People in fashion: Urban warrior

The man behind US store Urban Outfitters is nothing like his hip young customers. He's more like their dads. But he certainly knows what they want, says James Sherwood
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When Urban Outfitters opened their first UK outlet in June 1998, The Face called Urban chairman Dick Hayne "the Lord Lucan of fashion retail". Had Hayne himself disappeared under shady circumstances and been on the run for decades, he couldn't appear more tight-lipped. We are in the office bunkers below Urban Outfitters' three-storey, 6,500 sq ft store on Kensington High Street. Bar a wall of hastily improvised mood boards cut from magazines, the room is bare. You get the feeling DCI Tennyson is grilling a prime suspect next door.

The middle-aged man in a crisp, white shirt and classic jeans is light years away from the kids upstairs shopping for Maharishi camouflage hip holsters, Mickey Brazil combats or G Star denim.

Urban Outfitters isn't a store. It is a grab-bag of Nineties pop culture, packaged as part art installation, part urban cool coffee bar and part DJ booth (there are turnstiles and CD decks for customers to listen to music on). Urban Outfitters doesn't look contrived. It's not trying too hard and it has been welcomed to Kensington High Street like a long lost university drinking partner who's been living stateside for a while. This is Dick Hayne's brainchild, but it's hard to make the connection between the chairman and the hip kid in the Russell Athletic sweat top weekend shopping for Conscious Earthwear.

"Do I have to identify with the customer? No, I'm 50," says Hayne. "I'm off their radar screen now. I could be in a room with the kids and I would be literally invisible to them. My generation makes them uncomfortable if I become visible. The Urban Outfitters customer is at that date-and mate stage. They wouldn't want their parents around and I can understand that. I don't have to identify but I do have to understand what they want."

There is wisdom in Hayne's anonymity as the co-founder and president of Urban Outfitters. Unlike Calvin Klein, he is not a perma-tanned Peter Pan, living the dream he is selling. Hayne is not selling a dream. He has identified what he calls, "the upscale homeless" generation, and he has built an empire of 31 Urban Outfitters stores supplying their demands.

Empire-builder is too pompous a title for Dick Hayne. He doesn't make with the usual corporate spiel of a grey suit hiding behind a "retail concept". "The upscale homeless are a group of people who leave home to go to college," he says. "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."

Bullseye. The target customers of Urban Outfitters, whether in New York or London, are the hardest people to please. Their bullshit detectors are on full power. Hayne doesn't sell a lifestyle. He works from it. "If the product doesn't appeal, then it won't wash," says Hayne. "That's why I have buyers who are much closer to the customer than I am. I don't believe in the pyramid concept of a company, with me at the top making all the decisions. The buyers understand our market because they are living that life. I don't make that call on whether to drop a label if it gets too commercial. That decision belongs to the buyers."

The decision to open Urban Outfitters in London is the culmination of three years' research. It is the first strike in an estimated six further UK Urban outlets and strategic openings in other European cities. Hayne says, "I don't believe you can totally transfer Urban merchandise from the US to the UK. There are basics that may transfer, but it evened out that about 65 per cent of the merchandise for London had to be sourced locally. That's the way to bring Urban to Europe."

Hayne's backstage role in Urban doesn't necessarily mean hands-off. The essential concept - that each Urban store had to have autonomy - is very much his. "We don't want a faceless chain like The Gap," he says. "But neither do we want Disney World fantasies/stores that try to transport you to another world, like Banana Republic trying to create the illusion you are on the Serengeti Plains. Are people really that shallow to be fooled? I don't think so. The customers won't buy it. The concept behind the Kensington High Street store was to strip away the layers. Your Mom and Dad's house is perfect. You don't want that. You want something more honest." The open plan store, designed by Ron Pompeii with input from Dick Hayne, is rough around the edges. Concrete, original brick walls and steel girders are exposed. It subtly touches a raw urban nerve. It whispers reality check. Hayne simply says, "People appreciate a more direct approach."

He may be a master of understatement. He may be reticent about taking all the credit for creating something genuinely new on the British high street. He may even underestimate how in tune he is with the Urban Outfitters kids shopping voraciously upstairs. But Dick Hayne has an attitude that would make him welcome in laid back Soho sofa bars, Old Street art galleries or Monday nights at The Blue Note.