For those who lament the loss of the “authentic” Williamsburg (the one that existed for a very special month sometime between 2000 and 2005, when everything was cool and scrappy and corporations were still to scared to touch it) the final nail in the coffin has got to be the new four-story Urban Outfitters on North 6th between Berry and Wythe.
But it was inevitable. Urban Outfitters trades on the perception of being very “with” the scene. It’s a place where 16 to 29-year-olds go when they want to get something that feels underground, offbeat, and insouciant, but don’t know anyone or anything underground. It’s an easy entreé to being cool, without the work of seeking out local designers, finding small boutiques, or making original style decisions for yourself.
“Our customer is from traditional homes and advantage, but this offers them the benefit of rebellion … Although they deem themselves worldly, they believe the way they see things personally is the correct way and everyone else feels exactly the same way.” – How Urban Outfitters describes their clientele
So naturally, Urban Outfitters’ next outpost would be in Williamsburg, which has likewise become a layover to Cool Town. There’s no longer any danger of being mugged, there are enough restaurants and coffee shops on every block so that you never have to suffer the indignity of schlepping out of the neighborhood for a latté, and it’s as close to Manhattan as you can be without actually being in Manhattan–literally, one stop away from the island, three from Union Square. (It’s also only five stops from the Warehouses and galleries in Bushwick, if you need to indulge in the true underground scene.) Yet, so far, it has still managed to retain a lot of the flavor that people love about it, with thriving vintage stores, farm-to-table restaurants, weekend markets, bars and clubs that are all locally owned. That’s seems to be changing, though, with a Dunkin’ Donuts–clad in brown-painted wood in a nod to the neighborhood’s aesthetic–greeting you right as you emerge from the Bedford subway station. Urban Outfitters investing so heavily in the neighborhood seems to indicate that all the creatives that built this neighborhood up will soon have to forfeit their leases to Starbucks and Tory Burch, and move on.
That fact in itself–the corporate co-opting of a culture that was carved out of urban grime by true artists who have since been pushed out–is enough for many to hate on the store. Sorry, “retail concept.” But I have other reasons to intensely dislike Urban Outfitters, besides just hipster-ish cooler-than-thou angst. Even though Urban Outfitters sells mostly to women, they only have one woman on the otherwise all-white, all-male board that they added after intense pressure–and she’s the CEO’s wife. They have a long, rich history of ripping off small artists and designers. They sell t-shirts emblazoned with just generally shitty slogans, phrases and images. Their CEO is really, really right wing. And they are an excellent example of fast-fashion culture, selling cheap, throwaway apparel and accessories that find themselves in the Goodwill bin after only a season or two, if they stay in one piece for that long. Basically, Urban Outfitters is everything wrong with the fashion world.
Or is it? Because as the store opening approached, many of my favorite designers and makers were sharing their excitement in being featured in the locally-made section of the store. How could I deny them their success? So, I decided to pay the store a visit on Saturday and see for myself.
You Have No Power Over Me!
As we walked from Smorgasburg to the store, we passed several slick, new designer boutiques that looked more in place in Meatpacking than in Williamsburg. Then, we reached the Urban Outfitters store, which blended right in. I would have missed it if I hadn’t known that they are officially calling it Space Ninety8. The placement of Urban Outfitters below this large sign, in the same size and font as The Gorbals, Top Deck and Gallery 98, seems to say that Urban Outfitters is just one of several cool stores, and art gallery and a restaurant inhabiting the space. It certainly isn’t one giant store, no, no, no. There is even socially-conscious graffiti painted on the brick front.
The clever design of the story establishes a story line when you walk in: “We are hip, local, conscious people.” Right inside the door, the first thing you’ll see is a small area on the left stocked with local makers, like Meow Meow Tweet, S.W. Basics, Cold Picnic, Species by the Thousands, and many more. On the left, there’s an equally small area with conspicuously vintage and reworked items. It’s only when you keep going back into the space and spend some time digging tags out like I did, do you find the “Made in China” labels artfully interspersed with American-made, Etsy designers.
