There is, perhaps, no more efficient way to remind yourself that you are no longer 22 than to walk the aisles of Urban Outfitters. For the postcollegiate slackerati it is a mecca of precisely modulated urban hipster cool, a time-warp thrift store aesthetic filtered through a retrograde prism of detached irony and kitsch--proof positive of the fashion adage that everything, no matter how uncool, comes back into style eventually. This is readily apparent to anyone old enough to remember when most of these styles were cool for the first time. Rule of thumb: It takes only 20 years to rehabilitate even the most heinous fashion travesty back into must-have chic.
As of last week, Urban Outfitters was rocking a late '70s, early '80s zeitgeist--somewhere between the feathered hair Camaro summer of That '70s Show and the New Wave striped shirt Martha Quinn-ness of early MTV.
There are the straight-out-of-the-time-capsule T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like "Jive Turkey," "Death Before Disco" and "Atari." There are the old-school Pumas, Adidas and Tigers in a dozen shades of retro. There are kitschy toys like Mr. Potatohead and Bubble Monkey, Run-D.M.C. action figures and the DeLorean time machine car from Back to the Future--some assembly required.
There are de rigueur fashion accessories like mesh-back Pabst Blue Ribbon trucker caps, bucket hats, chrome-studded belts and thick leather wristbands. For the boys, there are $69 distressed low-rider denim flares and button-down summer shirts last seen on Greg Brady.
For the girls, there are Dr. Scholl's slides, MIA since the Carter administration. There are bright-colored tank tops with white trash nudge-and-wink slogans like "JUGTOWN PENNSYLVANIA" and "FRENCH LICK INDIANA." There are floppy '70s-style halter tops, '80s cropped parachute pants and Muppets panties emblazoned with the visages of Kermit and Miss Piggy.
The interior of the flagship store at 17th and Walnut streets is stylized to evoke what can only be described as janitorial chic: exposed brick, scraped plaster walls and low-hanging ventilation ducts. Everything is illuminated by the soft glow of warehouse loft light fixtures. All the merchandise is displayed against pegboard backdrops faintly reminiscent of ye olde family rec room or dad's workshop. And piped in over the sound system is the jarring electro clatter of Peanut Butter Wolf's oh-so-appropriately titled album Badmeaningood.
YET DESPITE ITS SLACKER AURA and carefully calibrated antiestablishmentarian cachet, Urban Outfitters Inc. is in fact a very Establishment, hypercapitalist multinational retail concern with 51 stores in North America and flagship locations in London, Dublin and Glasgow.
Urban Outfitters also owns and operates 40 Anthropologie stores (the 41st store opens this Friday), which peddle a variety of upscale apparel and housewares to women aged 30 to 45. The company also markets a wholesale line of housewares and apparel called Free People to approximately 1,100 retail clients.
In fiscal year 2003, a year when most retailers' bottom lines crapped out, Urban Outfitters opened 13 new stores and posted a company record of $423 million in sales--with net profits jumping up a whopping 83 percent over the previous year to $27.4 million.
But the difference between stage-crafted storefront image and corporate reality doesn't end there. It extends all the way to the top, to the man who built the company from scratch--Richard Hayne, Urban Outfitters' president and founder.
While the typical Urban Outfitters shopper is likely to be liberal-minded--as is the province and privilege of youth--the fiftysomething Hayne is mom-and-apple-pie conservative. He and his wife Margaret have contributed $13,150 to the campaign coffers of Paleolithic right-wing Republican Sen. Rick Santorum and his Political Action Committee over the years.
Hayne, who would prefer this fact not appear in this story, did not always tilt hard to the right. In fact, he and the retail concern he founded came of age in the heady, longhaired lefty crucible of the '60s. Back then he was vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War, the Nixon administration that perpetrated it and the big business military-industrial complex that financed it.
The times, however, have a-changed.
"Hi, this is Judy in the woods," says the voice on the answering machine at the Poconos summer home of Judy Wicks, owner and operator of the White Dog Cafe, a homey restaurant/bar in University City, and of the adjoining artsy gift shop called the Black Cat. Wicks is a prominent local businesswoman and a diehard liberal activist. She's also the co-founder of Urban Outfitters and the former wife of Richard Hayne.
Judy met Dick back in the fifth grade in Ingomar, Pa., a sleepy hamlet just north of Pittsburgh. Judy was taken by Dick's prowess on the softball diamond, and the two soon became grade school sweethearts. But by the seventh grade their puppy love romance, such as it was, had petered out.
The years passed, and eventually Judy left for Lake Erie College in Ohio, while Dick enrolled at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., where he studied anthropology.
