False Authenticity in the 21st Century

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As we discussed in our last class, the trend of cities appealing to an emerging creative class has negative impacts on the urban landscape, in that these constructed bohemian atmospheres focus on the appearance of authenticity more than cultivating authenticity itself. As Richard Lloyd quotes from art historian Thomas Crowe in his book, Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City, “the culture industry has demonstrated the ability to package and sell nearly every variety of desire imaginable” (160). The commodification of any and everything has become the norm in today’s society, even intangible products like ideas. Crowe’s statement made me think back to my sophomore year when I did a case study on Urban Outfitters in my Fundamentals of Business class, in which we studied the brand image of the company. When it was founded in 1970 during the counterculture movement, Richard Hayne and Scott Belair’s target market was college aged youth interested in unique apparel and accessories such as “secondhand clothing, Indian fabrics…and ethnic jewelry.” Evidently, they established themselves within a niche market and created a truly unique store, but once they opened more storefronts in other cities, they began to lose their distinctive identity. Even though one could argue that the stores still provided hip clothing unmatched to their competitors, Urban Outfitters was changing from a small business to a chain retail store, thus losing their authentic status. By the 1990s, while it still had the appearance of being chic and different from “chains like the Gap and J. Crew,” it cannot be considered as such for its growing size and commercial success. At this point, it no longer sold hipster clothing, but the idea of bohemian chic. These opposing forces are encapsulated by Hayne’s paradoxical desire to maintain a “counterculture approach,” while wanting “to appeal to the mainstream.” In essence, it was marketing itself as authentic in order to maintain a mass appeal in their youth target market.

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In some respects, Lloyd describes a similar problem with the example of Wicker Park as just one of many urban spaces that have been affected by the negative impacts of beautification. In addition to businesses contributing to the loss of authenticity in these locales, the type of people that these companies hire reflect similar attitudes. Lloyd gives the example of Nike, which shares a few similarities with Urban Outfitters. Nike hires younger workers who are “exceptionally tapped in to new trends in culture and fashion,” while Urban Outfitters relies on their recent college grad workforce “to guide merchandising strategies” (221). Even though they provide the type of flexible, creative work that we’ve been discussing as ideal after graduation, workers are basically being used as “avatars of cool” in the hopes of improving how each company is perceived (247). It seems as though the ideals of small, privately owned businesses are trying to be imitated by large corporations, signaling a heightened desire to appear exclusive while maximizing profits, which is the exact opposite of the bohemian mentality. While Urban Outfitters used to be very popular, it has now gone overboard in trying to remain uniquely commercial by printing offensive phrases on their clothing and selling outlandish apparel. The risk of appearing too hipster resulted in a loss of sales. Hopefully yesterday’s authentic ideas won’t become tomorrow’s mainstream commodities.

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Lloyd, Richard D. Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

 

“Urban Outfitters, Inc. History.” FundingUniverse. Web. 26 Oct. 2015. <http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/urban-outfitters-inc-history/&gt;.

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