The American company Urban Outfitters Inc. owns and operates over 400 retail locations across the United States, Canada and many other countries in Europe. The parent corporation also has a few different subsidiary retail brands, including Urban Outfitters, Free People and Anthropologie.
The main focus of the company is offering products that appear kitchsy, vintage, retro, hipster and “ironically humorous”. While their light-hearted style is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, many feel that the company is insensitive in how they acquire their concepts and designs. Despite marketing itself as an alternative to ‘mainstream’ stores such as the Gap and Banana Republic, Urban Outfitters uses similar models of business to more traditional stores, and has slowly inched its way over the line in recent years.
As a result, their company image is a public relations nightmare, and people should not continue to support Urban Outfitters and its offensive approach to humor and irony.
In 2003, Urban Outfitters released a parody of the famous Parker Bros. game Monopoly, called Ghettopoly. David Chang, the game’s creator, shrugged at the NAACP’s suggestion the game is hostile to poor, urban and black individuals.
He defended the game by saying, “we should be able to laugh at ourselves.” The glaring elephant in the room is the game was not created by a black man or woman, but by a Korean American entrepreneur. Chang does not have the experiences of oppression as these intersecting identities that the game attempts to poke fun at. Even if he was a black individual, this neither gives him the authority to speak on behalf of those living in systemically disadvantageous social positions, nor Urban Outfitters the clean slate to market it.
The entirety of the game itself is based upon a crude stereotype that associates systematic economic disadvantage with an obscene or criminal element. The seven game pieces in Ghettopoly are even more ghastly and reflect a glamorized notion of urban space that is devoid of moral influence that explains disenfranchisement as a result of poor personal choices. Players take their pick from a pimp, a ho, a 40 oz., a marijuana leaf, a machine gun, a crack rock and a basketball. In addition, crack houses and projects take the place of houses and hotels.
Endorsing and selling a game depicting a disgustingly myopic view of the world implicates Urban Outfitters as reactionary and conservative despite the company’s tendency to sell rebellion as a legitimate object itself. In some ways, this cruel irony in which a product that attempts to distance itself from any ethical relation is reflective of the capitalist system in which it is produced.
In developing its product line, the store has not only released deliberately racist material, but they also use exploitative practices in developing their image of hipster-chic. Urban Outfitters has recently come under fire for actively appropriating artifacts and designs from various cultures, from their use of designs from the Arabic Keffiyeh scarf to their use of the term “Navajo” in over 21 product descriptions.
Urban Outfitters recently received a cease-and-desist from the attorney general of the Navajo nation for their misappropriation of traditional Navajo designs. Labeling items like flasks and panties made in China as “Navajo” is not only a shameless appropriation of indigenous culture, but it also implies the possibility that the tribe itself is involved with the production, which is certainly not the case.
Presently, there is outrage over Urban Outfitters’ financial support of anti-gay agendas and removal of a shirt showing support of gay marriage from the product line. The issue has even garnered celebrity attention — Miley Cyrus angrily tweeted about the company’s support of anti-gay advocacy, asking her followers to stop supporting the company by buying their products.
In the last few months, Urban Outfitters has removed a shirt from their website that depicted a star very similar to the one Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany before and during the Holocaust. They have also removed a few different items that were apparently stolen from other designers, and a t-shirt advocating eating disorders that said, “Eat Less.” As Miley mentioned in her tweet, Urban Outfitters is indeed looking increasingly “#SHADYASHELL.”
For good reason, Urban Outfitters’ cheeky attempt at humor of ironically incorporating various ‘other’ groups doesn’t exactly sit well with many religious and ethnic peoples. Many of their products enforce very negative, obviously offensive racial stereotypes, and rip off integral and significant parts of cultures to squeeze every last dollar out of the American public by marketing rebellion and culture as novelty.
At the end of the day, there is only one ironic thing about Urban Outfitters. In its attempts to distance itself from more traditional stores and create a new sense of culture through irony, Urban Outfitters Inc. and its subsidiaries continue to peddle products that pathetically appropriate and misrepresent cultures around the world.
Nadiah Abuswai is a sophomore from Sioux Falls, S.D.