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Urban Youth or Corporate Consumerism?

Megan Roberts goes browsing through retail's biggest success story in search of the psychology behind the clothes we buy

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Image Credit: Casey Hugefink

A capitalist commune, amongst the cobbled streets of York? Urban Outfitters represents home to a disenchanted
youth. All bare boards, and faded brick work, sun washed window frames, and exposed piping. Honest to God Ballgowns, all angles, ruffles, and tulle, are hewn off at the high thigh, and stuffed under Adidas tracksuits. Pasty teens, with buzz-cut demeanours, shuffle round the store, hungry junkies, waiting for a fix, with the musical stylings of Pale Waves breaking over the clothes rails ad nauseum. I think we can all agree that Urban Outfitters is a postmodern nightmare. But hidden beneath its outrageous new collections, the store front holds another function: setting the scene for corporate giant to court teen consumer, the world over.

Founded in 1970, Urban Outfitters was the brainchild of business student Scott Blair and anthropology graduate Dick Hayne. The real visionary behind the brand, Hayne combined economic knowhow with behavioural expertise; what else could account for such a decisive hijack of the teen imagination? Shopping as a social science was a revolutionary concept, underpinning Urban’s 50-year lifespan and $2 billion market value.

But who are their clientele? In a candid interview, Hayne identified his buyers as, “The upscale homeless [sic] a group of people who leave home to go to college. Throughout this period, they are at their most inquisitive and experimental. They are interested in realities rather than the facade. They don’t believe the hype. Fashion may change but the attitudes of these people don’t. Maybe they are more exposed to the layers of deceit the media and TV are putting up now. But that only makes them more sceptical of being sold a lifestyle that isn’t theirs.” It might surprise you to learn that this interview took
place in 1998, at the opening of Urban’s Kensington store.

Fashion may change but the attitudes of these people don’t – lets reflect on that. As the ever turning wheel of fashion brings the 90s right back around, what are we to make of this new generation of fashionistas, as they slip into the jean jackets
of yester year? Today’s kids are 7% poorer in real terms than their 90s counterparts. Sharp increases in housing costs, cuts to in-work benefits, stagnant pay since the 2008 financial crisis and widening gaps in absolute wealth between young and old account for the rising millions of twenty somethings who can’t afford to move out of their parents’ homes and which can only be exacerbated by a half-baked Brexit, statistically disowned by the youth most affected by it. This alone would explain
why the kids of today are stone cold cynics, with a vampiric thirst for pop culture, but there is more. Growing up in a corporate world turned hostile, these kids have become desensitised to anything but the most refined marketing techniques. In fact, I’d bet you just about anything that these kids could look a billboard up and down, and pick out the bullshit, before you can say “we are taking steps to be environmentally conscious now”.

So, here’s the rub: How do you sell to a generation that simply isn’t buying? The answer is in the store front itself. A hall mark of the Urban vision, crumbling buildings, from an industrial wasteland repurposed as sites of retail, with the occasional nod to their histories left behind: old pipes give way to feature walls, concrete supports hold up the displays, and paint is peeled back to its first layer, or even the bricks beneath. The appeal of this aesthetic is its raw urban potentiality. Stripped back to the bare boards, this aesthetic is deployed to invite possibilities, to facilitate creation. It reflects disaffection to the disaffected and encourages us to raise something from the ashes. A theatrical space, a space for performance, it is here that we are encouraged to build up the consumer self. And if we seek inspiration, look no further than the faded walls, bedecked with colourful clothing.

Nostalgia is also big business, for those who know how to sell it. Right now, the 90s are making a resurgence; walk
into any campus bar, and you are bound to encounter recycled Levi’s, Doc Martens, Adidas, babydoll dresses and a smattering of flannel shirts. But how do we account for the profitability of this nostalgia, especially nostalgia for an era
that most customers won’t remember? Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, father of “the medium is the message” theory, spent the 60s and 70s analysing the effect of media on society. In 1977 he had this to say about nostalgia in the fashion industry: “Nostalgia is the name of the game in every part of our world today”, when people are stripped of their private identities, they develop huge nostalgia, and nostalgia for the jeans and Levi’s of the young today, are nostalgia for grandad’s overalls. His work clothes have now become the latest costume.” Now this really does sound familiar.

Let’s unpack what McLuhan means by this. Growing up in an aggressively capitalist society, we find ourselves bathed in the language of commerce, teaching us to define the self, based on our capacity to consume. This leads us to an inherently unstable sense of identity, that relies on an up-to-the-minute consumption of the latest products, to sustain the tenuous
boundaries of the public body. As individualism gives way to narcissism and self-interest, community is replaced by the market which is designed to endlessly promote vignettes of our social past for profit. No wonder that the goods we fetishise, represent our longing for familial ties. Grandad’s overalls, grandma’s cardigan, mom’s jeans, dad’s work shoes. As family, heritage, and shared remembrance are eroded, commodity offers the means to access cultural memories, by recreating the material conditions in which those memories took place. You may feel you have little in common with your mother, but you find yourself purchasing Disintegration on vinyl, and listening to it fondly, just as she did in her own student digs. Connecting generations through commodity as opposed to dialogue, reduces human connections to purchasable symbols, forever falling short of what we seek.

And there are yet more problems. Like many fast fashion enterprises, Urban Outfitters is facing something of a retail bottleneck. Taking the Darwinian approach, analysis of sales data, online and in store, ensures restocking of successful items, while pulling items with less commercial appeal. While this strategy is justified by the language of profit, it fosters an environment hostile to experimentation. Acceptable items are pushed into the mainstream, while more outrageous or niche pieces are precluded from making it to the shelves. Amongst the pieces that sell well, are the faded images of forgotten counterculture: bold negatives of Che Guevara emblazoned onto tees, or non-descript beanies telling us to obey like a bad headline.

This is not to say that all hope is lost. We see in this knowing compliance with the monolith of brand culture, a glimmer of awareness. If the Sex Pistols have taught us anything, (I spot a girl thumbing through vintage tees proclaiming God Save The Queen), it is that we ought to be suspicious of corporations who sell our outrage back to us: when capital drives the medium of expression, the only voice we hear is that which sells. Now THAT sound like a good slogan for a t-shirt.

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