The tricho–rhino–phalangeal syndrome 1 gene (TRPS1), which was initially found to be associated with tricho–rhino–phalangeal syndrome, is critical for the development and differentiation of bone, hair follicles and kidney. However, its role in cancer progression is largely unknown. In this study, we demonstrated that down-regulation of TRPS1 correlated with distant metastasis, tumour recurrence and poor survival rate in cancer patients. TRPS1 was frequently down-regulated in high-metastatic cancer cell lines from the breast, colon and nasopharynx. Silencing of TRPS1 stimulated epithelial–mesenchymal transition (EMT), migration and invasion in vitro and metastasis in vivo, while TRPS1 over-expression exhibited the opposite effects. Using quantitative proteomics, FOXA1, a negative regulator of epithelial–mesenchymal transition (EMT), was shown to be down-regulated by TRPS1 knockdown. Ectopic expression of FOXA1 blocked the enhancement of EMT, migration and invasion induced by TRPS1 silencing. Mechanistically, TRPS1, acting as a transcription activator, directly induced FOXA1 transcription by binding to the FOXA1 promoter. We further showed that down-regulation of TRPS1 was induced by miR-373 binding to the 3′ UTR of TRPS1. Over-expression of TRPS1, but not TRPS1 3′ UTR, blocked the enhancement of migration and invasion induced by miR-373. Taken together, we consider that down-regulation of TRPS1 by miR-373, acting as a transcriptional activator, promotes EMT and metastasis by repressing FOXA1 transcription, expanding upon its previously reported role as a transcription repressor. Copyright © 2016 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.