Debenhams and Topshop Fall, Pushed by Fast Fashion and Pandemic

LONDON — The British department store Debenhams can trace its history back 242 years to a shop on Wigmore Street in central London. On Tuesday, it finally succumbed to the pressures of 21st-century e-commerce. After more than a year of restructuring and several months of trying to find a buyer, the company said it would begin shutting down.

Debenhams is the second big retailer to topple in two days, after Arcadia Group, which owns brands including Topshop and Miss Selfridge, filed for bankruptcy protection on Monday. The two are also linked because Arcadia’s brands have a big footprint in Debenhams, with sections set aside for their clothes.

And so, as Christmas lights flicker above the sidewalks in Britain’s downtowns and as the busiest shopping period of the year begins after a monthlong lockdown in England, the nation is watching two of its largest retailers fall. They have about 25,000 employees between them.

More bankruptcies are expected, as the lockdowns have relentlessly exposed the retailers that have failed to pick up on customers’ willingness to shop online.

“The retail house of cards on the high street is in danger of collapse,” said Susannah Streeter, an analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown.

Britain’s fashion retailers enjoyed a golden period and were seen for a time as a source of national pride. The Debenhams evening wear department was a middle-class destination for all of life’s major celebrations. Marks & Spencer, which announced plans during the summer to lay off nearly 8,000 workers, was a byword for quality for decades, with its cotton underwear and cashmere knits a staple of British households.

In the 2000s, Topshop — once considered the jewel in the crown of Philip Green’s Arcadia Group — was a genuine style authority thanks to sellout collaborations with the model Kate Moss and a vast Oxford Street emporium laden with catwalk-inspired knockoffs.

But these brands have suffered for years. Fast-fashion giants from overseas, like Zara from Spain and H&M from Sweden, started selling cheaper, trendier clothes. They were followed by online-only upstarts such as Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing (similar to the American brand Fashion Nova). Geared toward young women and powered by social commerce, they offer low-priced fashion products designed to be browsed, bought and worn on social media.

The pandemic has hastened the demise of brands found in Britain’s high street shopping districts. For about a third of the year, clothing stores and other nonessential retailers have been shuttered to comply with lockdowns, accelerating the move to e-commerce. Since February, online clothing sales have grown 17 percent in Britain, while in-store sales have slumped 22 percent.

The old guard retailers and department stores that were too slow to invest in their online operations have found themselves grappling with the costs of real estate empires visited by fewer and fewer people. Even accounting for scores of closures in recent years, Debenhams has 124 department stores, while Arcadia has 444 stores for its brands in Britain. .

“Like Arcadia Group, Debenhams might have stood a better chance had its footprint of retail stores been smaller, but they were stuck with too many shops, on long leases they could not wriggle out of,” Ms. Streeter said.

Many fast-fashion retailers continue to thrive throughout the pandemic because they have few or no brick-and-mortar stores. Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing generally source from U.K.-based manufacturers in cities like Leicester, England. Clothes can be produced quickly and distributed faster within the country.

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