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Why was Urban Outfitters the Retailer of the Year at last week’s IRDC? It’s all about Isadora.

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I had to miss IRDC and Dallas last week due to a death in the family. It’s the first one I’ve missed in nine years and it broke my heart not to be there. I love IRDC, love to mingle with the industry and to see old friends. And I would have loved to have been in a city that was so abuzz about a new building’s architecture and design. Isn’t it encouraging to know that someone still has a $1.1 billion budget for a buildout? (I'm referring, of course, to the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium.)

I also hated to miss the Urban Outfitters-Anthropologie presentation for the VMSD/Peter Glen Retailer of the Year Award. I’ve been saying from the beginning that the award isn’t about sales or comps, it’s about Peter Glen’s values, a retailer that knows who it is in its marketplace and knows who its customer is. And Urban certainly demonstrated that.

Architect Robin Osler told the crowd how, to drive the design direction for some recent Anthropologie stores, her team created a fictional, sophisticated world traveler named Isadora to represent an embodiment of the Anthropologie brand. They collected patterns, materials, images and more to build Isadora’s steamer trunk, a tangible manifestation of the Anthropologie customer’s tastes and inclinations. That’s not just a good idea of who your shopper is, it’s a laser beam! No wonder the brand is so consistent, the stores so inviting, the Anthropologie identity so pervasive.

It all starts with a management that’s intensely and personally involved in the brand. Founder Richard Hayne, who started Urban Outfitters (it was originally called Free People) on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in 1971, regarded himself as one of the “upscale homeless” for whom he created the store. (Similarly, Don Fisher, who died earlier this week, started The Gap because he couldn’t find a pair of jeans that fit him. It’s just that Urban Outfitters never lost that focus while Gap is still trying to figure out what it has become.) When, years later, Hayne acknowledged that he was no longer that Free People kind of guy, he started Anthropologie, to serve the new age group he had joined.

IRDC is always full of such nuggets. So make sure you’re there next year, in Toronto (one of North America’s great, undiscovered cities). I know I will be – I’ve put my family on alert.
 

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