A walk along your local high street these days is less a trip to the shops and more a trip down memory lane as you ask yourself, “remember when Topshop was there?”, “remember when Debenhams was there?”, “remember when GAP was there?”. It’s no exaggeration. One in seven shops now lies empty, and shutters, hoardings, and windows with nothing behind them have become emblematic of the modern high street.
Last year, nearly 50 shops a day disappeared from UK high streets, with fashion retailers taking the hardest hit. 83% of department stores have also been lost since 2016. With the climate crisis here, some might celebrate the fact that a few less fast fashion brands are out there. Who could blame them? But the job losses and the feeling of dilapidation the decline of the high street has caused are no joke, and we need a solution.
With traditional fashion retailers falling by the wayside, it gives us an opportunity to reimagine the high street for a new era. What could your local high street look like if it were less focused on consumption and more focused on community and circularity? What if as well as shopping, new skills and sharing were on the cards too? Let’s take a (hypothetical) stroll…
Sharing is caring
You need a simple black jacket for work, a dress for your holiday, and a pasta maker for a fancy meal you’re planning. Off to TK Maxx then? Nope, first you head to the Clothing Library. Card in hand, you scour the rails of free-to-borrow clothes, which spans everything from workwear to outdoor gear. You find a jacket in your size, and grab a pair of walking trousers for your upcoming camping weekend too. You check them out for two weeks and then head next door to HURR to find the perfect summer dress. You don’t have to be jealous of your pals who live near Selfridges Oxford Street anymore, because there’s a HURR on every major high street. Next up, you drop by your local Library of Things and pick up the pasta maker you pre-ordered on the app. You have everything you need, and you know you won’t be making the inevitable trip to the charity shop in a few months to get rid of them once they’ve served their purpose.
You don’t have to be jealous of your pals who live near Selfridges Oxford Street anymore, because there’s a HURR on every major high street.
Fixing fashion, literally
The likes of Sojo, The Seam, and The Restory have helped make repair trendy, but let’s not forget there have been independent alterations shops on the high street for years too. The thing is, astronomical rents and rates have pushed them onto side streets or forced them to shut down altogether. But on our perfect high street, circular businesses get reduced rent, so you can take your torn t-shirt to your local repair shop and grab a coffee from their in-store café while you wait. Have a bike or a radio to fix? Pop into your local Repair Café. Not only will you get your item fixed, but you can watch the expert at work and learn how to do it yourself next time too.
If you want to learn some more in-depth skills, you can head a few doors further down to your local School of Making. Inspired by the success of concepts like Not a School and Today at Apple but with the sustainability and community mindset of the likes of Stitched Up, you can learn to sew, knit, crochet, embroider… even reheel shoes. Buying stuff you don’t need is out, learning stuff is in.
The new department store
Of course, you can’t make everything yourself. Luckily, all those empty department stores have followed in the footsteps of ReTuna and Circuit, and they’re a one-stop shop for secondhand clothes, refurbished tech, upcycled furniture, and vintage homeware. You can browse stalls run by local makers who manufacture using secondhand and repurposed materials, while parents can pick up their latest clothing subscription for their children, and hand back what no longer fits for re-wear. Have something you don’t need anymore? If it’s in good condition, you can exchange it for a token which you can spend at the swap shop. The department store is community funded, and shareholders voted to set a small amount aside to establish the free-to-shop, volunteer-run space that will benefit local people.
Small but mighty
While fast fashion giants may not have a spot on our dream high street, some of the current inhabitants absolutely do, namely charity shops and small indie shops. Charity shops are second behind fashion retailers in closures, but on our new era high street, you can fill your boots with secondhand treasures before nipping into your favourite small shop for a beautiful gift or keepsake by an independent maker. Fair rates and rents mean a fair chance for every business and a high street that belongs to everyone, not just the big names that can afford to foot the bill.
With some adventurous thinking, political will, and community courage, every high street could become a thriving, circular hub of activity.