What’s more important: civil rights or the perfect pair of pants?
That’s the question I was grappling with as I walked into Urban Outfitters a couple weeks ago, intent on spending the gift card I’d received for Christmas.
Upon entering the store, I was reminded, as I always am, of high school. The first Urban Outfitters in Sacramento city’s limits opened when I was 15, and I was instantly taken with the retail chain.
Compared to the American Eagle polo shirts and Bermuda shorts that my friends and I had so proudly been wearing beforehand, Urban Outfitters offered something few teenagers can resist: an edge.
Among all the skinny jeans, colorful flannels and ironic books, there was a youthful and progressive magic, and it felt undeniably hip. Maybe that’s eye-roll-worthy now, but who among us did not pledge allegiance to a particular brand or style in our youth? Skinny girls with jagged bangs wore Hot Topic wristbands. Skinny girls with straight bangs wore Abercrombie jeans. Suburban white boys rocked Vans with the price tags and stickers still on them.
And I found my niche, my home, at Urban Outfitters.
I didn’t become aware of the seedy underbelly of my beloved “Urb” until starting college. I was browsing the store on Pacific, drinking in the experience of being a broke college student for one of the first times. As I picked up a book lying on one of the tables, I noticed a scrap of paper that said something to the effect of “The owner of Urban Outfitters donated thousands of dollars to the ‘Yes on Prop 8’ campaign.” After looking around, I saw several more notes scattered throughout the store.
The first thing I did when I got back to my dorm room was turn on my computer and start researching.
After a little Googling and a bit of Wikipedia-skimming, I learned that although Urban Outfitters owner Dick Hayne has no public financial ties to Proposition 8, he has donated money to former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, who has made comments linking homosexuality to incest, bestiality and pedophilia.
I had come out of the proverbial closet less than a year earlier, but as I looked into my literal closet, I realized that at least half my flannels, jeans and V-necks supported bigotry and ignorance.
I felt angry, and confused, but more than anything, I felt embarrassed. How could I have let this happen? How could I have been so stupid as to give my money, my time, and most importantly, my loyalty to a major corporate brand without first doing a little homework?
And putting politics aside, wasn’t it predictable of me to be spending $50 on a sweater that was made by underpaid workers to look like it might have cost one-tenth of that at a thrift store?
I had been lured in with bright colors and witty T-shirts as a young high school kid, but now that I knew better, I was never going to give the dealer of fake authenticity that was Urban Outfitters another cent.
And then the weather got warmer. And a few friends wanted to stop in the store for a few minutes after seeing a movie next door. And they were having this sale on colorful V-neck T-shirts, and … I caved.
“You’re against pollution, but you eat meat,” I reminded myself. “You don’t believe in religion, but you close your eyes and bow your head respectfully when relatives say grace. You can’t be completely principled all of the time, and besides, it’s not like 100 percent of the profits is going towards stopping same-sex marriage.”
So I made a deal: I would still try my hardest to shop at other, more affordable and morally sound places — which is how my thrift and vintage store habit got started — but I wouldn’t completely deny myself if I saw a cute sweater or great rain boots on sale at Urban Outfitters every once in a while.
And that’s why I was glad to get a $25 gift card to the store, but equally glad the gift card wasn’t worth more. I would get in, pick out a pair of pants, and get out, hopefully keeping my originality and beliefs intact.
So I dodged books about Polaroid cameras. I was only briefly distracted by vinyl records from bands I’d never heard of but had probably claimed to like at one point. I merely lingered over the multi-colored striped T-shirts. Instead, I found some jeans that fit well and made my way to the check-out.
The guy working the cash register rang me up, I paid, and then he sheepishly apologized for the bag he was about to give me. In the after-holiday rush, the store had run out of regular bags, and so in desperation they’d started giving customers plastic garbage bags to tote their overpriced merchandise in.
“Sorry about that,” he told me with genuine concern. “Hope you don’t mind.”
I looked at the bag, and I couldn’t help laughing. Giving away trash bags could have been a sales gimmick, another way to look cool. But instead, due to its lack of preparation, Urban Outfitters had mistakenly stumbled into something that was actually pretty cool, in a hipster way. It might have been the store’s first authentic moment.
“Seriously, don’t worry about it,” I told the cashier, as I grabbed the bag and left.
As I made my way to the Metro Center, I didn’t feel great about my purchase. But I decided that it wasn’t worth beating myself up about. Maybe I am just a mindless slave to consumer culture, but I’m at peace with the idea that nobody’s perfect.
Everyone has a little garbage we have to carry around sometimes.