It was an icy winter night; snow settled softly over the town as people bustled from coffee shop to coffee shop, taking refuge in the warmth. With a friend, I walked along Nassau, boots crunching against the slicks of frozen sidewalk. Ahead of us, spare lettering, scandalously-dressed window dummies, and pounding indie music interrupted the chilly night air. I had never seen such beauty. It loomed ahead, a bright mecca for us and teenagers everywhere: Urban Outfitters.
This store arrived in Princeton in winter 2012 to a warm reception, attracting people of all ages with its warehouse-esque decorating style, scanty lace clothing, and hipster-artsy-retro aesthetic. However, the chain, which was founded in 1970, has come under fire in the last decade or so for a series of controversial products, causing an extended slump in sales—with good reason. The contentious items contain racially, ethnically, and religiously offensive material that begs the question, how far is too far? This company has taken the concept of edgy and interpreted that to mean “over the edge,” and that is why we as Princetonians should not be offering Urban Outfitters our business.
As a store marketing to teens and young adults, it has immense influence upon teen thought and lifestyle. Urban Outfitters and peer stores such as Forever 21 and American Apparel strive to be “cool,” which often means exploiting stereotypes about teenage life, including sex, drugs, and alcohol use. In 2013, Urban Outfitters faced criticism after marketing shot glasses designed to look like prescription pill bottles as well as syringes made for dispensing alcohol into the mouth. Many outraged organizations charged the company with encouraging alcohol and prescription drug abuse among teens, which is already a large problem in America. The store has consistently promoted unhealthy physical and emotional ideals as well, coming under fire in 2010 for selling a shirt with the statement “Eat Less,” sported on its website by an unhealthily thin model. According to the website of the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders up to 24 million Americans suffer from some type of eating disorder, and almost 50% of these sufferers meet the criteria for depression. Urban Outfitters has not skipped out on romanticizing that either, selling a shirt with the word “depression” in various fonts and sizes; it was pulled from stores in February 2014 after consumers expressed anger online.
Even more frequently than it has made use of teenage stereotypes, Urban Outfitters has exploited racial, cultural, and ethnic groups. In 2003, the company released a shirt covered in dollar signs with the slogan “Everyone Loves a Jewish Girl,” and in 2012, it marketed a striped shirt with a six-pointed yellow star on the upper arm, reminiscent of concentration camp clothing Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust. Both incidences of anti-Semitism were criticized by the Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish civil rights agency, eventually resulting in the products’ removal. In 2011, Urban Outfitters was enveloped in intense controversy for its “Navajo” line, which used styles like beads and prints meant to invoke traditional Native American garb. The line included items like panties and liquor flasks. The Navajo Nation, which has multiple trademarks on its name, sent a cease-and-desist letter to the company for illegal appropriation and defamation of its culture, and the modifier “Navajo” was removed. Similarly, in 2003, the NAACP spoke out against a Monopoly parody entitled “Ghettopoly,” which profited from offensive African-American stereotypes, and Urban Outfitters halted sales of the product.
While it’s easy to fall under the spell of a popular store that’s close to home and (sometimes) within teenage price range, by giving Urban Outfitters our business, we’re facilitating the continuation of its offensive products. Not only that—we’re also supporting its CEO, Richard Hayne (a right-wing billionaire who denounces both gay marriage and abortion and donated money to Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign) and his decisions. These include, most recently, selling a “Kent State University” sweatshirt with bloodstains and bullet holes, exploiting a tragic 1970 campus shooting to make a fashion statement. In today’s society, consumers hold the power, so we have the responsibility to educate ourselves about the stores at which we shop. When we choose to buy, we’ve effectively donated to a cause: the ongoing existence of a company; therefore, we must be mindful of that company’s character and the values it promotes. Urban Outfitters has shown its disrespect for races, cultures, religions, victims of all sorts—people of all sorts—which is why we, as Princeton shoppers, should end our affiliation with it.