Jun 4, 2014
Urban Sprawl: On the Arrival of Urban Outfitters in Williamsburg
Gentrification almost always follows the same pattern: artists move into low-income and/or industrial neighborhoods in search of cheap studio space. At first, their presence leads to increased revenue for local businesses. Then the coffee shops and cocktail bars come, following their clientele. Rents begin to rise; developers get hip to what’s going on. Up go condominiums with glass windows and elevators in the lobby. Rents skyrocket, and the artists who catalyzed the change are forced to leave and start the whole cycle over again in another neighborhood.
Most laments about Williamsburg’s transformation from an artist enclave into whatever it is now ignore this history and context. The neighborhood is on its fourth or fifth post-makeover iteration. It was the beach the rest of the world stormed when suddenly they realized living in Brooklyn might be cool. It’s now the place where thirtysomething account executives live in waterfront high-rises, where soon they’ll be able to shop at Whole Foods and J. Crew, not to mention scores of luxury retail shops. It’s the place European tourists visit when they visit Brooklyn. Williamsburg isn’t where artists and hipsters live—it’s a simulacrum of a place artists and hipsters might live, where savvy businesses can make a buck commodifying that prestige. Is this a shame? Maybe, if you were living there and suddenly your rent tripled. Otherwise, it’s market capitalism per usual.
Into this maelstrom of anxiety and capital comes Space Ninety 8, the five-story Urban Outfitters concept store with a restaurant and vintage section that opened in April on N. 6th Street, next door to an American Apparel that was the object of much sturm und drang when it opened a few years ago. This time, local protests weren’t so vociferous. But Urban Outfitters is extending an olive branch, anyway, building a store that strives to reflect artisanal Brooklyn, as if to ward off concerns that it doesn’t belong. Space Ninety 8 is the Brooklyn version of Urban Outfitters’ first concept store, Space 15 Twenty, in Los Angeles. With both spaces, the company “wanted to create an experiential retail environment that showcased the talent and creativity of our brand,” says a company spokesperson. “We’ve always supported local and independent designers through a number of collaborations and pop-up events.”
Space Ninety 8 gives shoppers the familiar Urban Outfitters mix of trendy clothing, furniture, beauty products, vinyl, and hip tchotchkes. About 75 percent of it is just like any other Urban Outfitters: the women’s floor is Coachella chic, stocked with lace dresses and leather sandals, while the men’s presents the usual polychromatic explosion of acid wash overshirts, mesh sweaters in geometric prints, and Levi’s in various levels of distress.
But on the basement level, you’ll find a rotating, branded pop-up shop dubbed Gallery 98; it’s currently curated and sponsored by Adidas. There are two bars: one on the roof, where there’s a Secret Garden-themed deck, and another on the third floor inside The Gorbals, a restaurant from former Top Chef winner Ilan Hall. And on the first floor, customers walk into the Market Space, an area dedicated to local designers and vintage finds.
The Market Space is the most Brooklyn aspect of the store, and there’s nothing else like it in any other Urban Outfitters. The space is divided into separate retail zones—one is given to the company’s Urban Renewal line of vintage and one-of-a-kind remakes, and two others are “activity spaces” through which local retailers will rotate. Then there’s Local Made, a highly-curated, continuously-evolving shop-in-shop that features a collection of artisanal, bespoke objects, nestled into 700-square- feet at the front-left of the store. “Objects” includes jewelry, textiles, millinery, ceramics, leather, wood, paper, and glassworks purchased wholesale by Urban Outfitters from lesser-known Brooklyn artists and designers (although Market Space will also sell wares made by lesser-known artists and designers from other cities). The goal is to “discover and support emerging homegrown talent and engage the neighborhood in a collective creative community,” according to company literature. It’s as if Urban Outfitters organized a weekend at Brooklyn Flea.
Market Space was created and curated by Marissa Maximo, Urban Outfitters’ Director of Brand Relations and Special Projects (and an artist herself). Maximo personally sought out each brand, visiting trade shows and hunting down referrals. She also worked with each company individually on every aspect of their transaction, from invoicing to product, saving them the trouble of having to go through the usual corporate channels.
“I tried to do all personal visits,” Maximo told me, while giving me a tour of the shop during Space Ninety 8’s April launch party. “I wanted to make it as personal as possible. A lot of the designers haven’t shown before, and we want to give them a jumping-off point.”
According to Maximo, the artists and designers set their wholesale and retail prices, and Urban Outfitters purchased their products accordingly, with 100 percent of the wholesale proceeds going to the creators. Urban also absorbed shipping and credit card fees. “Urban Outfitters did not make their standard margin,” Maximo said.
It’s worth noting that many retailers who trade on the perception of hipness have been accused of ripping off aesthetics, and Urban Outfitters is no exception. (In 2012, the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters for trademark infringement over the “Navajo Hipster Panty” and “Navajo Flask” items.) Market Space’s setup seems to provide a remunerative platform for local designers and artists. Nowhere in the physical world would all these items be available had they not been hand-picked by Maximo, and the space indisputably raises the profile of the designers and thus confers much greater earning potential. At bottom, any designer, no matter how small, has that as a goal, if his or her career is to be self-sustaining.
