Who are Urban Outfitting?

I took on another teaching gig this summer. It’s at Kent State University. Yes, everyone asks that. No I’m not commuting from New York to Ohio. Kent State fashion department has a studio in NYC as well as one in Florence. Hong Kong, London and Paris to allow students on the third year of their Bachelors programme to experience a semester away from the mothership in a fashion capital.

I’ll admit I had not known of Kent State until I was recommended for this position. But I soon got used to the  same reaction when I mentioned it in conversation. “The Kent State? Where…you know…the shooting?” And so I learned that, as well as boasting one of the most extensive fashion print departments in the land––their technology is more impressive than most NYC schools––the name of the school carries a more unfortunate reputation. It was the scene of a shooting during a Vietnam War protest in 1970 during which 4 students died when the Ohio National Guard opened fire.

Oh I didn’t know that.

In my defense I wasn’t born then (I don’t get a chance to lay claim to this much nowadays so please allow me) and, not to put too fine a point on it, we happened to be dealing with too many of our own bloody shootings in Northern Ireland around that same period to take note of those occurring overseas. But one thing is clear judging from the sum of reactions regarding my new job: many Americans still link the name of Kent State with the sad events of May 4th.

Yet the whole design and merchandising team of Urban Outfitters apparently suffered some sort of amnesia when they saw fit to put this in their stores this week for the princely sum of $129.

33911165_000_aAfter the inevitable furore arose, they pulled it from the website and issued an apology:

“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.” Apparently the red stains are “discoloration from the original shade of the shirt and the holes are from natural wear and fray.”

Kent State issued the following statement on their website:

” May 4, 1970, was a watershed moment for the country and especially the Kent State family. We lost four students that day while nine others were wounded and countless others were changed forever.We take great offense to a company using our pain for the publicity and profit. This item is beyond poor taste and trivializes a loss of life that still hurts the Kent State community today.”

In a weird coincidence I have connections to both sides here. I have worked within the Urban Outfitters company, although not for that label, and I know how many pairs of eyeballs fall on every product. Merchandisers lay in wait to scrutinize every design decision, armies of them with pupils like tweezers ready to pluck out an errant color way, a misguided seam, an ill-judged fabric. But no one thought this color, haemoglobin red, this pattern, random splatters, and this text, Kent State University, were all together a bad idea? A bloody bad idea.

This was the same company who got into trouble for creating the color combo “Obama/Black”, for offending the Native American population with their “Navajo hipster panty” and other trinkets bearing the trademarked “Navajo” name…

Even the Irish get a touch of Urban Outfitter's

Even us Irish get a touch of Urban Outfitter’s charm offensive

…the same company who caused upset among the Jewish community with their 6 pronged yellow star motif on a T shirt which recalled the badge the Jews were forced to wear  under the Nazis. Urban Outfitters has left a trail of devastation across a variety of communities over the past 10 years.

This week’s incident seems to me desperate and difficult to justify.

Do you believe them?

27 comments

  1. winston moreton

    Yep. Now I heard of ’em. Heard a US group is leading a charge to stop wool in fashion because it is cruel to shear sheep. Course they knew what they did – cheap shot publicity.

    • I hadn’t heard of this venture of theirs, Winston. Urban’s founder, Richard Hayne, is not a man I particularly admire for his views. But each to their own.
      However his company’s record of courting controversy at the expense of minorities, ethnic groups, and all round general good behavior over the past decade would suggest that he’s prepared to put his good ole boy Republican values aside any time it comes to making a quick buck. And I have zero respect for that.

  2. I dunno. Kinda fishy to me. That was such a tragic event. A close friend and neighbor’s son was shot and killed during the Virginia Tech massacre. I think I would still feel bad if I saw a shirt like that for Columbine, Virginia Tech, or Kent State. Some things are just too painful to forget.

  3. Kinda fishy to me too, dear. I find it hard to get the old noggin around this oversight.

  4. It’s very easy to say I didn’t when there is no proof. I’d have side with the fishes too!

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  6. What is it they say….There is no such thing as bad publicity….? Personally I think they don’t give a damn about causing offence or upset, as long as people are aware of their name. Shame on them!

