The Difficulties in Selling Black

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I took a look around Military Circle today and noticed that a prominent urban wear store, Up Against The Wall, was no longer in business!  In the past various stores that sold hip-hop clothing have come and gone, but never a store like Up Against The Wall.  So I figured that I would do some research, because Up Against The Wall is like the JC Penney of urban wear, and can afford to be the last remaining tenant in any shopping mall.  It appears that the store is going out of business.

They were in the game for 40 years, long before anyone ever coined the term urban wear, which puts them in existence back in the seventies.  But the fate of Military Circle Mall in Norfolk Virginia runs much deeper than Up Against The Wall.  It is the fate of a mall whose sustenance is a plethora of transient urban wear stores whose pockets do not run as deep as department stores or specialty stores such as Abercrombie and Fitch.  It is a fate of a mall that could learn a thing or two from the fate of behemoths like Randall Park Mall outside of Cleveland Ohio, or Rolling Acres Mall outside of Akron Ohio, two enormous malls the former which at one time probably took up the space of ten Military Circle Malls and the latter at least three or five.

Both malls saw their peak in the eighties and both declined during the nineties.  The last I heard about Randall Park Mall was that a technical school was thinking about relocating there.  There were also rumors about a church that never materialized.  Other dead malls, like Salem Mall outside of Dayton Ohio, have closed, and plans to rebuild as a Lifestyle Center never came to light.  My point is that unless Military Circle transforms itself into something other than a place to buy overpriced urban wear, it’s fate is certain.  When cities several times the size of Norfolk that used to have an African-American population that is larger than the entire populace of the city had malls that were larger incarnations of the current look and feel of Military Circle have closed, it is just a matter of time before this mall closes.  

There are a few strengths that Military Circle has though.  Unlike what you find in larger cities, it is the only mall of its type in the metropolis.  The only other mall that comes even close to what you find in Military Circle is Chesapeake Square Mall.  This actually makes the mall unique and encourages African-Americans to frequent the mall for the novelty of being able to support a mall that one can feel is truly their own.  Unless Portsmouth builds a nice mall downtown and can equal or outdo what has occurred with MacArthur all bets are off.  Even if Portsmouth does, it won’t really be a “Black mall” but like MacArthur, yet another tourist attraction.

Another strength that Military Circle has is the Janaf Shopping Center.  A lot of the stores at the shopping center also sell urban wear, but they continue to pack a lot of shoppers in throughout the day.  The shopping center, which is a plaza across from the mall that seems to be even more vibrant than the mall itself, does very well.  Military Circle has shopping plazas on every side, and in the case of Janaf Shopping Center, a strip mall across from another strip mall.  

But does the demise of Up Against The Wall tell us anything about the urban wear market?  A lot of this market has been absorbed into department stores and discount stores.  You even have discount stores like Citi Trends that have over 400 stores.  Conspicuous attempts at creating new discount stores, like A.J. Wright, which were urban wear stores in disguise (but never branded as urban wear discount stores) failed.  

Is the whole urban wear clothing movement over?   Have consumers found creative ways to express themselves by wearing regular clothing in that urban way, as they were often forced to do in the seventies and eighties when there were not as many urban wear labels as there are today, and only a handful of stores?  Is urban wear an interesting concept that defined how Black kids dressed in the eighties and nineties yet an outdated concept that does not apply today?

The market needs to change.  Much of what typified the urban wear look was overpriced cotton that was designed for the moment.  Looks were completely dead in six months, and the consumer was forced to spend thousands of dollars again if they wanted to stay on top of the trends.  You could say that those of the sexy jet set spend tens of thousands of dollars on Gucci, Tom Ford and Christian Dior, and I would agree with you.  Yet I find that clothing to be as much of a waste of money as I do urban wear.  It isn’t about being conservative as much as it is about trying to stay on top of a look that is forever changing.  But that is life for most fashion obsessed kids in their twenties.

At the same time, one has to wonder why their stores continue to stay open and stores that specialize in fashion for the streets come and go in the matter of a few years.  The reality for these stores is that their consumers like to think that they can afford an $80 t-shirt but they really can’t.  They want a pair of shoes that cost a thousand dollars but what they have to do to get the money could land them in jail.  You might get some Black kids with parents that are rich or “upper middle class” that can help you out but unless the parents themselves still dress that way you can’t really rely on them to keep the doors from closing.  I could spend a few hundred dollars on a pair of jeans spun from Japanese cotton but what is the point of doing that when I can get a decent pair of jeans from back in the day for $5?  After all, they do sell old pairs of Calvin Klein and Polo Jeans Company at the thrift stores …


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