Bright Sparks: Urban Outfitters

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Urban Outfitters may have been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, but it's still 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' presence and personality, despite the recent departure of its CEO and having its share of the difficulties many in the retail sector are experiencing. 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 off-the-wall 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 that you don't find in other stores – 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 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. Shares in the company fell when CEO Glen Senk left the company, but they were soon rising again, in defiance of the stock market freefall.

And against a backdrop of bankruptcies and closures, Urban Outfitters last year announced the opening of nine new stores across Europe, with four UK openings before Christmas, a Berlin branch this month and Nottingham and Norwich outposts slated for the spring.

"It may sound illogical to enter one of the most competitive retail markets in the world at a time when consumers simply aren't spending," says Natalie Berg, an analyst at Planet Retail, of the chain's expansion into Europe, "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 to the UK market. 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 North America, with a 2012 sensibility, 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 in our customers, and you've got a truly 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 the sort of personality-driven shopping that reluctant consumers seem to go mad for.

It's a lesson learned from the store's origins in Philadelphia, where the original "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 store in Philadelphia (the first European branch opened on London's Regent Street in 2009), designed to cater to a more mature customer along the same characteristically 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, acting editor of Elle magazine, "but I think this current 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."

Despite the regularity of stock rotation and almost constant drops of new products, 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 in each store's offer. 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, part of a much bigger seasonal selection and therefore less recognisable.

"When the economy is challenging, it is the best time to grow," Senk told The Independent last April. "People are spending less, but we need to concentrate and focus on the customer." Catering to a highly specific stratum of trend-aware tastemakers and aspirational teens means, rather than the usual high street scatter-gun approach, 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 do any of the stargazing that many other brands might; it has a bright future ahead of it, despite its vintage personality.

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

    £45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

    Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

    £60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

    Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

    £50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

    Java Developer - 1 year contract

    £350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone