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Why Williamsburg’s New Urban Outfitters Store Could Be Good for the Neighborhood

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Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Kunst

We almost can’t believe it took Urban Outfitters until 2014 to open a store in Williamsburg, given that it basically sells a commercialized version of the Brooklyn neighborhood’s aesthetic.

Of course, all types of people live in Williamsburg these days, many of them wealthier and fancier than myself (those rents are nuts), but it still has a reputation for being one of the original hipster breeding grounds, and what do Urban Outfitters shoppers aspire to be if not hip?

To that end, the Philadelphia-based retailer took a measured approach to entering the land of people whose style it’s been marketing for years. And we’d wager to say, they nailed it.

John Hauser, Urban’s chief officer of brand experience, explained over the phone Friday that the retailer first began looking at the long-vacant space at 98 North Sixth about seven years ago, but the deal wasn’t quite right. They began looking at smaller spaces in the area to put “a small typical Urban,” but then the other space became available again and Hauser said to his boss, “Why don’t we just take the whole building?” And they did, and called it Space Ninety 8, not, he says, “because we didn’t want to be Urban Outfitters,” but because “we wanted to be more than a clothing store.” It’s essentially the same concept as a multi-component space they have in L.A., Space 15 Twenty.

The roof. Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Kunst

Though some longtime Williamsburg residents probably initially recoiled at the thought of this huge corporate entity encroaching on Williamsburg’s cute little independent shops and boutiques (I, a former Williamsburg resident, might have when I lived there), I could see them changing their tune once they enter the four-story, 37,000-square-foot space. Because it’s kind of awesome.

Weaving through the airy venue during a preview event Thursday evening, I felt like I was hopping between various loft parties that were all in the same building. The top floor has a spacious bar/restaurant — smart for keeping people in the store longer. And the product offering felt specific to Williamsburg, in a good way — it’s a bit more current and mature than what I’ve seen in other UO stores. Items felt more in line with what you might find in a Williamsburg boutique like Oak or Bird, though quite a bit cheaper. It also has a rather large Urban Renewal section for the neighborhood’s vintage fiends. We assume Tevas are on their way.

And, obviously, Urban did its research. “We know that our customer lives there based on where we ship packages to,” says Hauser. “A ton of Urban shoppers live in greater Brooklyn.” He also acknowledges the potential backlash: “I met tons of people last night that are excited about us coming [to Williamsburg]. You always have people who are positive and people who are negative, but I’m finding that the positive is outweighing the negative.” Indeed, there are several positives: A rooftop bar is always a nice option to have in NYC, the store will likely bring more foot traffic to the neighborhood that could spill into other local businesses and it creates job opportunities.

The Market Space. Courtesy: Emma Kepley

Another thing that might have any negative locals changing their tunes is the fact that the space supports local designers and artists. The basement houses an art gallery/pop up space (currently featuring an Adidas Originals installation) and the retailer gave over some prime real estate in the front of the ground floor to Brooklyn-based talent. Dubbed The Market Space, it showcases a selection of goods from over 40 local labels including Brookes Boswell, Dusen Dusen, Cold Picnic, Lynne & Lawrence, Jessica Barensfeld, Lila Rice, High Gloss, Dear God It’s Me Isaac, Horse Cycling, Brooklyn Herborium and little-known surf brand Salt Surf.

“I really wanted to engage the community and tap into local talent and make them a part of this,” explains Marissa Maximo, Urban’s director of brand relations and special projects. “A lot of them haven’t shown before; they haven’t even been in tradeshows, so I wanted to give them an opportunity to showcase here.” In the case of Salt Surf, whom she gave a large section to showcase a full range of surfboards, skateboards and apparel, the space was the designer’s first real retail opportunity. The Marker Space’s inventory be rotated every couple of months to showcase different designers, and will remain an evolving platform for new talent.

As for what the brick-and-mortar future holds for the retailer, expect more multi-component, “experiential” (as Hauser puts it) stores like this one, including one opening at Herald Square this June. It will be 57,000 square feet — the retailer’s biggest yet — and house a hair salon, coffee shop and Tortoise & Blonde eyewear outpost. And while it won’t be officially dubbed a “Space,” expect another one of those to appear next summer.

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