I was heartened by the stories I heard from designers who were featured at the space. Nabil Samadani, whose SALT SURF line is featured in one of the “activity spaces” adjacent to Local Made, says working with Urban Outfitters has “far exceeded my expectations of what it would be like to work with such a big company.” He cites the “full creative reign” he was given. “There was very little steering or guidance in any direction of how to approach the whole project. There was a point where I wanted to drive a car into the space as a prop, and when I ran it by them, without much hesitation they started to help me brainstorm how we could make it happen.” Samadani was referred to Maximo by his friends and fellow Market Place participants, Simon Howell and Jessica Barensfeld. “It felt very organic,” Samadani says. “More like an introduction of one friend to another.”
Lila Rice Marshall, a metalsmith whose jewelry line, Lila Rice, is currently at Market Space, also says that her experience was “actually totally positive.” Maximo found Marshall at the Capsule New York Trade Show, and later arranged a visit to Marshall’s Brooklyn studio, where she explained Market Space’s concept. In the past, Marshall had sold her regular wholesale line to the higher price point “studio” section of Urban’s online store, and so she wasn’t worried about being ripped off—an experience she’s had with other corporate retailers. But she was sold on Space Ninety 8. “I went to the opening party and was really pleased with the space, the merchandising, the designers that were featured,” Marshall says. “Also, I was paid before delivery of product, which is a rarity these days!”
I also spoke with more than a dozen designers, jewelry-makers, and craftspeople whose products are not featured at the store. Most held no strong opinion about Space Ninety 8; the broad consensus was a sort-of capitalist take on the survivalist maxim that if you can’t beat them, join them—that any chance for small, local vendors to get increased exposure and sales without being ripped off is a net positive for the vendors.
“The arrangement sounds straightforward and standard,” said Eddie Enriquez, cofounder of Australian Scent, a skin care product line. “There’s no way I could get the foot traffic that Urban can. And I like that [Space Ninety 8] is rebranded, with a new name.”
Some designers were more skeptical, though. Ryan Greer handcrafts leather bags and accessories in Fort Greene as Flux Productions, “a small company which emphasizes care and craft rather than mass production,” according to his website. He acknowledges that Urban Outfitters’ arrangement with local designers “will be a good format for the creatives who are included and featured in the space, and it probably will help incubate and motivate some small designers.”
And, he added, “as a large company seeking to profit from a movement that is essentially rejecting their way of doing business and producing goods, there’s something pretty genius about it.”
On April 3, Space Ninety 8 held a private preview party, where members of the press drank beer from Brooklyn Brewery and ate alcoholic People’s Pops and hors d’oeuvres of bacon-wrapped matzo balls, meatballs with pesto, deep-fried sweet and sour radishes, and mini-grilled cheeses, catered by Ilan Hall.
The fact that alcohol was served counts as a win for Urban Outfitters. At a local community board liquor license hearing last October, Urban Outfitters representatives argued that alcohol was necessary for the restaurant and the rooftop deck. Perturbed local residents pushed back, concerned that granting the liquor license would potentially transform Urban Outfitters into a nightclub of sorts (the original business plan for Space Ninety 8 called for concerts, movies and parties on the roof).
Community Board 1 sided with the residents. “I can’t think of a circumstance for which it would be appropriate for Urban Outfitters to have a liquor license,” City Councilmember Stephen Levin said in a statement. “We must ask ourselves, ‘Do we really want people drunk when they are buying their skinny jeans and ironic T-shirts?’”
But the board’s vote was only advisory, and the State Liquor Authority, in December, conditionally granted Urban Outfitters a liquor license, after the company agreed to limits on outdoor hours and noise issues stipulated by the community board. “It’s disappointing that Urban Outfitters was granted a liquor license,” Levin wrote in an email. “There are plenty of places to get a drink where there are not so many minors present.”
The public launch party, on April 4, was sans alcohol, though fittingly Brooklyn-themed. Customers snacked on pastries from Charlotte Patisserie (made in Greenpoint) and tried scents concocted by S.W. Basics (also Greenpoint). They waited in line for custom bouquets arranged by James’s Daughter Flowers (Greenpoint) and sipped Jarrito’s (not Greenpoint, but Mexico). Market Space was artfully arranged to display goods from more than 40 product lines, including High Gloss, Talon, Chen Chen & Kai Williams, Brooklyn Herborium, MSC Skincare, Throne Watches, Horse Cycles, Kaye Blegvad, and many more.
“For us, the goal is to create a comprehensive experience,” Maximo told me, showing me around the space. “The restaurant, bars, local retailers, highly curated clothes. It’s as much about engagement as it is retail.”
Of course, if Space Ninety 8 doesn’t make money, it won’t be long for Williamsburg. But despite real concerns about Urban’s prior reputation, the space seems to represent a genuine attempt to create a more magnanimous, community-friendly face for the international clothing corporation. At least so far. The significant, indisputable upshot is that small designers get a big platform. That’s about the best we can hope for in Williamsburg these days.
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