    • I used to go in for candles but not any more. And as we know, you can buy a poor quality T shirt almost anywhere nowadays so it’s no great loss to me. But I wish they’d just stop their nonsense.

  7. There’s no way this is a thoughtless oversight, especially in the context of attention seeking offense you’ve described. I’m glad I’m too old to be tempted by their stuff. (I never get to say I’m too young anymore…)

  8. It worked. You are speaking about them, and we are reading it. Maybe there really is no such thing as bad publicity!

    • Well, I see your point but I used to buy a certain candle there regularly. Now I won’t bother. There are a lot of lovely candles elsewhere. I won’t darken their doorstep again. I actually like when the list of potential stores I can go into becomes smaller and more manageable! Maybe others appreciate that too 🙂

      • Yes I do agree, and I never really fully bought into that ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity’. Every now and then a shop annoys me, and I go on a small crusade, but I usually forget it after a while.

  9. In today’s society of “in your face” TV and trying to top one another with explicit outfits, Urban Outfitters gets extra attention/publicity with an offensive item. Their advertising shoots through the roof and brings them squarely in front of a young generation trying to be raw and over-the-top. Perhaps, even gives them “street cred”.
    I lean towards those designs trying to provoke attention, like American Apparel does with their advertising.

    • That’s true but American Apparel has been hitting the skids in every which way––they haven’t made a profit in five years and their stocks are at an all time low. So it has stopped working for them and I’m hoping for the same fate for UO.

      • Uhh, I just reread my comment with yours — I may need to clarify.
        What I meant was that I am leaning towards the vote that Urban Outfitters does these things for shock value, as does American Apparel advertising. And I agree — this is going to bite UA in the behind at some point.

    • Yes,I see. I’m sure you’re right. I hope their plan is foiled. I will stand in the background and rub my hands gleefully and snicker. 🙂

  10. Of course they knew how this shirt would be perceived. It’s truly despicable that UO would pull such a cheap publicity stunt; one that highlights one of the worst incidents of my youth.

  11. I too find it hard to believe, especially knowing the culture of the company from the inside, how it could have been some sort of sad oversight. Maybe if they didn’t have such a crappy track record I would be more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt…

    • Hung Tran

      Thanks for the insight, Jackie! I didn’t know their merchandise had to pass through so many eyes and hands before going into mass production. I knew there was some element of designing and editing going on, but the process sounds like a creative carwash. Lots of steps indeed. And nobody stopped to think, “Hmm…perhaps this isn’t a good idea after all”? That’s the scariest part of all. I refuse to believe that people could be so inept.

  12. Mmm hard to believe. Unless the median age of their managing staff is between 25 and 30 and can claim ignorance. Does that mean I have to stop shopping at Anthropologie as well? Urban Outfitters was out to begin with…

  13. I think Anthro is still okay,all things considered Camparigirl. That is where I worked and as this would not be their type of product so we’ll give them a pass this time. They seem to be able to keep their head down and just sew flowers on everything and patchwork gingham. No harm in that.
    Although…the founder of the whole company is not a particularly attractive human being–not the epitome of flowers and gingham at all. Don’t know if that will sway you…Hardline, conservative who promotes discrimination and intolerance. But I don’t want to make your flowers wilt! Let’s just focus on UO at the moment 🙂

  14. Oh my…..that is terrible. I don’t know. Urban tends to come across these “mistakes” just a little too frequently. I think it’s hard to say whether or not they intend to do these things, but that certainly was a HUGE oversight and clearly so hurtful!!

  15. They absolutely knew what they were doing, without a shadow of a doubt. That’s horrible and pathetic as they try to worm their way out of it. I don’t think we have Urban outfitters in Ireland, but if we did, I’d avoid them too.
    The fashion industry really does have an ugly side.

    • I’ve never seen them in Ireland and I think the UO in England is different than the one here. Much higher end at least it used to be. The whole situation is a pile of crap, isn’t it, Olivia?

  16. How could they even think they could have gone away with this? Unacceptable!

  17. This is distasteful but essentially just capitalism – the system credited with making the world go around. UO is the currency trader who takes advantage of an earthquake, the divorce lawyers or the sweatshop owner in Bangladesh etc. But as illustrated here, the power lies with the buying public who for the most part default to better values and shut their wallets. Well exposed intrepid blogger!

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