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Urban Outfitters And The Politics Of Cool

It's not difficult to find an Urban Outfitters store these days, but it's understandable that if you don't have a 16-year-old daughter, a penchant for owl-shaped drawer pulls or a belief that you look great in scarves, you may never set foot in one.

Let me paint you a picture: Customers enter and gravitate toward a table of quirky collectibles, leafing through a compilation of the "Feminist Ryan Gosling" meme before moving on to ogle a pair of tottering platform saddle shoes by Los Angeles-based designer Jeffrey Campbell (like bowling shoes for Lady GaGa — they'll set you back about $100). Lines form for a dressing room where each door has a chalkboard to record the number of items within.

If you're populating this image with trendy millennial shoppers, your imagination is pretty spot on. The brand's website proclaims that the store is "a lifestyle-specific shopping experience for the educated, urban-minded individual in the 18-to-30-year-old range."

A recent poll by Hiram College confirms that 18-to-29 year-old support for President Obama is 13 percentage points greater than that for Republican Mitt Romney. So when Urban Outfitters unveiled a line of Romney T-shirts in late May, the decision immediately generated a buzz.

"Mitt Romney's stiff, suit-wearing persona is exactly the kind of thing the designers at a place like Urban almost certainly can't help but see as kitsch, and that's how they rendered it, for the benefit of the most knowing tranche of their customers," wrote New York Magazine. It opined that while "hope was cool back then," the shopper whose T-shirt featured a Shepard Fairey portrait of Barack Obama in 2008 could not be assumed to wear any political attire "unironically" four years (and many fashion cycles) later.

A piece by Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams with the tagline, "Urban Outfitters' sneaky conservative propaganda stunt markets dishonesty as irony – again," noted that the company's founder, Richard Hayne, has a history of donations to former GOP candidate Rick Santorum. Williams called the Romney T-shirts an "insidious" marketing ploy.

Donna Sturgess, president of the "neuro-insight" brand-research company Buyology, says that this reporting takes an intellectual view of Urban Outfitter's inventory at the expense of emotional insight. She is adamant that "coolness" — and not politics — is the factor to watch.

Sturgess explains that URBN INC. — the corporation responsible for distinct niche brands such as Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and Free People — hasn't missed the mark by offering Romney T-shirts to a liberal-leaning customer base. She says the corporation's pledge to "understand our customers and connect with them on an emotional level" is not fulfilled by appealing to political philosophy.

For Sturgess, the decision to market Romney apparel is a way for Urban Outfitters to be a part of the cultural conversation, to be "relevant" in a contentious election year. Yet, for 21-year-old customer and Bowdoin college student Juan Gomez, the move feels deliberate but directionless, even awkward.

"I'm not sure what they're going for," says Gomez. Though slightly suspicious, he isn't about to cast aspersions on the brand's political leanings: If "people know that the CEO supports Romney, then it's fine. It's not like he's trying to hide it."

Says 21-year-old Kimmie Schier, an Illinois college student and dedicated Urban Outfitters customer: "The reason why I love UO is because the clothing they sell is comfortable, affordable and stylish. ... Anyone who is looking for clothing as I just described should be able to shop at UO without being stereotyped as a hipster liberal."

Despite ire from the blogosphere, there's no evidence from Federal Election Commission filings that Hayne is even contributing to the Romney campaign, or that he gave money to Santorum since 2005.

As it happens, the original cast of Romney shirts may not make it to the thick of election season. A store in Back Bay, Boston — Romney's stomping grounds — pulled at least one of the designs from the floor. In Denver, the Cherry Creek branch was instructed to pull all of the designs off the floor.

Nearly every sales associate I contacted, whether in Providence, R.I., or Boise, Idaho, directed me to the brand's website to find the T-shirts, where "2 Legit 2 Mitt" is listed as an "online only" offering, marked down from $29 to $6.99.

Romney as Gene Simmons (who endorsed the candidate in April) and another Romney-themed T-shirt had short shelf lives, virtual or otherwise. Attempts to contact URBN INC. were met with no response.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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