The recent furor over its faux-bloodstained Kent State sweatshirt isn’t the only controversy the company has been involved in.
On Monday, Urban Outfitters made headlines when it posted for sale on its website a Kent State sweatshirt. There’s nothing controversial about selling a college sweatshirt, but selling a sweatshirt that appears to be stained with blood at a college where the National Guard killed four students and injured an additional 10 in 1970 is truly disgusting.
Urban Outfitters apologized, but claimed it was a total coincidence that what looked like a bloodstained sweatshirt happened to bear the name of the college that became a “bloodstained symbol of the rising student rebellion against the Nixon Administration and the war in Southeast Asia,” as Time Magazine put it weeks after the shooting. Urban Outfitters was so contrite it actually took to Twitter to issue its apology. It used twitlonger, since 140 characters just doesn’t cut it when apologizing for making light of a historically significant national tragedy.
Urban Outfitters sincerely apologizes for any offense our Vintage Kent State Sweatshirt may have caused. It was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970 and we are extremely saddened that this item was perceived as such. The one-of-a-kind item was purchased as part of our sun-faded vintage collection. There is no blood on this shirt nor has this item been altered in any way. The red stains are discoloration from the original shade of the shirt and the holes are from natural wear and fray. Again, we deeply regret that this item was perceived negatively and we have removed it immediately from our website to avoid further upset.
It is possible that nobody at Urban Outfitters who reviewed the sweatshirt thought the discoloration looked like a piece of evidence from a Dexter episode. It’s also possible that nobody who worked at Urban Outfitters knew the bloody history of Kent State. But here’s a question. If Urban Outfitters were so torn up about it, wouldn’t it remove the “vintage Kent State Sweatshirt,” which was going for a mere $130, from its website? As of Tuesday night, the company had the item listed as sold out. There is no image, but it seems like a better PR, damage-control and moral move would be removing the whole page.
For arguments sake, let’s give Urban Outfitters the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say they didn’t see the blood imagery, didn’t know about Kent state, didn’t have the IT power to remove the page and were forced to leave it listed as sold out. One big problem remains: Urban Outfitter’s extremely bad track record of selling offensive products. Even the store admits its history makes its actions pretty hard to forgive. In another apology released Tuesday, Urban Outfitters continued to claim ignorance, but conceded,
this truth does not excuse us from our failure to identify potential controversial products head on. We, as a company who caters to a college-age demographic, have a responsibility to uphold to our customers. Given our history of controversial issues, we understand how our sincerity may be questioned.
Let’s review the previous eight controversial issues Urban Outfitters has been involved with.
1. The anorexia-encouraging must-have T-shirt. Back in June 2010, Urban Outfitters offered its “Eat Less” gray V-neck T-shirt. The order to consume fewer calories was written in white cursive letters across the front. But don’t worry. The official description of the shirt, which nobody will ever see, is totally not eating disorder-inducing: “Eat less or more or however much you’d like in this seriously soft knit tee cut long and topped with a v-neck.” See? The description on the website isn’t judgemental at all. You can eat whatever you want! Starve, binge, purge, just for god’s sake BUY!
When news of this shirt came out, the store, very responsibly, removed it from the website, but kept selling it at its stores. But only, it should be noted, in large sizes.
2. The shirt available in white or Obama/black. 2010 was a great year for offensive Urban Outfitters products, because that is when it offered a “buttoned BDG Burnout Henley” in White/ Charcoal or Obama/ Black. The store stopped selling the shirt and offered a totally reasonable explanation.
Many customers have brought to our attention one of the color names listed for our BDG Burnout Henley, and rightfully so. We screwed up, and are sincerely sorry. The burnout pattern on this shirt is comprised of two colors—one is an internally developed color we called “Obama Blue” and the other is “Black.” Unfortunately our website database truncated this combination to read “Obama/Black.” We should have caught the error, and apologize for offending anyone.
I mean, we’ve all been there, right?
3. The cultural appropriation trademark violation clothing line. In 2011, Sasha Houston Brown of the Dakota Santee Sioux Nation slammed Urban Outfitters in an open letter to the company published in Racialicious. In Houston Brown’s words:
I had the unfortunate experience of visiting a local Urban Outfitters store in Minneapolis. It appeared as though the recording “artist” Ke$ha had violently exploded in the store, leaving behind a cheap, vulgar and culturally offensive retail collection. Plastic dreamcatchers wrapped in pleather hung next to an indistinguishable mass of artificial feather jewelry and hyper sexualized clothing featuring an abundance of suede, fringe and inauthentic tribal patterns….
…. 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. These and the dozens of other tacky products you are currently selling referencing Native America make a mockery of our identity and unique cultures.
I was expecting Urban Outfitters to make the convincing argument that the Navajo Hipster Panty pays homage to authentic Navajo culture. Instead, a spokesman responded with this string of platitudes: “Like many other fashion brands, we interpret trends and will continue to do so for years to come,” he said. “The Native American-inspired trend and specifically the term ‘Navajo’ have been cycling thru fashion, fine art and design for the last few years.”
