Sushi Staplers to Matryoshka Measuring Cups; An Adventure through Urban Outfitter’s Design Sensibilities

The rate of inventory turnover at Urban Outfitters is about as quick as any fast food chain. Therefore, it can sometimes difficult to comment on the product’s design sensibilities. But the store’s ever-changing nature is indicative of its entire approach to design. Urban Outfitters store sells mid-range priced apparel, home wares, books and music to trendy, middle class, young adults. Urban Outfitters is the epitome of post-modernism. Though it offers an almost unlimited choice of styles and products, certain characteristics are constant in everything the store sells.

On its website, Urban Outfitters is explicit about its desire to “understand our customers and connect with them on an emotional level” so that that “the customer feels an empathetic connection to the brand and is persuaded to buy.” The store’s objects are designed to engender a sense of empathy on behalf of its consumer base by creating nostalgia for decades as recent as the 1990s with t-shirts adorned with images from 90s cartoons, lego accessories and photo books of 90’s album covers. Humor, unqualified referencing, re-appropriation and pastiche are all running threads through the store’s product line, all of which appeal to their target market.

The merchandise changes because the customer base also changes as Urban Outfitters are always targeting the same 18-25 demographic. The store is an embodiment of the ‘early adopter’ consumer. It is fickle; it embraces trends quickly, and then drops them as soon as sales begin to dwindle. In this regard, objects are trendy, go in and out of fashion and are seen as disposable. The store will fully adopt whatever motif popular at the time. For some strange reason, this month’s motif seems to be owls. (More about the owls later.)

As expected, the Urban Outfitters apparel department is subject to this ever-spinning circle of fashion more than any other area. Along with the most cutting edge trends; currently chunky knits, native American motifs and metallic ‘jeggings’, customers can find almost anything; from floral dresses, to Led Zeppelin t-shirts, to cowboy boots and everything else in between. The store re-appropriates older fashions trends and regurgitates them with a winking inauthenticity in the name irony, retro appeal or faux bohemian sensibility. Vintage styling is popular, but a lot of new clothes are simply given the look of vintage, with faded t-shirts and jeans particularly popular. Clothing is often paired in strange or unusual ways, with a mannequin in a sequined 1920s flapper dress and a motorcycle jacket – equal parts Joan Crawford and James Dean.

There are entire sections within the store that can only be classified as miscellaneous, the kinds of objects you might find in a gadget store designed for middleclass young adults. Objects here range from anything from mp3 players to stationery or photo albums. Every part of the globe is showcased in strange ways from sushi staplers to represent Japan and matryoshka measuring cups representing Russia. (I have no idea if the constant alliteration is intentional but I suspect it’s only a coincidence.) The gadgets are often witty and lighthearted, and often play with scale like the stag’s head or toothbrush. There are also owl stashboxes, owl ornaments, wooden owl frames, knit owl wine bottle cosy, owl lanterns, owl umbrella stand and owl cookie cutters for the owl lover that (clearly!) must reside in all of us.

In the gadget section, analogue is king. The store is decorated with Lamography products such as the Holga and Diana cameras and Polaroid pictures. Even if the object itself is technologically advanced, it is still disgusted as analogue, such as the mp3 player designed to look like a tape player. This nostalgia for such a recent past is unusual but is part of Urban Outfitters desire to form an emotional connection between their products their 18-30 target market.

Urban Outfitters have re-skinned and consumed a number of underground movements and long-expired subcultures – cowboys, pirates, punk and white trash to create a number of consumer items. Every reference is for the taking, to be altered and sold. Among a pile of objects, I found both an Anna Sui faux-Victorian hairbrush and plasters designed with 60s pop art patterns with Internet slang like ‘LOL’ and ‘WTF ; )’.

Urban Outfitters often receives complaints from different community groups, using by keffiyehs as fashion accessories and selling ‘Dress Up Jesus’ fridge magnets, offending the Jewish and Catholic community, respectively. But despite these few controversies, most would argue that Urban Outfitters has lost its edge and become more suburban than urban. There are expletives, like slut, pimp and bitch, on everything from plasters to plates but this feels more desperate than edgy, though this is perhaps because I am leaving their target demographic.

Downstairs in the home wares section, John Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland illustrations from the late 19th Century on plates sit on the table next to the same plates covered in wacky bright contemporary illustrations. (The illustrations are mostly of owls, of course) I’m sure design purists would be disgusted at the unusual pairing, but there is no disjuncture here because nothing makes sense alongside anything else. That’s the whole point.

In Urban Outfitters, The Simpsons, Family Guy and beyond, from the self-referential to references within references, our relationship to original sources is being obscured and slowly diluted. Many designers, design critics and visual historians are concerned but I suspect the vast majority have either not noticed or don’t care. I am not of the mindset that Urban are bastardizing these objects or find these amalgamations offensive. If anything, they are what make Urban Outfitters so quintessentially post-modern. It is the strength of a young adult growing up in a media and image saturated world that the majority can look at an object and instantly grasp, or at least filter through, all the simultaneous references within it.

Urban Outfitters understands the youth market; it knows that no twenty year old is looking for a teapot or t-shirt to last them a lifetime. Despite some increased environmental awareness, younger generations will always want trendy, disposable items. Even though I have almost left their target age group, I can’t help but love browsing through Urban Outfitter’s haven of sillyness because above all, it’s extremely fun.


1 Response to “Sushi Staplers to Matryoshka Measuring Cups; An Adventure through Urban Outfitter’s Design Sensibilities”

  1. 1 clicksey January 29, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    Really enjoyed reading this Anna, as usual it’s very well written.
    I like the idea that you brought up that we’re the ones getting old, as opposed to the merchandise that UO is selling.

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