The bright sparks

Not many retailers would expand during a recession – but Urban Outfitters is one of the loudest and proudest personalities on the high street, says Harriet Walker

When Urban Outfitters first opened its doors in Kensington in 1998, there was no other store like it. Britain had led the way with shops such as Biba and Bazaar in the Sixties, but there was no trace of that ingenuity or excitement left on the high street. Fourteen years and nine UK stores later, there is still little to rival Urban Outfitters' undeniable personality. Its idiosyncratic mixture of lifestyle with luxury, and trend with twee, make it a destination in itself – beyond shopping and into the realm of concept consumerism.

It makes no bones about the fact it exists for the cool kids: you'll find none of the basics that other shops rely on to bulk up sales when more trend-led pieces fail. Customers at Urban Outfitters are a directional crowd, interweaving indie and pop culture with vintage sensibilities to create a look that often differs radically from what might be considered "trendy". Buyers combine fashion forward own-brand pieces and streetwear labels with affordable designer diffusion ranges in a haven for early adopters.

The aim is to provide thoughtful pieces that survive faddish trends and can be updated with accessories. "Our customers are experimental," explains Becki Clark, womenswear buying manager. "They mix own-brand items with vintage items from our 'remade' section, and brands from our boutique section. They want unique pieces – we are very influenced by vintage finds and I think that is key to our handwriting." Urban Outfitters might take issue with the word "hipster" but there's no denying that the chain helped to spawn this latterday youth movement – and it's one of the healthier consumer demographics given the current climate, with family incomes down 1.8 per cent in the past year and household expenditures rising by almost double that. Although shares in the company dipped when CEO Glen Senk left last week, they were soon on the rise again, in defiance of the stock market freefall. And against a backdrop of bankruptcies, Urban Outfitters last year announced the opening of nine new stores in Europe, with four UK openings before Christmas, Berlin this month and Nottingham and Norwich slated for the spring.

"It may sound illogical to enter one of the most competitive retail markets when consumers aren't spending," says Natalie Berg, an analyst at Planet Retail, "but it's important to remember that this is a well-established brand in the US. They have a proven formula and are offering something truly unique. They're injecting a sense of novelty into the high street." The chain's creative director Steve Briar says: "If you take the very idea of a vintage store – found furniture, unwanted paint, lighting for function and low on sophistication – you see a sense of bohemian thrift retail.

"Multiply that by 200 stores across Europe and America, and it starts to make sense why we look the way we do. The original concept of knowing-cool in an unconventional environment still inspires today. Add our customers, and you've got an inspirational habitat for trend-setters." From knick-knacks, books, record players and fridge magnets to a monthly email featuring in-store playlists, Urban Outfitters embodies personality-driven shopping that reluctant consumers seem to go mad for.

It's a lesson learned from the store's origins in Philadelphia, where "Free People" opened in 1970, close to the university campus and with the intention of ensnaring its young, well-educated (and well-dressed) student body. A second branch opened soon afterwards near Harvard, Boston. In 1992 the chain launched its first Anthropologie in Philadelphia (the first European branch opened on Regent Street, London, in 2009), to cater to a more mature customer along the same conceptual lines, and in 2000 the chain began developing its online shop too. The company is one of a number of American retailers expanding into Europe – and specifically Britain – at the moment.

"The British high street is renowned for its variety and fashionable edge," says Jenny Dickinson, the acting editor of Elle magazine, "but I think this appreciation of American retailers comes from a desire to look different from every other woman on the street. We've come to a point where many of us could say to a friend, 'that's a great dress', in one breath and 'it's Warehouse, isn't it?' in the next."

British brands tend to have an identity that most savvy shoppers have become used to. Many of them are bulk-owned (Topshop, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins are all part of Philip Green's Arcadia, for instance) and a reliance on shared manufacturers, textiles and prints is often visible. And since the blast-off in online shopping, customers are much more familiar with what is in each shop and when, thanks to the extra browsing time afforded by the internet.

Because American retailers have so large a global customer base but fewer outposts, meanwhile, their pieces tend to seem more individual and less recognisable.

"When the economy is challenging, it is the best time to grow," Senk told The Independent in April. "People are spending less, but we need to concentrate and focus on the customer." Catering to a highly specific stratum of tastemakers and aspirational teens means there is a more subtly-honed profit plan at work. There's everything from boutique brands, such as Vanessa Bruno Athé to Dr Martens and own-brand jewellery for under £10," continues Jenny Dickinson. "It's a lifestyle too – customers can feel as though shopping here makes a statement about who they are. You can see that the brand stands out in terms of its strong in-store aesthetics."

It helps too that this identity chimes perfectly with the Americana zeitgeist in a grungy, "downtown New York"-cum-"Seattle sound" vein. "At the moment our cropped fisherman's jumper, metal-tipped collar shirt dress and collarless tunic shirt are blowing out for us," adds Becki Clark. "We'd love to have a crystal ball."

But while the future of retail may seem uncertain, Urban Outfitters doesn't need to stargaze; it has a bright future, despite its vintage personality.