It's not what they sell, it's how they sell it. No, that's not quite right. It is what they sell and how they sell it. Or is it what they don't sell, how they don't sell it?

This much we know: Urban Outfitters is a clearinghouse of the young and now. If your idea of hip is what they're wearing on MTV, or how the current bunch of waiflike models is dressing, you'll find it here from soup to nuts. Sure, a lot of the stuff looks as if it came from a design house run by the Salvation Army, but that's what the kids want.

And Urban Outfitters is very good at giving kids what they want.

The Georgetown location is an oasis of cool, comfortable attitude, a melange of trend-riding merchandise set against a backdrop of hip music and lighting. Display racks are created with found objects: Jeans hang from old doors mounted on the walls, housewares are piled high on aging wooden tables, sunglasses are draped on weather-beaten window frames. The attitude is easy and interesting, smart yet not exclusively so.

The ghost of Woolworth's still lingers at 3111 M St. NW; the all-American store was the previous tenant of the warehouselike structure that has housed Outfitters for the last decade. Maybe it's the floors. The shoes of countless consumers have long since worn the boards free of varnish. Lurking beneath the alternative rock soundtrack (Digable Planets, Arrested Development, R.E.M.) is the constant ambient squeak of feet-on-wood that lends a shopped-in homeyness to the place.

People carom from dresses to hats to handbags, pound down the steel staircase into the world of mod urban housewares in the basement, then back up past the wall of used jeans to hit the register. No mysterious little "pings" like you hear at a big department store, no stuffy salespeople hitting you with the hard sell. Add in the exposed brick, the huge skylight, the industrial warmth of wood and metal, and you're about as far from a mall as you can get.

A woman with the rather stupendous name of Immaculada Lazaro Corral is wandering through the store, taking it all in. She's a 28-year-old student from Cordoba, Spain, who just finished a semester at George Washington University. "It's like some shops in London. It's a mixture of funny and very special," she says. "It feels different -- the decoration is not typical, with the windows and doors. The part upstairs is super-beautiful and original. I feel at ease in this place."

"Ninety percent of our merchandising philosophy is we want this to be a comfortable place for kids to come to, kind of a destination," says Susanne Horne, 32, an area manager. "They can come in a couple times a week and just hang out."

IT'S SATURDAY AFTERNOON, THE week's big shopping day, and the place is packed. Browsers and buyers stroll from table to rack measuring clothes against bodies, picking things up and putting them down. The floors are squeaking.

It almost feels like a farmers' market, where the crops are chic duds and the farmers are young women who listen to Nirvana.

Of course, there are men here too, and not all of them are trailing glassy-eyed behind a girlfriend. Downstairs, below the bras and bell-bottoms, you'll find them checking out the big black shoes only dads and postmen used to be cool enough to wear. Longhaired and wedge-cut college boys slip into plaid and denim outifts that make them look like New Age lumberjacks. In a good way.

Four teenage girls are in the basement level of the store living out Urban Outfitters' "merchandising philosophy." "We come here about once a week," gushes 15-year-old Tatiana Rudd, her arms full of with-it stuff. The girls are genuinely into this place, words bubbling out, faces glowing with the undeniable thrill of the buying hunt. "We've spent five hours here before. You can get lost, you can forget time, forget everything and just dig for stuff," she pants. It's a blissful high. And a natural one. "It's such a down-to-earth place," says her friend Kate Huling, also 15. "It's not a chain like the Gap and J. Crew. Everything's really different."

And that's the hook: being different. This store is jammed full of people buying the same things to make themselves different. "At the Gap if you get something, you know about 18 other people have it," Huling offers. "Here things are really original. They've got a little bit of everything, and it's not just clothing -- they've got shoes and all this cool home stuff."

Rudd, Huling and company all go to the fashionably upscale Sidwell Friends School in Washington. But do their friends at Sidwell come here? "Oh yeah," says Rudd, grinning. "Even though they might not admit it, even if they have this shell of being preppy, everybody likes to come here. We do have prepness, but we have Urban Outfitters' style too."

Today's batch of style includes mainly T-shirts, but not just any T-shirts. Rudd grabs an oversized one that's black, emblazoned with a cartoon duck and a large red "26." Yes, it's made by Red 26 -- "I'm dying to know what '26' stands for," she admits. Hang Ten, Split and Stussy are other happening makes, lots of stripes and big solid colors. If you're older than most of the people who shop here, you'll remember this stuff, and quite a few other items, from the '60s and '70s.

If you're wondering what it costs to dress the way Bobby Brady used to, apparently it's not too hard on the young-at-wallet. "It's the only place that's affordable in D.C.," Rudd says to a round of nods. "I mean, Donna Karan is like $1,000 for a T-shirt." Incidentally, if you're one of the unfortunates who do not find themselves in the "attitudinally young" -- Urbanese, folks -- category, note that Stussy is a brand skateboarders wear, Red 26 is for ravers, and Hang Ten fits in with the always tasteful look of Seattle grunge.

Which brings us to influences.

"MTV and the magazines, like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar," says Huling. "We watch MTV and look at what everybody's wearing, and you come here and you see everything."

