Building the Hype: How Urbanity Found its Footing in the Heart of Bellevue
As an independently-owned and operated businesses in the Bellevue Collection, Urbanity deals in street cred and swagger rather than national marketing tactics.
The contemporary boutique known for its vanguard footwear and apparel has capitalized on the high demand for elusive streetwear, offering limited-edition, specialty threads that have earned founder Lee Smith a loyal following and tightly knit fellowship of employees.
While visiting his sister in New York City, Lee noticed that an abundance of shops peddled a wide variety of casual, athleisure gear, which spurred the inspiration to establish his own when he graduated from college and returned to the Pacific Northwest.
“At the time, I would have to drop by Lids to get a hat, Nordstrom to get jeans, Zumiez to get a tee, and Niketown to get shoes,” Lee recalled. “I simply wanted to offer everything in one convenient place.”
Though it might seem strange to launch such a niche boutique in a place surrounded by fashion giants, Lee said the reliable foot traffic and visibility of his neighbors have been a boon for business. But the rapport they build with customers continues to be king.
“The shop has developed a great relationship with people on the Eastside,” Lee said. “It's really nice to be in a place with such a diverse array of customers, and being located somewhere that is easy to get to no matter what direction you are coming from has been a great advantage.”
As its fringe nature widens into a mainstream phenomenon, social influencers, sneakerheads, athletes and cultural connoisseurs continue to drive the appeal for a distinctive “it” factor that simply cannot be marketed, manufactured or bought (yet Lee himself has managed to bottle that secret sauce.)
In the competitive hierarchy of retail distribution and brand promotion, Urbanity belongs to an exclusive collective of “Tier 1” vendors, marked by an upscale status that offers higher quality materials, fine threads, aesthetic color palettes and progressive designs from lush companies like Nike, Jordan, Supreme, Bape, Yeezy and others. He has effectively cornered the market in Downtown Bellevue, locking down a radius of several miles as the sole Tier 1 seller in the neighborhood.
Despite running a brick-and-mortar shop, Lee conducts a high volume of business straight from his Instagram account with all the fervor of a silent auction. Whenever new merchandise drops online, Lee said his stock can sell out so quickly that trying to photograph and catalog products on his website has become a moot point.
It hasn't all been easy, that’s for sure. Between closing the storefront for seven months due to COVID-19 restrictions and a looting incident that wiped out his inventory, 2020 affected Urbanity in ways Lee could have never imagined, though he credits his regular customers and folks striving to support small businesses for the motivation to muscle through adversity and learn to adapt.
His commitment to pay that gratitude forward has only grown, now with a newfound appreciation for the local community. “As part of an ongoing partnership with Family Works (a hybrid food bank and family resource center), we organized a food drive in December and we also have a bin at the store where people can drop off non-perishable food items any time,” Lee said. “And since we also have a lot of sneaker releases, we try to incorporate a charity aspect into those as well.”
From where Lee stands, it’s all about cultivating something beyond the typical retail experience - something that revives nostalgia for iconic fashion staples, relentlessly searches for originality and craves a full-bodied lifestyle. Crisp, white Nike Air Force 1s are practically sacred, forever in style, Lee said. Lately, kicks with a cushioned midsole have become increasingly popular.
Lee reminisces about standing in line outside a Nike outlet at 4 a.m. as a teen, biding his time for a highly anticipated sneaker release, eager to claim his own pair. And that rhapsody lies at the crux of his entrepreneurial credo: the intangible, skin-prickled sensation of feeling truly seen. Every person who walks into the store is greeted by Lee, who pauses from his routine with an affable sixth sense to strike a personal connection with each customer.
Nothing can compete with trying on an item in a store, Lee argues, citing past hassles of shopping online from returns gone awry to late shipments and guesswork in choosing a suitable size. Anyone who peruses Urbanity can sense the difference in an atmosphere of possibility, whether in that newly minted rubber sole scent, or in the crinkle of paper while unboxing a treasure.
Identity and community converge in every stitch, lace and hue. Something as deceptively simple as a sneaker can mean something different to each wearer, but in the end, style and its promises of reinvention and belonging are behind each pair. Follow Urbanity on all the major social channels and swing by to scope out the space for yourself. Oh, and the best part? Anyone who references this Heart of Bellevue blog will receive a 10% discount!
This blog is part of the Heart of Bellevue: our campaign to showcase local businesses while connecting you with stories of activity, creativity and recovery. Find out about our campaign and explore more of what’s happening around Downtown.
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