Of course, this support of small designers is not new for Urban; they regularly throw tiny makers into a frenzy by putting in orders for 500 of their hand-painted, hand-sewn, hand-carved, hand-poured items. But here, they make sure you know that these are Brooklyn people, with labels for every one.
The design of the store itself is spot-on; my architect boyfriend was impressed. It looks as though they powerwashed the chipped tile on the pillars, laid down some unfinished wood flooring, and then decorated it like an especially attractive warehouse party, with nooks and crannies and rooms that beg for lingering. (In fact, it’s not so different from Verboten, four blocks away.) When we walked down the warehouse-y, enclosed concrete staircase, we passed a line of people waiting for live-screenprinted bags and t-shirts by Adidas. Head up the stairs, and you emerge into a huge space reminiscent of an M.C. Escher painting, with staircases going this way and that. You really feel like you are in the process of discovery as you turn corners and climb up half-flights. Turn off the lights, and you could be at Sleep No More.
The Brooklyn-y design continues. There’s a section with a wall of records and record players, Polaroid cameras, and iPhone chargers so you can camp out for the day while you listen to music or read, before you head upstairs to the restaurant. “This actually looks really classy,” my boyfriend said as he peered in restaurant space. (It was closed when we visited at 1 p.m.) “It looks … grownup.”
We giggled over the raw-wood “brass” knuckles heaped in a basket. “In case I get raped,” my boyfriend said. “Artisinally raped,” I clarified. I mean, there was a lot of things in there ripe for parody. But I found myself falling for everything else. I wanted the Sabrina Tach cowhide bucket purse. I pictured the Kilim throw pillows on my own white couch. I found a crop top that I held up to myself before ashamedly putting it back on the rack. I mean, this is a whole other level of taste from the Urban Outfitters in Manhattan.
I stood in the middle of the second floor, taking it all in, feeling overwhelmed, fighting with myself. “You have no power over me!” I wanted to say to the perfect decor, racks on racks of clothing, music playing at a pleasurable volume that I enjoyed yet didn’t recognize. (How do I not know this song and Urban does?) “I’m exhausted from living up to your expectations,” this Urban Outfitters store says. “I ask for so little. Just let me rule you, and you can have everything you want.”
I’m reminded that the one thing I own from Urban Outfitters (now in the throwaway pile after it broke for the 12th time) is a brass and leather necklace that I got complimented on constantly from the unlikeliest sources: a fashion designer at a pop-up show in Harlem, an artist at a warehouse party in Bushwick. It could have been made in China, but it sure did pass for true style.
I admit it. They did a good job with the store. The only indication that it is owned by a corporation is the sheer size of it. Local talent couldn’t come up with the millions it took to buy and renovate this space. Otherwise, you would think that it’s just a well-curated collection by a boyfriend-girlfriend duo who spends their weekends hopping from Egg, to their friend’s rooftop, to an art gallery in Chinatown, to an afters in Bushwick.
I find myself in a situation yet again where I have to make a decision between supporting the small steps a corporation is making to do things more consciously, and turning my back and saying, “It’s not enough, you’re still an unethical company.” And now that I’m moving to Williamsburg this summer, I’m also in that weird space where I keep asking myself: “Am I the gentrifier?” I mean, I’m not an investment banker, nor a drunk college student demanding the DJ play Blurred Lines at The Woods. But I’m also not a starving artist, and I’m definitely not a minority.
These are the life questions Urban Outfitters is prompting me to ask myself.
So fine, I could see myself shopping there in very specific situations, like if I’m looking for something in particular and I need to get it today, and don’t have time to online shop or visit five different stores. But I’ll definitely check the labels on everything before I buy, because there’s a lot of crap in that store sitting right next to the gems.
Huh. It really could be that I’m everything that is wrong with fashion in America. And Williamsburg, too.
What do you think of this new Urban Outfitters store? Would you shop there?