But the two never lost touch, running into each other back home over holidays. When the Summer of Love flowered in 1967, the romance rekindled. And two years later, after graduating from college, with the Vietnam War reaching the zenith of its brutal pointlessness and student opposition swelling, they were married in the woods behind Judy's house.
The war--and maybe a little Dylan and marijuana--radicalized Dick and Judy, liberating them from the stifling '50s orthodoxy into which they were born.
"Dick really rebelled against authority," Wicks recalls. "He was the first one to grow long hair in my town. He was the first one to speak out against the status quo and say, 'Hey, [the war] is wrong.' That was one of the reasons why I admired him."
Looking to do something to affect social change--and well aware that Dick's deferred draft status ended with his graduation--the newlyweds joined VISTA, the domestic volunteer program.
The two soon found themselves stationed in Chefornak, Alaska, building houses and teaching Eskimos how to speak English. The 10 months the couple spent in Alaska were as hard as they were rewarding. The temperature typically hovered around 30 degrees below zero, not counting the wind chill factor, and even though the shack they shared was oil-heated, it was still cold enough inside to freeze the water in the dog's bowl.
"You opened the door at night and it was just solid white," says Wicks. "The snow had drifted over the top of your cabin and you had to dig your way out."
Bathing was a rare and shiver-inducing luxury. The only entertainment was the Russian radio broadcasts and the one Elvis record they had in the shack--both of which were limited to the two hours a day of rationed, generator-powered electricity. They subsisted on seal meat, canned goods and shipments of frozen steaks.
After 10 months Dick and Judy's tour of duty came to a premature end when the state pulled the plug on Alaska's VISTA program. The state was in the process of settling land rights disputes with the native population--which had great difficulty grasping the completely foreign concept of "owning" land--and didn't much appreciate a bunch of smart-aleck longhaired college kids clueing them in to the legal ramifications of the state's land grab.
In 1970 Dick and Judy headed back to Ingomar with a combined $3,000 in VISTA stipends to their names. Then came the day Dick's old college roommate, Scott Belair, came to visit, and over beers they discussed they should do next.
Dick and Judy told him they were thinking about starting a store of some kind. Belair, who was enrolled at Wharton, told them that they should come to Philadelphia. Belair had a class in entrepreneurism the next semester and said he could get course credit while helping out with the business end of things. Belair threw $1,500 into the pot, and the deal was struck.
That fall Dick and Judy loaded up their Volvo station wagon and moved to Philadelphia. They opened their store at 4307 Locust St. in University City, right next door to Koch's Deli. In the spirit of the times, they named it the Free People's Store and hung a sign out front that was shaped liked a peace dove.
Free People's Store became a general store for students, offering affordable yet fashionable clothes and assorted bohemian bric-a-brac. The store was also a locus for various causes and events.
Though money was tight, Dick and Judy compensated with ingenuity and sacrifice. They lived in the back room of the store, showering at friends' houses.
They would go to Chinatown on garbage day, trashpick the wooden produce crates, clean them up, paint them and make shelving out of them. The huge wooden spools the power company used to coil cables served as tables. A local ragman who typically sold clothing by the ton took pity on these broke hippie kids and sold them clothes by the pound.
They would buy cheap men's undershirts and dye them various colors or drive up to New York and load up on cut-rate Asian imports--incense burners and Madras bedspreads. Students moving out would donate clothes, leaving them on the store's front step.
For those who couldn't even afford Free People's bargain-basement prices, there was a "free bin." A pair of old-fashioned men's long johns hung on the door, and during store hours the rear flap would be unbuttoned to display a sign that read "OPEN."
"We were very anti-business, and we felt that big business was the root of the Vietnam War," says Wicks. "Our philosophy was to simply make enough to live on modestly, but we wouldn't accumulate wealth."
While the store thrived in its first year of business, Dick and Judy's marriage did not, and by 1971 they went their separate ways. Judy went on to open the highly successful White Dog Cafe, where she would host and coordinate countless social and community activist campaigns, while Dick went on to build the Urban Outfitters empire out of the humble beginnings of Free People.
As of press time, his personal wealth was estimated to be in excess of $230 million.
Dick Hayne hates when journalists write stories that compare and contrast the divergent paths he and his former wife have taken--how she's stayed true to the liberal idealism of their youth while he's morphed into a conservative capitalist entrepreneur. But to write it any other way would be disingenuous.
"Judy has so integrated her politics into her business, and God bless her, but that's not what we are about," says Hayne, sitting at a conference table at the Urban Outfitters corporate headquarters just off Rittenhouse Square.
