? “It is hugely different, but ultimately it’s about that visionary thinking, thinking about how creatively to package the world of Topshop. In some ways I still think of it a bit like a magazine; I think about different aspects as the different pages of a magazine.”
It’s not to say that it was an easy transition. “[It was] hard in that I had to learn about retail very quickly, and obviously I knew nothing about retail. Well, I thought I knew about retail until I came to Topshop. I’d be looking at pieces of paper and realised that what looked like hundreds [of items] was actually hundreds of thousands. So everything was sort of blown out of proportion; I couldn’t get my head around the scale of the business and how huge the volume of product was.
“Everything was sort of overwhelming in the beginning and then you realise it’s such an incredibly well-oiled machine and there are so many brilliantly talented people holding this whole machine together, keeping it working and moving constantly; it never stops breathing. It’s incredible really.”
When asked about how she feels she has influenced Topshop in the relatively short time she’s been there, she baulks: “You don’t fix what isn’t broken as they say. Topshop was hugely successful before I joined them and to sort of slot in amongst that has been really exciting. But my main focus is working on the product and making sure we can get it to the best that we can do it, and focusing on trends and ideas and perfecting everything that Topshop already does brilliantly.”
Simply glancing through Phelan’s styling work for Briitish Vogue makes a convincing argument for her transition into the world of Topshop. Whether conjuring dreamy, folksy, minimal or luxe fairytale sequences, all of the ensembles have a kind of easiness to them; they are accessible despite their price tags. She championed the high-low mix of clothing long before it became the mantra of any and all.
But now that she’s working within the Topshop context, how does that high-low philosophy fit? Is it Topshop’s intention – as a top-to-toe one-stop-shop powerhouse – to construct an entire outfit, including make-up and accessories, in the one place? “Well, I love the high-low mix,” she says. “Of course you can create a whole look here, but I think what Topshop now does quite brilliantly is it balances the high and low within its own frame.” She elaborates: “We’ve got our designer collaborations which give you the high; we’ve got the Unique collection which is our own collection; and we’ve got the boutique collection which gives you a slightly more refined, pared back collection. Our core product is like the fairy dust on everything.”
Phelan talks about how most of the Topshop designs are finalised well before the corresponding fashion shows kick into gear, betraying the notion that ‘fast fashion’ is built purely on catwalk copies and indicating that, perhaps, it’s beginning to outpace the catwalk itself. She also believes passionately in street style – daily, living, breathing style. She compliments the retail assistants on the floor who mill and meander before the opening. Is street style starting to inspire and in turn be reflected by, the British chain store? Is the trickle-down from high-end designer to chain store rack becoming less prevalent?
“Absolutely. I think everyone is now so exposed to fashion,” says Phelan. “There’s so much information about fashion now. There’s no mystery anymore. Everybody can know about designers, they can know about luxury, they can know about high street. So in a way our role, our job as a brand, is really to inspire the customer. To make her feel like that she’s seen something for the first time so when they come in and discover our trends, it’s a trend that’s unique and different.”
As Phelan talks through the trends and items on the floor, you begin to notice her tendency to refer clothes in terms of the women who might wear them (“the Parisian beantnik girl, she wears a lovely sweater…”) or the places they might go (“the Californian road trip, the sun-bleached hair”). It indicates all the possibilities and personalities a single item of clothing might assume in the hands of any one person. But it’s also symptomatic of her styling background. Phelan sees entire stories in pieces of clothing rather than just their fabric and seams.