4. The Everybody Loves a JAPy, Materialistic, Shopaholic Jewess T-shirt. In January 2014 Urban Outfitters started selling T-shirts that said “Everybody loves a Jewish girl.” Given that the store also offered “Everybody loves an Irish girl,” “Everybody loves a German girl,” and “Everybody loves an Italian girl,” T-shirts, it would have almost been anti-semitic to leave Jewish girls out of the fun. The only problem was the imagery accompanying the Jewish girl shirt: dollar signs and shopping bags. Of course, the other shirts played on stereotypes as well, featuring a shamrock, beer stein and pizza respectively. But somehow, saying that shamrocks are Irish, beer is German and pizza is Italian isn’t exactly the same as saying shopaholic, materialistic girls are Jewish. As Sarah Lefton, the founder of the Jewish-themed apparel company, Jewish Fashion Conspiracy said, “That’s pretty bad….With a shamrock for the Irish and pizza for Italians, you’d sort of expect a bagel for the Jewish T-shirt. And they come up with a shopping bag and money. That kind of stereotype isn’t even funny when Jews make it on each other.”
The store felt terrible! Ted Marlow, president of Urban Outfitters, explained “bias, sacrilege and ridicule were not our intention.” But he also said, “If you have been in our stores, you’ll notice fun, humor, irony and irreverence are not topics foreign to us.” Demonstrating remarkable sensitivity and tact, Marlow added, “We got a call from a rabbi who is in Montreal [who was in the store with his daughter]. Our director of stores is Jewish and from Montreal, so she called him. But we’re not merchandising for the rabbi father. Our core customer is 24, 25 years old.”
5. The Dirty MexicanO. In 2005, Urban outfitters made linguistic-racist history with its “New Mexico: cleaner than regular Mexico” T-shirt. This clever article of clothing takes the traditional and contrived “dirty Mexican” racist slur and transforms it into a new and improved racist turn of phrase.
6. Ghettopology: The hilarious ghetto board game the whole family will love! Urban Outfitters doesn’t limit itself to offensive garb; it also trailblazes into the uncharted waters of racist board games. Ghettopoly, which Urban Outfitters offered in 2003, is just like Monopoly except racist! The game features cards which say, “You got yo whole neighborhood addicted to crack. Collect $50.” You can land on properties like Cheap Trick Avenue, Smitty’s XXX Peep Show, Westside Liquor, Tyron’s Gun Shop, and Weinstein’s Gold and Platinum, which is especially clever because it combines racism and anti-Semitism. The game hilariously presents African Americans as uneducated, with characters named “Malcum X” and “Martin Luthor King Jr.”
This racism-themed board game provoked African American clergy and organizations around the country to threaten a boycott unless the store stopped selling the product. Rev. Glenn Wilson, pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, said: “This is beyond making fun, to use the caricature of Dr. King in this regard….There’s no way that game could be taken in any way other than that this man had racist intent in marketing it.”
Ghettopoly’s creator, David Chang, explained that the game was actually a social justice initiative: “It draws on stereotypes not as a means to degrade, but as a medium to bring together in laughter… If we can’t laugh at ourselves … we’ll continue to live in blame and bitterness.” Chang was practically channeling Dr. Martin Luther King, who famously dreamed of a day when men of all colors could play board games together.
7. The marriage equality shirt that had to be pulled, obvs. Just as Urban Outfitters sells, and often refuses to remove, offensive products, it also insists on removing good products for offensive reasons. In 2008, the store sold T-shirts saying “I Support Same Sex Marriage,” which were created by Tara Littman of Support Shirts. A week after the shirts went on sale, they disappeared. The reason according to a buyer, it was “bad press.” As Littman discovered, however, this bad press consisted of a single blog entry critical of the T-shirt.
8. Rick Santorum-funding Urban Outfitters CEO Richard Hayne. Perhaps the reason the store pulled the marriage-equality T-shirt had less to do with fictitious bad PR than with the guy who runs the company, Richard Hayne, who is, as of 2008, the 262nd richest American, according to Forbes. In addition to the Urban Outfitters brand, his retail empire includes Free People and Anthropologie.
In a 2003 interview with Philadelphia Weekly, Hayne tried to deny that he had ever contributed to Rick Santorum, who had recently made statements equating homosexuality with beastiality. But then the interviewer presented him with a printout that showed Urban Outfitters had contributed $4,650 to Santorum’s campaign. Forced to face reality, Hayne said, “I’ll have to look into this. I don’t think this is right.” In a sense, Hayne was right; he and his wife had actually contributed $13,150 to Santorum’s campaign. When the interviewer asked Hayne about his own position on homosexuality, Hayne replied, “I’m not going to comment on it. I have my own opinion, but I am not going to share it. Our job as a business is not to promote a political agenda.”
Given how transparent Hayne has been in the past, he’ll have to forgive us for not taking him at his word. He’s a lot like Urban Outfitters in that way.