"We are about giving 3,600 people a job and an opportunity for advancement, a chance to live their lives as they see fit. Somewhere that became viewed as somehow wrong. But the fact is Judy was involved in the store for a year and a half 33 years ago. Let's get over it. She has her life and I've got mine. I spent 31 and a half years developing this company when she wasn't around."
Furthermore, Hayne says, he never considered himself a hippie, even back when he had long hair and openly protested the Vietnam War. "I would never and did not ever characterize myself as a hippie," he says firmly. "But it is fair to say we were influenced by the fashion of the times. So if having long hair is equated with hippiedom, then one could make that mistake. But I never called myself a 'hippie.'"
He does, though, acknowledge the fact that the political script has flipped. "[Calling the store Free People] seemed very appropriate for the time--it was a very political time," he says. "It had a political connotation at the time, and it probably almost has the exact opposite political connotation it has now ... The connotation in 1970 was about the lifestyle of that generation, and the connotation today is much more American flag."
He's talking about "free" in the capital-D democracy sense of the word, as well as free in the unregulated market sense of the word. Over the course of a two-hour interview with PW, he repeatedly conjures up the specter of Joseph Stalin as if he were somehow still a threat to the American way. As if to answer the unasked question of which side Urban Outfitters is on, a large American flag hangs front and center in the lobby of Urban Outfitters' corporate headquarters.
As a young man, Dick Hayne's politics were motivated by the us-vs.-them dynamic of his opposition to Vietnam. The day the war ended, he lost that motivation. "[The war] had been incredibly divisive, and there was just this amazing change of mood," he says. "People wanted to forget about it. The name 'Free People' had some political connotations, and they were growing tired. They were quickly becoming out of fashion. It happened to be the time when we were just putting together the deal to move to a much larger space and felt that, in conjunction with that, we should change our name."
In 1975 the Free People's Store became Urban Outfitters and moved into a massive 20,000-square-foot warehouse space at 4040 Locust St.--increasing the size of its selling floor 20 times over. It would be three years before Urban Outfitters could afford to stock enough inventory to fill up all that square footage. In 1979 Hayne was looking for new challenges when a vendor told him about a like-minded store on Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., that was in need of a little operating capital. "That was the understatement of the day--they were basically bankrupt," says Hayne. "We negotiated the purchase and got the lease."
Urban Outfitters was officially on the move.
Hayne focused his energy on the Cambridge store, and within a year it was trumping the Philadelphia location's impressive sales volume. In 1983 Urban Outfitters opened a second Philadelphia store at 1801 Walnut St., across from Rittenhouse Square.
In 1984 Hayne started his wholesale line, and with a hint of nostalgia he will only grudgingly cop to, named it Free People. By 1987 Urban Outfitters had stores in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.-- the "Amtrak Corridor," Hayne likes to call it.
In 1992 he launched a new store concept, Anthropologie, a nod to his college major, designed to appeal to female customers aging out of Urban Outfitters' 18- to 30-year-old target demographic. Hayne knew instinctively that Anthropologie's target audience was migrating to the suburbs, and so he opened the flagship store on the Main Line in Wayne.
The concept was a hit, but there was a brief setback when Hayne attempted to add apparel for thirtysomething men into the retail mix. "For a suburban man aged 30 to 40, hell is going clothing shopping on a Saturday afternoon," he says with a chuckle. "There are about 5,000 other things they would put on the list ahead of clothes shopping."
In 1993 Urban Outfitters went public, with Hayne holding onto 35 percent of the stock. To this day all his wealth is tied up in Urban Outfitters. Throughout the '90s, Urban Outfitters continued to open new stores at an aggressive pace--Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Tucson, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Miami Beach and a host of smaller markets in between.
In 1998 Hayne imported the Urban Outfitters concept to London, with stores in Dublin and Glasgow following close behind. Over the last five years the company's net sales have grown 20 percent per year, from $210 million to $423 million. During that time period shareholder equity has more than doubled.
Over the course of Urban Outfitters' rise to market dominance, Hayne has bled all the politics, left-wing or otherwise, out of his business dealings. "As a company, we don't contribute to any cause except noncontroversial things like a breast cancer walk," he says. "I don't know anybody who is for breast cancer."
Yet Hayne himself is an ardent Republican. He is a financial supporter of arch conservative Sen. Rick Santorum, whose recent comments about homosexuals equated gay sex with incest and bestiality.
When PW asks Hayne about his financial support of Santorum, he initially denies it. And when presented with a computer printout of Santorum's campaign donors from the Center for Responsive Politics website--which cites a $4,650 contribution from Urban Outfitters--he responds: "I'll have to look into this. I don't think this is right." In fact, he and his wife have contributed $13,150 to Santorum and Santorum's Political Action Committee over the years.
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.