Hey, isn't Sidwell where Chelsea Clinton goes? Is the First Daughter an Urban Sister? "I don't think she shops here," says Huling. "I think she's like a Gap girl. Or J. Crew."


URBAN OUTFITTERS SPECIALIZES IN UP-TO-THE-MINUTE fashion, as long as it's established up-to-the-minute fashion. After all, if stuff is so cutting edge that nobody knows it yet, they might not realize it's cool enough to buy.

"It tends to be on the safer side of cutting edge," says sales associate Sala Patterson, 18. "We try and appeal to the mainstream and those who want to cross the line every once in a while; we do stay abreast of fashion trends. The '60s and '70s, that's where fashion's going now." Patterson is tall, thin and striking, her hair in cornrows that reach nearly to her waist. She's wearing tight black bell-bottoms (the '70s) and a peach-colored rayon shirt (the '60s) that looks as if it came straight off an Outfitters rack. Nope. She bought it at a thrift shop.

"I think a lot of our influence comes from Europe," says area manager Horne. "Our creative director and our buyers make quarterly trips to Europe and see what the kids are wearing over there. They don't go to fashion houses like other buyers do." And don't forget New York. Merchandisers make yearly visits, going "where kids are hanging out, photographing them," says Horne. "And they go to different boutiques to see what's cool and how we could translate it to suit us." Here's the translation: You've got your music-oriented clothes -- rave (all-night dance parties) and grunge. Oversized T-shirts in bright colors with '70s cartoon biggies like Sugar Bear and Scooby Doo on them, baggy cotton and denim pants, baseball caps bearing brand names instead of teams. And it's all unisex.

But you can't talk '90s rock clothing without mentioning the magic word from the great Pacific Northwest. Plaid. Be it shirt or jacket, Urban Outfitters moves tons of it. In the basement beneath the soft track lights there are stacks and racks of the Scottish-patterned garb, just like Soul Asylum wears.

Women's clothes and accessories account for half of the chain's sales, and dresses are the prime mover. This is where things really begin to slip back in time. Remember those photos of Depression-era farm women wearing loose-fitting, floral print dresses in ankle and baby-doll lengths? Yep, they're back, but now you don't have to be a starving Dust Bowl Okie to wear them.

You'll find long knit vests that Janis Joplin would have worn next to stretch lace tops and bottoms that could have suited Barbi Benton in a '70s Playboy layout. Ruffles are big -- literally -- on sleeves, collars and pant cuffs, tapping into a touch of psychedelia. Everybody seems to want bell-bottoms again, though some say they're on their last leg, hip-wise. To top it all off, the hot headgear of the moment is crocheted skullcaps. Yes, crocheted.

And let us not forget shoes, particularly platforms. In true Outfitters found-junk-as-creative-display-cum-lower-overhead form, the shoes that Cher built are shown on boards set across two wooden stepladders. There are also England's truly transcendent Doc Martens -- the shoes that go with everything from suits to nose rings -- and NA-NAs too.

An easy way to sell clothes that look as if they're from the '60s and '70s is to sell clothes that, well, are from the '60s and '70s. For those who wouldn't deign to go to an actual thrift store, Outfitters has its own line of vintage apparel: Urban Renewal. "Renewal is a huge chunk of our business," Horne says. "We have two buyers that go to rag stores and thrift shops and buy in bulk. It's cleaned, then distributed to our stores." (It should be mentioned that thrift stores clean their clothes too.)

Hot in the pre-worn category are jeans and leather and suede jackets. European customers can't get enough of them. "We do a huge chunk of change on those," Horne says, but she won't say how huge. At a thrift store they're rarely more than a dollar or two; once they become Renewal they're priced at $20 to $24. Go figure.

IT ALL BEGAN AS A HEAD SHOP. DICK Hayne was 23 in 1970 with a degree in anthropology from Lehigh University when he founded the Free Peoples Store in Philadelphia. A product of the times, it was just 400 square feet of used clothes, T-shirts, housewares, dope paraphernalia and ethnic jewelry, all at low prices. The ambiance was relaxed; the decor consisted of wood, much of it found, with display racks made from old crates. The Store's customers were young people -- back when hip meant hippie -- socially conscious and largely college educated.

Sound familiar?

Obviously, when Hayne finds something that works he sticks with it; all the basic elements that worked 23 years ago are intact today. The fact that his degree is in anthropology instead of business is perhaps significant. (It's also ironic that the style of clothing sold at Urban Outfitters today is very close to what was in the original store.) "We always use renovated buildings," says Horne of the 14 shops nationwide. Other stores "will go into a mall and put their image into a space, where we use an existing space to enhance our image. None of our stores look alike. We go into these old buildings and adapt them for ourselves."

By the time 1976 rolled around, the Free Peoples Store was no longer such a groovy name. Thus Urban Outfitters was born, along with a bigger location in Philly that is still in operation. The idea was a success, and Hayne began opening other locations: New York, Boston, Minneapolis and Seattle were a few. His stores are situated where his customer is, downtown near schools.

