The Urban Outfitters concept shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, known as Space Ninety8, was bustling on a recent Saturday afternoon. It was an unseasonably warm day, and small groups of young women, having finished their brunches at nearby faux diners and French-bistro style restaurants, moved in packs among the clothes that hinted at spring: light floral dresses, faded high-waisted jeans, and cropped wide-leg pants. It smelled vaguely herbaceous inside, like a dorm room of someone who really liked patchouli, and it hummed with the energy of youthful possibility — the exact mood the brand tries bottle and sell to its young fans in the form of graphic tees and clogs.
"I didn't even know this was an Urban," said Alexis Ravello, a 16-year-old who drove in from Long Island with her mom, sister, and a friend to go shopping and hang out for the day. She could be forgiven: There was no overt signage indicating this was an Urban Outfitters store, and the design — knotty wood-plank floors, rusted industrial beams, verdant plants in glazed clay pots, macrame decor hanging from rafters — felt more like a funky boutique than part of a global corporate retail operation. Alexis seemed disappointed. There was, after all, an Urban Outfitters just a short drive from her home, but jewelry from local artisans and a robust offering of beauty products piqued her interest, not to mention some fun sportswear pieces from collaborations the company did with FILA and Champion. "There's definitely some cute stuff here," she said looking around for a dressing room to try on the pair of track pants and two T-shirts in her hand. "Everyone shops at Urban, which can be good and bad, I guess."
It was a stark contrast from the American Apparel next door, which had clearance signs in the front windows, telling passersby that the product inside was up to 50% off (discounts would later increase to 70% off). Scoop-neck T-shirts and tie-dye hoodies hung forlornly on racks at the teen retailer, known for its hipster basics and scandalous advertisements. AA was acquired by the Canadian manufacturer Gildan earlier this year, as part of the brand's very public fall from grace and subsequent bankruptcy. One can't help but feel this spectacular crash is symbolic, somehow, of the challenges that the fashion industry faces.
It's hard out there for teen retailers, which are trying but often failing to connect with young, digitally engaged consumers. Like American Apparel, the once-hyped Nasty Gal was recently acquired by British brand Boohoo after declaring bankruptcy late last year, and Wet Seal, which used to be a mall go-to for teenagers, also declared bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Abercrombie & Fitch is expected to close 60 stores this year and, if you haven't already heard, malls — once considered a sinkhole for teens' spending money — are dying. A recent headline from Business Insider ditched subtlety and screamed "The Retail Apocalypse Has Officially Descended on America." Yeesh.
So far, Urban Outfitters is staying afloat despite the various challenges it faces. In its annual report, the company reported $3.5 billion in net sales, a 2.9% increase from last year, and warned that the first quarter has fallen short of analysts' predictions. As far as sales go, that doesn't sound great, but the fact is, the industry is in transition. "Retail certainly has to be measured with a different yardstick than we're used to in the past," says Marshal Cohen, the chief retail analyst at the market research firm NPD Group. Sales are, of course, important, but they aren't the only thing, especially as travel and experiences edge out image as the priority purchase among young people. And image isn't just about fashion today: It's about your appearance on social media where, as it happens, Urban has a strong foothold.
It has done this in part by collaborating with a roster of third-party brands that lend instant street cred that its competitors lack, partnering with influencers with built-in digital cachet, and by doubling-down on building a community both through social media and with store events.
Additionally, despite being a huge corporate entity, Urban is dedicated to being nimble — absorbing cues from the street, the runways, and social media — and reflecting those trends back to customers, practically in real time. (Many projects work within a two- to three-month cycle, whereas bigger corporations can plan years out). And while other brands are beholden to the pre-internet era when their influence crested, Urban Outfitters happily skips from decade to decade, cherry-picking nostalgic touch points and repackaging them for the digital age.
The thing that separates Urban Outfitters from all those other teen brands is that its brand ID has changed every five years. It has evolved from boho to goth to clubwear to athleisure, without skipping a beat. Abercrombie and Fitch, Wet Seal, American Apparel did not, either making one painstaking evolution over a generation, or hardly changing at all. Perhaps, rather than a liability, Urban Outfitter's brandlessness has been its greatest asset.
The Urban Outfitters headquarters is located in the former Navy Yards in Philadelphia, a series of majestic brick buildings with sprawling windows a stone's throw from the Delaware River. It's where the retailer's parent company URBN has formed a campus consisting of over 280,000 square feet to accommodate not only Urban Outfitters, but its other flagship brands, Anthropologie and Free People.
It's gray and cold the day that I visit, and it happens to be the day of Urban's quarterly brainstorming meeting, where the creative team meets to discuss the upcoming months and how to best implement their various collaborations in a way that will resonate with customers across both the digital space and in real life. Everyone from the brand's creative director to assistants gather together to spitball ideas, and the idea of corporate hierarchies is banished — everyone's opinions are valid and, in fact, oftentimes the younger team members are eagerly looked to as oracles, seeing as they're the age of the customer they seek to connect with. There's a sense of excitement among the employees I speak with, divorced from any concerns of the instability going on in the industry.