From T-shirts that seem to promote underage drinking to stickers that proudly display marijuana leaves, the purveyor of hipster clothing is consistently riling up critics
Over the years, Urban Outfitters, a store aimed at young hipsters and owned by big-time conservative donor Richard Hayne, has managed to offend blacks, Jews, Native Americans, liberals, conservatives, and eating-disorder awareness groups, among others. Here, a look at 12 of Urban Outfitters' biggest controversies:
1. Pill bottle-shaped alcohol paraphernalia
Prescription drug abuse is the country's leading cause of accidental death, so it's not surprising that Urban Outfitters' line of shot glasses, pint glasses, and flasks resembling prescription pill bottles raised eyebrows. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) were particularly upset — their state loses more people to prescription drugs than to traffic accidents — and joined a push to get the retailer to pull the items. In a letter to the store's CEO, Beshear called the sale of "teen-targeted items that glamorize prescription drugs...repulsive." Urban Outfitters stopped selling the products shortly thereafter.
2. Pro-booze shirts for kids
Urban Outfitters' biggest customer pool is the 18-to-24 crowd, followed by the under-18 age group. So it should be no surprise that anti-underage-drinking advocates are incensed at a line of alcohol-related T-shirts being hawked by the retailer and modeled by apparently under-21 female models, just in time for back-to-school shopping. The T-shirt slogans — "I Vote for Vodka," "Misery Loves Alcohol," "I Drink You're Cute," "USA Drinking Team" — are especially galling because teenage drinking is a worrisome and growing problem that's associated with sexual activity and decreased condom use, says Sarah B. Weir at Yahoo Shine. "For parents already rattled about kids and booze, it's a jolt to discover these items when fall clothes shopping with one's teen or 'tween."
3. The "Punk as f**k" shirt
Upon checking on her teenage daughter's online order from Urban Outfitters' website, a New Jersey mom was horrified to discover that she had ordered a T-shirt that proudly displays the F-bomb. "I was flabbergasted that that would be the way Urban Outfitters presented themselves," said Margaret Gutierrez. She also discovered that the T-shirt's "Punk as f**k" logo and a pink marijuana-leaf motif were being sold on stickers, and requested that Urban Outfitters remove all the offending items. Although the retailer has declined to comment, the items were quietly removed from the website.
4. The Holocaust-evoking "Jewish Star" shirt
Urban Outfitters put itself in the bad graces of Jewish groups in April 2012, after selling a T-shirt with a six-pointed star badge that, to some eyes, looks eerily like the Star of David patch Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany, leading up to and during the Holocaust. The $100 yellow T-shirt, from Danish designer Wood Wood, "represents a new low" for Urban Outfitters, said the Anti-Defamation League's Philadelphia director, Barry Morrison. The symbolism is "extremely distasteful and offensive," and the group is "outraged that your company would make this product available to your customers."
5. Ersatz "Navajo" fashion
In October 2011, Sasha Houston Brown, a member of the Santee Sioux Nation, demanded that Urban Outfitters pull its "distasteful and racially demeaning" line of Navajo-labeled clothes and accessories. The Navajo Nation holds 12 trademarks on the word "Navajo," including for clothing, and a 1990 federal law prohibits falsely suggesting that products are made by Native Americans. These "blatantly racist" knockoffs clearly aren't, and they're tacky to boot, Brown says in an open letter to CEO Glen Senk. "I doubt that you consulted the Navajo Nation about using their tribal name on sophisticated items such as the 'Navajo Hipster Panty.'"
6. Stealing a woman's necklace design
Last May, Chicago jewelry designer Stevie Koerner was sent a link to Urban Outfitters' website, which was selling a line of jewelry nearly identical to her 2-year-old World/United States of Love line. "My heart sank a little," she wrote on her blog. "I understand that they are a business, but it's not cool to completely rip off an independent designer's work." Twitter users glommed on to her post, making Koerner such a cause célèbre that Urban Outfitters said the next day they'd look into it... then quietly pulled the collection.
7. The "Obama/Black" T-shirt option
In January 2010, Jezebel editor Anna North noticed a T-shirt for sale on Urban Outfitters' website in two color combinations: "White/Charcoal" and "Obama/Black." Urban Outfitters said they "screwed up, and are sincerely sorry," explaining that they had internally developed a color called "Obama Blue" that accidentally appeared on the website. "Fine, Urban Outfitters: You're not racist, just careless," says University Chic. But given your history and penchant for making controversial political statements, "you can't blame anyone for assuming" the worst.
8. Pulling gay marriage T-shirts
In late 2008, in the heat of California's vote on gay-marriage-killing Proposition 8, Urban Outfitters started selling a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase "I Support Same-Sex Marriage" — then pulled it from shelves and the web less than a week later, with a buyer blaming "too much bad press." Shirt designer Tara Littman searched around for this "bad press"... and found exactly one negative blog entry. Since that's hardly a blip on the Urban Outfitters controversy meter, and "Hayne is a notably right-wing Republican who supports senators who vote for legislation against gay marriage," says Sharon Clott in New York, we're guessing this was a top-down decision.
9. The "Eat Less" T-shirt
The next group Urban Outfitters offended was... well, anyone who thinks it's a bad idea to sell a V-neck T-shirt with the words "Eat Less" on it, displayed on a "rail-thin brunette model in a hiked-up miniskirt," says Ryan Halliday in FOX Boston. There were enough of those people that, after a backlash, the shirt was pulled from Urban Outfitters' website in June 2010. But not its stores, says Amy Odell in New York. But hey, at least it's not as blatant as the shirt sold elsewhere displaying Kate Moss' old slogan, "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels."
10. The "Victimized" armed Palestinian T-shirt
A shirt with a Palestinian youth carrying an AK-47 assault rifle over the word "Victimized" riled up the Jewish community in 2008. "Of course this T-shirt is supporting terrorism," said fashion designer Leah Weiss, quoted in Haaretz. "I will never shop there again." Urban Outfitters pulled the shirt, but it already had a rocky relationship with Jews after selling a 2004 T-shirt with the words "Everybody Loves a Jewish Girl" surrounded by dollar signs and shopping bags. "If Urban Outfitters is good at something, it is getting publicity," says Ami Cohen, an American Apparel employee in Tel Aviv. "This company has a history of coming into conflict with Jews."
11. The "salacious" photo of a 15-year-old
In August 2011, California model Hailey Clauson, then 16, sued Urban Outfitters for $28 million, saying they had used a "blatantly salacious" photo of her on a shirt without permission. Photographer Jason Lee Parry snapped the picture of Clauson in short leather shorts, legs spread and sitting on the back of a motorcycle, when she was 15, and Parry allegedly agreed not to release the photo after Clauson's modeling agency complained. The focus of the shot is "her crotch area," says the lawsuit, making it of special interest to "the likes of pedophiles."
In 2003, Urban Outfitters angered the African-American community with a Monopoly knockoff called Ghettopoly, featuring properties like "Cheap Trick Avenue" and "Smitty's XXX Peep Show," and "Hustle" bonus cards like: "You got yo whole neighborhood addicted to crack. Collect $50." Black clergy called for a boycott. "There's no way that game could be taken in any way other than that this man had racist intent in marketing it," said the Rev. Glenn Wilson in Philadelphia. That man, creator David Chang, disagrees. "It draws on stereotypes not as a means to degrade, but as a medium to bring together in laughter," Chang says. "If we can't laugh at ourselves... we'll continue to live in blame and bitterness."
This article — originally published on October 15, 2011 — was last updated on June 25, 2013.
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