For three weeks, I worked as a temporary employee for hipster chic clothing store Urban Outfitters.
Desperate for a job, I applied to just about every place of business in the area this summer. But, of all the places where I submitted my application, I never thought for a second that I would ever receive a call back from Urban Outfitters. I didn’t consider myself “hip” enough to work there.
In an online essay I stumbled upon today, Urban is accurately described as having a specific style. “A style that will fit anybody, but it is not for everybody. It has more to do with metropolitan hipsters, with action, with movement, with incontinence, brightness.”
On the application, inquiries about my education came second to off the wall questions like: “who are your main fashion influences?”
Everyone employed on the floor of UO wears high end fashion and are covered in tattoos. They are self described elitists, and if you don’t look like them, hang out with the “right” people, wear the “right” brands or listen to the same music as they do, you are not worth their time. I’m a recent college graduate without an income. My last clothing purchase was a graduation dress, before that, I don’t even have a guess. I choose my friends based on how they make me feel– the conversations we share, whether or not I feel I can trust them. I don’t have cable, I haven’t illegally downloaded music in over a year and I go to local cafes to get online. So, you do the math. I don’t fit in there.
But, there was a lot of dirty work to be done these last few weeks. Heavy lifting, many trips up and down the Freddy Kreuger movie reminiscent basement stairs, rack organization, keeping the store looking pristine clean– it was the kind of work that called for temps. The current staff didn’t want to get sweaty, mess up their hair, smear their green eyeshadow. They hired 30 people, even if we weren’t the Polaroid snapshot of what it means to be hip and we did the work for minimum wage.
The Ann Arbor Art Fairs bring in suburban folk from across the state. The local culture disappears during this time- you see fewer people with dreadlocks and purple hair and suddenly everywhere you look, there are colorful striped polo shirts and Wal-Mart shoppers riding Amigos. This middle class crowd likes to wander the streets and buy “art”– kitchen ware-like salad bowls and Biscotti jars, wiry jewelry, cheap sunglasses and T-shirts. There really isn’t a more perfect time for Urban Outfitters to have a huge sale.
Clearance items from UO locations from across the state, New York City and Santa Monica, California are shipped to the Ann Arbor store. A 60-foot-long tent is erected in the front of Urban and orange 50 percent off stickers are stuck to a majority of the store’s usual very expensive stock. In other words, the store is full of people all weekend.
Sometimes, during job interviews, the interviewer asks the interviewee about character strengths and weaknesses. Hands down, one of my best traits is my strong work ethic. This retail job was no exception. I showed up on time, did the best I could and before leaving my 8-hour shift for the day, I would always asked if there was anything else I could do to help. That’s probably why it was so insulting to be called “temp” (when there was a name tag on my chest) or to be continually ignored and waived off when attempting to make casual conversation with my co-workers. The pattern resumed as usual when I professionally inquired why I wasn’t paid (like everyone else) this past Thursday.
I spent three days badgering my supervisors, asking why I didn’t receive my paycheck via direct deposit this week and constantly pushing representatives at UO payroll. The problem was minor, an easy fix and one that shouldn’t have required so much headache. They have refused to pay me until next pay period. I’m lucky I have Phil to help feed me. If I didn’t, I don’t know what I would do.
I learned a lot about myself while working at Urban. 1.) Retail isn’t for me. 2.) I have some serious ethical issues pushing a capitalist agenda– I just can’t justify talking anyone into buying unnecessary stuff. Especially if it’s overpriced, like a T-shirt or pair of jeans from Urban Outfitters. We’re in the midst of a recession, people have families to feed, necessities that need to be paid for. People are told all day long to buy, buy, buy. Personal welfare comes first.
But, my Urban Outfitters education didn’t stop there. I realized how incredibly stupid the store’s sales model really is. Urban pays careful, special attention to the whole “hipster” culture. This includes all related youth subcultures: electronica & dance club raver types, those who enjoy experimental/crust punk/noise, hip hop heads (mashups), squatters, skateboarders, backpackers and whatever’s left of the indie rock, emo, goth, punk and metal head movements.
The vanguard hipster (never identifying, always hating the term) does not even consider buying clothes from the mall. They fall outside of the mainstream and therefore spend a lot of time digging through bins at thrift stores and boutiques, meticulously searching for unique pieces that help them to maintain their cultural aesthetic. The reason a vintage T-shirt from a thrift store is so great is because no one else has one like it.
Chains like Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and American Apparel cater to the people who think that they are hipsters or want to be hipsters. They study what the kids in Brooklyn are wearing, recreate the look and sell it back. No longer an “underground” movement, the average person wants to be able to easily cop the look without the work. They market “fake vintage” tees, pre-ripped jeans, shirts that come with the lettering ink pre faded.
In some cases, I think these companies have missed the point. They’re capitalizing on a look that has been created cheaply, intended to be interpreted as ironic. These people are trust fund kids living in the city, attending college/graduate schools and drinking $1 PBR. They don’t have a lot of money. They pay $5 for vintage Levis, not $125 on BDG’s.
Remember those shark embelemed, multi-flourescent colored T-shirts and Bermuda shorts from the late 80s? They were sometimes decorated with triangle patterns? I remember when I was pretty young occasionally seeing them on overweight dads during the summertime. Even back then I thought they were hideous. In 2008, some kid in a thrift shop somewhere probably had similar sentiments upon discovery and so he bought it for 35 cents. Hideous= ironic. Hideous ON PURPOSE.
I hung up several pair of Maui & Sons board shorts and many a T-shirt during my time Urban. Urban Outfitters clearly has made some sort of agreement with Maui & Sons, selling some of their “vintage” merchandise for a lot more than 35 cents. Try $25 on sale for a T-shirt, in the $50 range for the shorts sale price. In my opinion, it’s a little too much to pay for something that was inspired to be worn on the basis that it was ugly. But, people STILL BUY IT.
The store also profits on Generation Y’s fondness for nostalgia. Maybe it’s a longing for a time when things were more simple, or perhaps our commercials, TV shows and Mondo Juice played a bigger role in raising us than we all initially thought. You walk into Urban, you can buy replicas of the stuff you had when you were little: “My Little Pony” and “Back to the Future” T-shirts, Nintendo belt buckles, Where’s Waldo? books, Run DMC Action Figures and Rainbow barrettes. My childhood is being exploited.
We’re a consumer group that will never have enough kitsche. Our generation keeps buying up the empty authenticity, the economy remains stagnant and all the while, Urban Outfitters still makes a $548.4 Million profit per year. The fact that these marketers know us so well is something I find absolutely terrifying.