First published in The Huffington Post 28th September 2013
I’ve always hate a love/hate relationship with Urban Outfitters, caught between my adoration for their clothes and my disapproval for the controversies they seem so adept at racking up. They might be known for their hipster beanies and shoes with crazy platforms, but who are Urban Outfitters? Who are they really selling to? And what makes them popular?
Urban Outfitters Inc. is an American company that incorporates the brands Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Free People, Terrain, and BHLDN, and holds over 400 retail locations. The founder and CEO is Richard Hayne, an American guy who has thrown his considerable financial weight behind endorsing the anti-gay Republican Rick Santorum. Rick likes to compare homosexuality to bestiality and thinks that climate change was made up by the government so they can control your life. Why, one might ask, does CEO Hayne back a politician whose policy positions are ultra-conservative, when the young people who buy from Urban Outfitters are traditionally the most liberal-minded demographic? OU have also been in trouble for using the term ‘Navajo’ to sell products that are NOT made or designed by American Indians (let’s all take a lesson from Miley Cyrus and admit that cultural appropriation isn’t cool) and various t-shirt slogans, including one reading ‘Eat Less’ that was pulled from the online store in 2010. Thumbs up for the promotion of eating disorders… not.
I decided to chat to Chris Botham, manager of the York branch of Urban Outfitters, and ask some questions. York’s high street doesn’t sport as many brands as in Leeds or Manchester, despite the abundance of independent boutiques and ye olde fudge shops, and so I figured that the Topshop would be OU’s biggest competition in terms of similar pricing and demographic. However, I didn’t detect much store rivalry, mainly because Urban Outfitters are trying to do something a bit different.
Unlike Topshop, which has a few concessions but most clothing is by Topshop itself; Urban Outfitters boasts around 255 brands, 8 of which are manufactured exclusively for Urban Outfitters.
There is no single, ubiquitous ‘Urban Outfitters’ brand, but you won’t find Sparkle & Fade, Cooperative or BDG anywhere else. All stock hangs around for only 8/10 weeks before it is marked down, which makes grabbing a bargain pretty easy. The best thing about talking to someone ‘on the ground’ in the OU empire, was that Chris helped dispel the notion that Urban Outfitters is a brand solely for cool students with a bit of cash to spend and a penchant for vinyl and patterned hip flasks. Chris talked about inclusion, not exclusion, about attracting older men and women, the importance of helping out anyone who’s browsing and not alienating potential customers.
One of my main concerns was that OU appears to sell the complete ‘alternative’ lifestyle, a one-stop shop for your music and togs and home ware, but it’s a mass produced individuality. You want to stand out but just end up looking like all the other people who want to stand out too. Chris’ answer was that although the clothes are mass-produced, they find their way into stores on a smaller scale, the York outlet getting maybe 30 dresses in one particular style, meaning that you won’t spot as many people wearing the same outfit as you.
What struck me most was a real disparity between people like Chris, working really hard to make the brand something that feels inclusive, rather than a too-cool hipster club, and the top brass (CEO Richard Hayne) who support ultra-conservative crazies. There’s some really cool and inventive design going into the OU magazine and into the stripped-down design of the stores, plus they have great clothes. All we need is for Hayne to listen to his consumer base and stop spending their money on dubious causes… oh, and no more ‘Eat Less’ t-shirts, please.