Like Jack and his magic beanstalk, Urban Outfitters President Richard Hayne turned a few hippie beans into a hip $700 million retail empire.
Asked to clarify for the record whether he ever contributed to Santorum's reelection campaign, he counters, "I don't want to mislead you. Like many people, I have some affinity for Rick Santorum, and I have problems with some of his positions."
And where does Santorum's position on homosexuality fit in his comfort zone?
"I'm not going to comment on it," he says, irked. "I have my own opinion, but I am not going to share it. Our job as a business is not to promote a political agenda. That's not what we do. There are all kinds of political views held by my employees. Some would be horrified to learn that we contributed to Santorum's campaign, and others would be fine with it. We openly discuss and joke about our political differences."
While on the topic of uncomfortable questions, PW raises the other issue that dogs Urban Outfitters: the allegation the company relies on sweatshop labor to manufacture its apparel, generating its massive profit margin on the backs of the Third World poor. Check the labels on most of the clothing hanging in an Urban Outfitters store and you'll find that many say "MADE IN TURKEY," "MADE IN INDIA" or "MADE IN SRI LANKA."
Yes, says Hayne, nearly all of Urban Outfitters' apparel is manufactured in Third World sewing shops--just like nearly all of the clothing sold in this country. If Urban Outfitters relied on domestic union labor, says Hayne, most of his customers could not afford the price he would have to charge to turn a profit. All things being relative, he says, Urban Outfitters does not contract with any sewing shops that are overtly inhumane or exploitive.
"Years ago I visited one of the factories we work with in India, and there was 500 people standing in a line three people deep stretching around the building," he recalls. "I said to the foreman, 'What's going on?' He told me they were all applicants for the four positions they had open. I toured that facility and it was reasonably clean--for India. And it was reasonably well-lit--again, for India. And yes, it was mostly young women working there. But it is my understanding that the only other option those women had to feed their families was selling their bodies. So I don't want to hear people from the suburbs with their fat American stomachs telling people in other countries how to run their societies."
At this point--about two hours into the interview--Hayne pauses and, with barely contained irritation, says, "I guess I should have asked this before I agreed to this interview--what is your angle?"
The irony of Richard Hayne--the undisputed king of under-30 retail cool--is that there's nothing remotely hip about him. Nothing at all. With his loosely knotted yellow silk power tie and boardroom-blue dress shirt, he looks like a typical $1,000-a-plate Republican fundraiser attendee. An eyeglass case bulges nerdily in his breast pocket, his teeth are slightly crooked and a few thin strands of hair arc over a small constellation of moles mapping the northward advance of his forehead.
He is even-toned, courteous and articulate. Although he rarely makes direct eye contact when talking, Hayne projects a Dick Cheney-esque aura of no-nonsense gray flannel gravitas.
Like all niche retailers, Hayne's relationship with his customers is a sort of reverse Dorian Gray: He gets older and they stay the same age, eternally 18 to 26. He long ago gave up on trying to figure out what young people want to buy, turning over purchasing decisions to a cadre of hip, plugged-in twenty- and thirtysomethings who routinely crisscross the capitals of cool--New York, Los Angeles, London, Tokyo--in search of the new new thing.
"If you are fiftysome years old, as I am, and your job is to figure out what a 21-year-old woman wants to wear to attract a male, there is probably something wrong," he says. "She certainly doesn't want me to know what that is."
To maintain the company's fashion- forward edge, buyers are encouraged to fail. "If everything a buyer is putting in the store is selling, then they are not taking enough risks, they are not experimenting enough," says Hayne. "It's not rocket science. We just try to give our customers what they want: something to wear on a Friday night that will make the boys look at them--or the girls look at them. We have two rules: 'It's okay to fail' and 'Never look in the rearview mirror.'"
When Hayne says "we," he is essentially saying "I." He is the company president, after all. He's never had much reason to fear failure. The day he started what would become a $700 million retail colossus with just $4,500, a few high-minded ideals and a lot of hard work, Hayne stared failure in the eye, and failure blinked and moved on in search of easier prey. He's never had much use for looking in the rearview mirror, either.
Still, when PW was forcing him to march down memory lane, he recalled how seeing Dylan and Joan Baez perform in 1964 was a transformational experience. It opened his eyes to everything that was phony and uptight and unjust in the world--and made him want to change the world. And there is a part of him that believes he has done just that in his own small way. But as the hippie party of the '60s devolved into the post-Vietnam hangover of the '70s, it must have occurred to him that idealism--like the length of your hair or the cut of your clothes or rebellion itself--was nothing more than fashion. And fashion is a commodity to be bought and sold for a profit.
Jonathan Valania (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes frequently about the media and music for PW.
Additional research for this article by Sarah Watson.