Branding Urban Decline: Style and the Imagined City at Urban Outfitters
Observers who doubt marketers’ capacity to package nearly any concept may be impressed by the ambition of Urban Outfitters’ “Urban Renewal” line. Urban Outfitters aspires to make the notion of urban renewal a desirable style that signifies a “totally one-of-a-kind” vintage aesthetic disconnected from urban displacement and decline. The branding is perhaps an irreverent or innocent play on Urban Renewal’s symbolic link to urban youth culture, invoking “streetstyle” in the strained ironic juxtaposition of “new one-of-a-kind vintage.” Yet Urban Outfitters is a carefully constructed “lifestyle” brand consciously selling a caricature of urban decline to a youth demographic that their CEO described in 2012 as “the upscale homeless person” with “a slight degree of angst.” Urban Outfitters aspires to evoke the authenticity of urbanity by linking urban decline and displacement to a style embodied in its “vintage condition” wear.
Urban Outfitters has a reputation for appealing to hipster chic, catering to the consumer who is indifferent to being labeled a hipster. Most consumers accused of being hipsters are raiding thrift stores and flea markets, constructing makeshift assemblages of mixed styles and old things and typically skirting the charge of being labeled “hipster,” but the Urban Renewal line promises genuine vintage (or a persuasive reformulation of it) without descending into the flea market. Nevertheless, because the vintage shopping experience occurs in “real” places outside consumer space, the Urban Renewal line often refers to its garments’ spatial or social roots. Urban Outfitters’ British web site, for instance, invokes the garments’ ambiguous American origins by touting the Urban Renewal line as a “vintage destination” that offers everything from “one-off finds in LA warehouses to awesome pieces from the world’s most obscure flea markets.” The Urban Renewal line’s “vintage mechanic shirts” do not come from a specific place, but they secure some origins by implying class roots that evoke their salvage from proletarian closets. The Urban Renewal garment descriptions on its American web page routinely herald their “handcrafted” production in Philadelphia, where the chain was established near the University of Pennsylvania campus in 1970. Ironically, the neighborhood was transformed by genuine urban renewal that a University archival exhibit refers to as “a lasting public relations disaster” addressed by the 1990’s introduction of local retailing that included Urban Outfitters.
Urban Outfitters assumes consumers have no real historical consciousness, fancying themselves as uniquely resistant in much the same way as every youth generation. In 2012 Urban Outfitters’ Susan Otto contemplated the vague historicity of Urban Outfitters’ consumers when she noted that the chains’ 18-26 year-old demographic was purchasing its Beavis and Butthead t-shirts, a show that was cancelled in 1997. The shoppers were embracing a popular cultural image outside their experience even though “they undoubtedly probably don’t know anything about Beavis and Butthead but simply remember that being something the older cool kids did and something clearly they were denied. … Rebellion in aesthetics.”
Beavis and Butthead may signal some irreverent distance from mainstream social codes in Otto’s analysis, but they symbolize nothing concrete except the aesthetic break of a historical style. Otto disarmingly suggested that Urban Outfitters provided a somewhat hackneyed consumer resistance that sprung from their shoppers’ middle-class upbringing, arguing that “Our customer is from traditional homes and advantage, but this offers them the benefit of rebellion.” In Otto’s analysis, the disaffected youth of privilege entertain the notion they are rebelling by simply engaging in shopping style. For this generation, urban renewal evokes no conscious experience of post-war urban displacement—or perhaps even racism and class inequality–and is instead an ambiguous historical term well-suited to a line of vintage clothing. Urban Outfitters seems to systematically appropriate symbols that are calculated to challenge if not violate mainstream sensibilities (e.g., the 2003 “Ghettopoly” satire of Monopoly, or last year’s Ganesh socks). However, such symbols are less about strategic resistance—that is, conscious defiance of specific structural inequalities–than they are simply irreverence that seeks no particularly concrete target.
Urban Outfitters seizes on genuine historical symbols and processes (e.g., Beavis and Butthead, urban renewal) and cultural identities (e.g., the ill-conceived 2011 Navajo hipster panty), but they are seen by Urban Outfitters simply as style. Nevertheless, they are not utterly depthless as much as they are symbols meant to accommodate consumers’ imaginations; those symbols simply are not confined by well-defined historical meanings and are instead ambiguously defined “retro.” Urban Outfitters does not ignore historicity at all; like many retailers, they simply approach historical symbolism as utterly flexible style into which consumers will invest their own meanings. The chain’s new store in Los Angeles, for instance, quite publicly embraces some spatial sense of urban historicity: opened in the 1917 Rialto Theater last December, the store retains a spectacular marquee and the former theater space is stocked with kitsch, retro/vintage decorative goods, and a photo booth.
Urban Outfitters situates stores in settings that range from metropolises like Philadelphia and Los Angeles to smaller college towns like Bloomington, Indiana and Charlottesville, Virginia; the college crowd may be the heart of their demographic, but a broader youth consumer community might be tapped in any of these places. All of these stores inevitably invoke the symbolism of the “urban”: in the hands of Urban Outfitters, it refers to an apparently organic sense of style that emerges from communities of young, creative people, but that description does not adequately describe a vast breadth of American youth and risks sounding more like marketing ideology than ethnographic insight.
Susan Otto’s 31 years of experience studying Urban Outfitters’ consumers led her to fancy herself to be a marketing “Jane Goodall,” drawing a somewhat odd analogy between the patterned shopping behavior of Urban Outfitters’ consumers and chimpanzees. Yet her picture of Urban Outfitters consumers who are “intentionally contrary and urge you to find, separate themselves from other generations, in particular their parents” is not an especially complex ethnographic picture of youth culture. Instead, such analyses are largely observations about the shopping behavior of a modest circle of consumers and not especially compelling youth ethnography. In the hands of retailers like Urban Outfitters, things like urbanity, ethnicity, and gender are simply dimensions of everyday experience that marketers leverage to represent commodities or a “lifestyle” like the self-consciously ironic, creative, and authentic picture Urban Outfitters paints of its shoppers. Urban renewal in this world of style is simply an aesthetic invoking a small circle of disaffected suburban youth’s imaginations of city life.
MacKenzie S. Carlson
1999 A History of the University City Science Center. Online exhibit, University Archives and Record Center, University of Pennsylavania.
1998 Urban Renewal in West Philadelphia: An Examination of the University of Pennsylvania’s Planning, Expansion, and Community Role from the Mid-1940s to the Mid-1970s. Unpublished senior thesis, Department of History University of Pennsylvania.
All images from Urban Outfitters facebook page.