The day Kate Phelan handed in her resignation at British Vogue to join Topshop was met with a crisis of confidence for the usually unflappable stylist. Sitting in Arcadia headquarters over a light lunch, dressed in a JW Anderson X Topshop sweater and jeans, she shudders at the memory, “I have never felt so unbelievably strange and it was the most hideous feeling. I was kind of sickened with the idea that I was making the worst decision of my life and leaving something that I loved and adored. It was a really difficult thing to do but I knew it was the right thing for me to do at that time.”
Her jitters were perhaps understandable. After nearly 20 years at the august title, Phelan had risen through the ranks as a senior fashion editor to being appointed fashion director alongside Lucinda Chambers. During her time there, Phelan would go on to create some of the magazine’s most awe-inspiring and lasting imagery with some of the premier photographic talent (Paolo Roversi, Nick Knight, Tim Walker) working today. Her association with Vogue began when she interned there in 1987 working for the stylist, Sarajane Hoare. She talks almost wistfully of the bubble Vogue House provided her: “You know I really do miss magazines and it’s only when you’re not on a magazine that you realise all the things that you miss about it. To be so focused on ideas and creativity. If I think about it, I’d say 99% of my day was looking at beautiful clothes, thinking about great ideas, researching ideas for shoots, really crafting ideas. Ultimately I miss working with photographers on a regular basis. I used to love being on the shoot, the shoot for me was the the highlight of my working life. Just seeing those wonderful images come to life in front of you, that was always the thrill for me. So, I would be absolutely lying if I said I didn’t miss it.”
But perhaps with remarkable prescience – given the exodus of print editors moving into retail of late – Phelan made the leap to Topshop in the newly created role of creative director. She’d already been styling their campaigns for 6 years before Phillip Green made her the offer: “I had never thought about leaving Vogue. I thought I was going to be there, turning the lights out when everyone was going. When it came to me, it really made me sort of sit up and think, “What’s it like to be outside of Vogue? Would I be able to survive? Could I stand on my own two feet?” And in a way I felt like needed to challenge myself.”
"There’s nothing that defines a brand like Topshop. So, in a way it’s like you can do anything here so the possibilities are endless, there are almost no boundaries."
Growing up as a teenager in Exeter, Phelan says Topshop was always a part of her life. “It always felt like it had a really independent position in the high street. It didn’t just fall into the same formula of other high street brands. Everybody always used Topshop – it was like mixing your high and your low together.” It was the very malleable nature of the Topshop brand that amazed Phelan when she started there. “At Vogue, I was confident that I knew what a Vogue image looked like and what was a Vogue story and what was a Vogue outfit or what show represented a Vogue idea, so that was something that became very clear. So I think then to come here and suddenly realise that none of that existed. There’s nothing that defines a brand like Topshop. So, in a way it’s like you can do anything here so the possibilities are endless, there are almost no boundaries. You can bring anything into the mix of this world and somehow make it fit so that is really fascinating.”
A year on from her appointment and she’s already made her mark, imprinting her innate sense of chic on the brand. She’s orchestrated a smash hit collaboration with the fast-rising JW Anderson (and a make-up range and capsule collection with Louise Gray), continued Topshop’s endorsement of young designers with the NEWGEN programme and introduced a more grown-up, sober glamour to the premium line, Topshop Unique. “The idea for Unique was to create something that was very different from the rest of Topshop and I think to make that work and have a point of difference we needed to have quite a clear identity.” But she deflects any critical praise to design director, Emma Farrow. “My input is really there as a sort of sanity check in a way. But I’m not a designer. I might put my two pence worth in there – it’s about making sure that we keep that nice handwriting there so we don’t get too schizophrenic.”
While she may no longer attend the shows, her role still sees her crisscrossing the globe as Topshop are in the midst of an extensive expansion programme, opening up stores in Australia, America and soon Hong Kong, South Africa and Brazil. She muses, “It’s really interesting because I think that it always surprises me the appetite for Topshop when we enter into these new territories. But, I think it’s to do with this flagship store in Oxford Circus – it’s become like a landmark.” And while she admits to being overwhelmed at times by the sheer scale of the retail business, it’s the drive of a fast-fashion company that keeps her moving. “Yes I think fast fashion is the success of the business. The appetite for fashion is really important to us. That the Topshop girl wants to consume all those new ideas and those new styles every week is really important and I think that’s what gives us our point of difference. The wheels are constantly turning. That’s really important to have that buzz and that energy.”
Text by Kin Woo