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.
“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…
…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?