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Branding Urban Decline: Style and the Imagined City at Urban Outfitters

Repaired denim overalls from the Urban Renewal line (image Urban Outfitters).

Repaired denim overalls from the Urban Renewal line (image 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.

The aesthetics of youth angst as imagined by Urban Outfitters (image Urban Outfitters).

The aesthetics of youth angst as imagined by Urban Outfitters (image Urban Outfitters).

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. Read the rest of this entry