Shop Talk: Urban’s Legend

Confession: I love Urban Outfitters. And, for that matter, its sister stores, Anthropologie and Free People.

I realize it’s Style Blasphemy to admit this. Everyone shops at those places, but no one talks about it, since those stores are chains, and proclaiming you love them is akin to saying “I love Cosi” or “Au Bon Pain rules!” It’s like admitting that there’s nothing unique about your taste, that you are the same as everyone else. Part of the masses. Which is precisely the opposite of what you were trying to convey by shopping Urban Outfitters, Inc.’s stores in the first place.

There are, admittedly, more than a few good reasons to hate Urban Outfitters, Inc. The sales staff are cuter than you, and they are, as you suspect, silently judging you. The merchandise is often scandalously overpriced, and the company is nakedly manipulative. (Worst of all, it all totally works: A bowl or lamp I would completely dismiss at TJ Maxx I might purchase at Anthropologie for three times the price, because I want the kind of life that goes with it. An embroidered sweater I might sneer at in Daffy’s looks crafty and whimsical against the background of the King of Prussia Free People, and I imagine that in wearing it, I will transform into the kind of person who bakes cookies and makes homemade soap, and then I never do.) To say nothing of the fact that Urban Outfitters, Inc. squeezes out mom-and-pop boutiques and has a seedy reputation for ripping off independent designers. But the flip side of being manipulated is that sometimes, the company seems to read your mind: An outfit will appear on its racks, as a friend of mine marveled recently, “that you thought you made up in your head.” Even in New York, with its embarrassment of shopping, I’ve found exactly what I’ve been looking for at Anthropologie. And for Philadelphians, especially, it’s okay to love Urban Outfitters. Here are five reasons why you should allow them to enable you:

1. Urban Outfitters is good for Philly’s economy. Of the close to 900 people Urban employs in the area, almost half live in the city. The company has a strong record of retaining recent graduates from area universities. And Urban’s cache of young, creative employees is perhaps more valuable to the city than your average salary-workers: Anecdotal evidence shows that hipsters are like spiders — they might look a little strange, but they’re good for us. Pharmaceutical sales reps may contribute to the local economy by patronizing Avram Hornik establishments, but the people who are drawn to Urban Outfitters’ shabby-hip aesthetic spend their paychecks keeping authentic Philly institutions — like Bonk’s in Port Richmond and Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar in South Philly — in business. They also participate in their own kind of “urban renewal.” “There’s practically an Urban colony in Fishtown,” says Laura O’Connor, a former merchandise manager. “There’s a whole bunch of people that all bought houses there.” Even creative people who don’t work directly for the company experience its largesse. Music promotions coordinator Dryw Scully almost always includes little Philadelphia bands — like Adam Arcuragi — on company playlists (played nationally in the 96-and-counting stores) and compilations. And then there are the one-off projects assigned to local artists. “There are so many people in and around Philadelphia who can pay their rent because they are doing a special project for Urban Outfitters,” says O’Connor.

2. It has saved countless quirky teenagers from the monotony of the Gap. Even though Urban Outfitters is expanding, it has retained a good bit of its uniqueness, partly because its employees are former fans. “Urban was a real beacon of hope when I was young,” says one ex-employee. “Hope that there was style to be found out there, and that there was some sort of community for people like me.”

3. They’ve got that Philly attitude. In case you think this love letter is about sucking up to advertisers, think again. The company doesn’t advertise, and it doesn’t really play nice to the media, even when it seems like it should. “Their job is not to know what I find offensive or what you find offensive,” CEO Richard Hayne told an AP reporter of the designers behind Urban’s hot-selling 2006 gun-shaped Christmas ornament. “Their job is to know what the 21-year-old female finds enjoyable” — like the “Ghettopoly” board game that caused an uproar in 2003, and the “Voting Is For Old People” t-shirts that riled political groups in 2004. Urban’s blasé attitude about offending stuffy old-heads simply makes the company look cool to its constituents — and to its shareholders.

4. Richard Hayne. The Urban founder and CEO’s $13,000-plus donation to the coffers of Rick Santorum and short-lived marriage to saintly environmentalist Judy Wicks have made him and the company an easy target for those looking to build a morality tale about a lil’ liberal store that greed and ambition turned into a corporation fronted by a bigot. But Hayne is smarter and more complicated than his detractors make him sound. He’s also kind of weirdly endearing: He drives a hybrid, knows the names of all the dogs his employees bring to work with them at Urban’s spiffy new digs at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and totes organic produce he grows himself to the office for his employees. As for his Santorum contribution: “I don’t like paying taxes — is that a sin?” he asks. Lest this seem unseemly for someone listed at number 562 on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people to say, it’s more like libertarianism than miserliness. “I like small government,” Hayne said.

5. In a word: shoes. Have you seen the basement at Anthropologie? Jesus. (Hint: The staff at the Walnut Street Anthropologie does markdowns Tuesdays; go then).