Urban Outfitters is one of the predominant retailers that has become a focal point of millennial fashion. It provides the Instagram-worthy attire that the 17-25 year old age group is looking for. However, at what cost is the rise of Urban Outfitters? It seems as if the store really is taking vintage looks and artists’ styles, overpricing them and selling them to wealthy youth who don’t understand the meaning behind it all.
Just a few days ago I was talking to a friend and I asked her if she got her sweater from UO. Her response was that she bought it from a Goodwill for five dollars. Sure enough, though, when I looked at the website I found almost the exact same sweater for sale with a price nearly ten times what my friend bought it for at Good Will. In fact, most of what is sold at UO can be found in far cheaper realms of the market, from local producers, or places that have a history to their style and art.
The store represents the ultimate gentrification of apparel, home decor, and lifestyles. The company began in 1970 by two men, Richard Hayne and Scott Belair. It began as a project for Belair’s graduate program in business where the two developed an idea to sell inexpensive clothing and decor to college students. In actuality, while the store does maintain the original values, apparel, and decor for college-aged students, it has strayed far from being “inexpensive.”
UO customers aren’t buying clothes, they’re buying a lifestyle.
The mission statement for the website describes the company as a, “lifestyle retailer dedicated to inspiring customers through a unique combination of product, creativity and cultural understanding.” However, it doesn’t seem as if there is really any cultural understanding happening in their products. What the company is doing is taking parts of urban cultures and selling them to over-privileged youth who have no idea what these aspects mean to a person’s identity. UO customers aren’t buying clothes, they’re buying a lifestyle. It is almost as if these shoppers are dressing themselves in something that they’re not— they are disguising themselves in costumes of cultures they don’t belong to nor understand.
For example, the store recently came out with a Kent State sweatshirt that had red stains all over it that resembled blood. This is a reference to the 1970 Kent State shooting in which four students were killed. However, the company denied this coincidence but it seems that just hours after Twitter users complained about the product, it was labeled as “sold out” online. It is in situations like these where UO is taking parts of culture that they don’t understand, labeling it as “vintage” and selling it at a ridiculous margin. And UO groupies scoop it up because they believe the company to be the law of the land in millennial fashion. People look at UO to help define a style that doesn’t necessarily describe wealth and aristocracy, however requires large amounts of money to purchase so that there is still a status quo aspect to it.
This has become more prevalent in our society as the upper-class styles are developing into stigmas of control and power. Whereas in previous decades, people would want to wear similar clothing to those in the 1%, now it has become popular to wear styles of the lower class as signs of resistance– whether or not the wearer actually understands the resistance being promoted.
The company prides itself on taking the opinions of its base-level employees, the sales representatives, and using their creativity and fashion to decide what to place in the store. However, these employees are part of a culture that has essentially gentrified most of the artistic culture.
What has happened is the fashion that is on their racks comes from people of the streets. People who work minimum wage jobs, sell their art for a fraction of what it’s worth, and wear clothes that are handed down to them or bought from thrift stores. Yet, Urban Outfitters takes this culture and promotes it as their own style in order to overcharge so privileged upper-class shoppers can feel as if they are part of the artistic struggle. This style has become popular in recent years through promotions on Instagram and a rise in bohemian culture among younger generations.
A place like UO comes into the area to appeal to these people who can’t afford their products and then comes other companies that do the same. Then the neighborhood has a greater cost-of-living because the businesses have gentrified the area.
UO is also known to rip off other artists and designers to turn a profit. Similar to the store Zara, UO looks at designs that independent artists create and change them ever so slightly to sell them in their store. This is common with their collections of pins and patches and it is incredibly unfortunate that the artist receives none of the recognition nor any of the profit.
Another aspect that the company seems to be proud of is that they go into areas and renovate old and unused warehouses, stores, etc. This sounds great on the surface, because everyone loves renovation and bringing in new business, right? However, the company is taking these places that are historic locations in the community, whether it be by their age or influence in the culture, and turning them into an urban, upper-class white shopping local. Many of these areas are not looking for that. Often, these locations are in relatively poor neighborhoods where many artists reside because of cheap cost of living. A place like UO comes into the area to appeal to these people who can’t afford their products and then comes other companies that do the same. Then the neighborhood has a greater cost-of-living because the businesses have gentrified the area.
For example in Philadelphia the company has petitioned to purchase the Rialto theater which was built in 1917. The location is primarily empty after an earthquake and us unused, however, it once served as the hot spot of a community that loved it. Now, it will be turned into a chain store that is selling overpriced t-shirts to those who do not understand the importance or power that this location once had.
The matter is that this company is inputting itself into communities where it has no real sense of the atmosphere. It is pretending to be diverse and cultural, but in all honesty UO is looking for “cool” and untouched places to turn a profit. The people who work there, the products that are sold, these are not reflections of the surrounding community. They only come close to being replications of what people are wearing, but at a much higher cost. The profit is coming from people who cannot afford it.
It can’t be blamed on the company for trying to turn a profit, though. The blame lays in the culture of millennial youth who have idealized what it means to be a struggling artist. This culture looks at these clothes and these lifestyles and wants to play the role for a little— but not too long before they can return to their parents’ homes and Instagram photos of their artistic, rocker, or hipster lifestyle.
Because what it comes down to is the fact that the people and culture who inspire the style of Urban Outfitters, could never actually afford to shop there.
One aspect of the culture that really bothers me is this need to buy fake glasses. This is a trend I remember was popular in 2007 in order to wear the thick-framed stereotypical nerd glasses, but UO has brought it back in full force and people with no need for glasses are purchasing these fake ones. This bothers me partly because I am a person who actually needs glasses and I think that the people who don’t shouldn’t use it as a fashion statement. Enjoy your vision, please, for all of us who can’t! But UO makes a huge profit off of selling products that are unnecessary because they serve a real purpose outside of fashion.
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