The long, sad legacy of Urban Outfitters letting us down
It’s happened. Again. Urban Outfitters has just released another culturally offensive item that’s painfully reminiscent of history’s darkest hour.
The hipster megastore is selling a tapestry with a major fabric flaw: it looks disturbingly similar to the clothing gay male prisoners were forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps. Anti-Defamation League director and Holocaust survivor, Abraham H. Foxman, urged Urban Outfitters on Monday to remove the item from their stores and website, stating, “Whether intentional or not, this gray and white striped pattern and pink triangle combination is deeply offensive and should not be mainstreamed into popular culture.”
The tapestry, sold for $69 as part of Urban’s “Assembly Home” line, has sparked widespread outrage. As of this morning, UO hasn’t responded to the controversy or given any explanation for how something like this might have happened—especially after the brand’s legacy of widely criticized, insensitive imagery.
It was only last September, when they were forced to pull a “vintage” faux-bloodstained Kent State sweatshirt, which immediately recalled the Kent State massacre in the 1970s, when four unarmed students were killed by the Army National Guard during a protest. People were (rightfully) outraged, and took social media by storm, while Urban Outfitters claimed that “it was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970,” and that they were “extremely saddened” by the whole ordeal. The sweatshirt’s markings, according to UO, was just a “discoloration,” but the product was removed from stores, as Kent State officials publicly lashed out at the company.
In April of 2012, the ADL in Philadelphia issued a statement against Urban Outfitters for a yellow T-shirt they offered on their website that was, again, eerily similar to a Star of David patch that German nazis forced concentration camp victims to wear. “We find this use of symbolism to be extremely distasteful and offensive, and are outraged that your company would make this product available to your customers,” said Barry Morrison, the ADL Regional Director, in a letter to Urban Outfitter’s President and CEO, Richard Hayne. WoodWood, the company that manufactured the shirt, stated that it was never meant to be sold as was pictured on the website, that it was clearly an error. It wasn’t clear to most of us.
The ADL has contacted Hayne on several occasions over the past few years, stating that the company repeatedly tends to “tread on the feelings and reinforced stereotypes of various groups—Christians, blacks, and Irish, Mexican, and Jewish-Americans…the list goes on,” they stated in 2012.
The list, indeed, goes on. In 2011, Sasha Houston Brown, a member of the Santee Sioux Nation, wrote an open letter to the company demanding they cease and desist their “racist and perverted cultural appropriation” of Native America, stating that “there is nothing honorable or historically appreciative in selling items such as the Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask, Peace Treaty Feather Necklace, Staring at Stars Skull Native Headdress T-shirt or the Navajo Hipster Panty.”
UO has also sparked outrage for trivializing, and perhaps even glamorizing, addiction. Their pill-bottle shaped shot glasses and prescription-like flasks were perceived as making light of the country’s very serious prescription pill epidemic—something young people, a bulk of the brand’s consumers—are particularly at risk for. The governor of Kentucky—a state known to have a large population of residents struggling with addiction—released a statement to Associated Press saying, “there’s nothing fashionable about prescription drug abuse, and selling teen-targeted items that glamorize prescription drugs is repulsive.”
Disordered eating and mental illness have also been trivialized on UO T-shirts, prompting serious backlash on social media and widespread concern. Actress Sophia Bush, who called for a boycott in a Facebook post, compared their lack of judgement with these products to “handing a suicidal person a loaded gun.”
The controversy extends beyond the store to the culture of the company, which was recently lambasted for a leaked holiday party invitation perceived, by many, as racially insensitive.
UO is by no means the only mass retailer whose judgment and sensitivity has been called into question, but they’re certainly one of the most consistent offenders. With every new controversy and subsequent apology, it becomes harder and harder to believe these oversights are unintentional. If they are, then it’s curious that the corporation hasn’t learned from their repeated mistakes and made internal changes.
UO certainly gathers a ton of attention with every offense, and although it’s unclear whether that translates to sales, they wouldn’t be the first company to profit off of other people’s misfortune. But the thing is, we want more from UO, we WANT to expect better. It’s not too late to turn things around. Consider American Apparel, which recently had a top down revamp, in turn, replacing their often controversial, offensive ads with a more positive, responsible campaign. That seems to be working—for everyone.
If nothing else, UO needs to stop releasing products—intentionally or not—that are deeply hurtful to people. It’s that simple.