YOU CAN HAVE TRUCKLOADS OF HAPPENING clothes and unique ambiance, but without the right human beings on the job, any place will fall flat. Yet another lesson in the Urban Outfitters book of truths. Accordingly, the store is not only a hip place to shop, employees say it's also a hip place to work. The folks on the floor, mostly in their early twenties, have a look to match, whether that look is grunge, rave, runway model or just garden-variety cool, circa 1993.

In other words, the people who work here look a lot like the people who shop here. Customers "come in and they see their peers," says 25-year-old manager Emily Wallach. "Salespeople don't run up and try and push them, tell them things; it's a relaxed atmosphere."

"A lot of times if you walk into the Gap or Benetton or stores like that and {if} you're dressed a little different, they'll give you kind of a snotty attitude," says Lauren Cohn, 17, of Bethesda. She's wearing a V-neck T-shirt and Doc Marten boots and has a hoop through her nose; big deal. In Benetton this may well be a little different; not so in this joint. "People are real friendly here, employees and customers," says Cohn. "I love the atmosphere."

Sala Patterson works in the women's department, the busiest section of the store. She's something of a model staffer, having been recently photographed for an Outfitters' catalogue, which included a free trip to Seattle for the shoot. Employment does have its privileges, but is it really a cool place to make a living?

"Yeah, actually it is," she says. "We get a lot of traffic, people going in and out, a lot of different kinds of people to look at. And the music's usually pretty good." The tunes are dictated by employee tastes (they bring their CDs to work). "I've had other retail experience, in places that are a lot more conservative about the way you dress and act in the store. When I got back to D.C. {from New York} I didn't even call my friends because I knew they'd run into me at work. I think almost everybody comes through here."

Tariq Shawer, 22, is a veteran of two of Outfitters' atmospheres; he worked in the Seattle store until relocating here two months ago. A housewares department man, he's folding, well, what is that? "A lot of people look at this stuff and go, 'Hey, that'd be a great bedspread or rug,' and pretty much it's a big piece of cloth," he says with a shrug. Actually, it's an all-purpose piece of woven cotton made in India by Zuni.

"The reason I like to work here is the housewares," Shawer says. A little Ikea, a little Door Store, a little Crate and Barrel -- enough stuff to account for 20 percent of the store's sales. "It's a cool store. I'm going to furnish my new apartment with this stuff." He's adhering to the non-dress-code dress code, sporting a black Jesus Lizard T-shirt (that's a band), and has his shoulder-length hair swept back in, well, what is that? "A shirt sleeve." Cut off from the rest of the shirt.

There are stacks of Zuni cloth and small Oriental-looking rugs in cases against the wall; a dilapidated kitchen table holds multicolored coffee mugs; huge, upended telephone wire spools serve as display racks for mini-Mason jars and functionally ornate green bottles. Don't forget those colored aluminum tumblers that were in the back of everyone's kitchen cabinet 20 years ago. Welcome to the stylish housewares of today, direct from the past.

"A lot of older people come in here, and I've heard comments like, 'Wow, I haven't seen this in a long time,' or 'I hated this in the '70s and I hate it now,' " laughs Shawer.

Department managers are responsible for the look of their sections, explains housewares manager Susan Duckworth, 27. "We have to help come up with creative inventions for fixtures and displays . . . It makes things interesting. It's the only place I've worked where you can bring an old crate to work, make something out of it and they {the bosses} love it."

"I like it because it's a fun place to work. The people are really a diverse crowd, open-minded. You wear whatever your style is," says men's department sales associate Michael Molineux, 22. His style today is shorts, a vintage polo shirt and an earring, left ear. He's hugging about 40 pairs of pants, headed for a rack, but stops gladly to talk. "You wear whatever your style is. If you look around, everybody here has their own look." Looking around, everyone does seem to have his or her own look. They look like they shop at Urban Outfitters.

THE AFTERNOON IS WANING, BUT PEOPLE still pour in from M Street. It's as if they have nothing better to do than shop. The place is hopping right up till closing time, 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. A guy speaking French walks by wearing a T-shirt that says "Fresh Jive" and a hat with "Soul" printed on it; two women stand in the Novelties corner and fiddle with a travel Etch-A-Sketch.

That's right, Novelties.

Though it's clothes, clothes, clothes that are the main attraction at the store, there are other things like, oh, the Fighting Nun Hand Puppets -- "She's Got a Habit, Fighting for What's Right." Or the Sea Monkeys, Potato Guns, Magic Grow Rocks, and the Dog or Cat From Hell Feeding Plate. All affordably priced, of course.

Gerry Coates, 27, is in the basement looking at men's shoes. They are displayed on boards nailed to amputated tree parts, perfectly lit by a small overhead bulb that makes its point subtly. Something loud and MTV blares from a speaker nearby. "It's fun, the music is inviting, the array of clothing is great. It's simple clothing, good colors, good material and fabric, and there's also the used stuff," he says. "It's pretty unique for D.C. You can get in and out, mix and match, it's very quick."

The attitude, the surroundings, the music, the merchandise, the Urban Outfitters Secret. Coates surveys the room, smiles, gets it in one line:

"It's one-stop shopping."

Peter Gilstrap writes frequently for The Post's Style and Show sections.