Urban Outfitters: All its recent controversies, explained


Urban Outfitters along Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn. (Helayne Seidman/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

What is Urban Outfitters? If your mall doesn’t have one, it’s a store geared towards teens and young adults that carries hipstery clothing that safely pushes the boundaries of fashion — and occasionally, taste. You’ll see plenty of neon accessories, graphic tees (we’ll get to those later) and novelty books about frat-boy humor topics, like a cookbook for “Stoner Snacks.” The company also owns Anthropologie, a store full of upscale girlie houseware and attire, and Free People, which has a hippie, bohemian vibe.

Seems OK to me. So why are people constantly upset about this company? UO has a history of selling provocative products — or pulling products that relate to gay causes from its shelves. Some of the products have offended women’s groups and ethnicities. It has also been accused of ripping off designers from the DIY marketplace Web site Etsy.

Here’s a quick rundown of groups that have complained to UO about products recently:

The transgendered community: Objected to a “humorous” card in stores this month (now sold out) that uses the word “Tranny.”


Items from Urban Outfitters' Navajo line. (Matt York/AP)

The Navajo Nation: The Navajo Nation recently sued the company for trademark infringement after UO sold items labeled as “Navajo,” including panties and a flask. The federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act makes it illegal to falsely suggest that merchandise is made by American Indians when it is not.

Irish and Irish-Americans: Offended by St. Patrick’s Day graphic t-shirts that depict negative stereotypes of Irish people as binge-drinkers.

Independent designers: Last May, one Etsy jewelry designer saw designs on the UO Web site that she thought looked suspiciously like hers. She fought back via Twitter, and the company pulled the jewelry from stores.

Women’s health advocates and bloggers: They were upset about a UO shirt that said “Eat Less,” which was pulled from the company’s Web site for promoting eating disorders and negative body image.


Protest at Urban Outfitters in response to the “New Mexico” t-shirt. (Zach Klein/courtesy Zach Klein, Flickr)

Residents of Mexico: The Anti-Defamation League again got involved in 2005, when the store issued a shirt that said “New Mexico, cleaner than regular Mexico.”

How does the company respond to these complaints? Depends on the complaint. It ignored the Irish American complaint, for example, but apologized for the kaffiyehs.

Why are people sharing a photo of Urban Outfitters president Richard Hayne in my Facebook feed this week? Though the fashions and attitudes that his stores sell are geared towards young urban-dwelling hipsters — which tend to be a pretty liberal demographic — Hayne is a conservative, and he and his wife donate money to conservative causes. Bloggers allege that Hayne’s political beliefs have led to the store’s offensive merchandising decisions.

This isn’t a new revelation — it’s been noted in profiles of Hayne for almost a decade. Federal Election Commission records show that Hayne and his wife have donated $14,150 to Rick Santorum, though most of those contributions were in the ‘90s. He’s also donated to Republican candidates for Pennsylvania races, according to OpenSecrets records. As Santorum’s campaign continues, and after the most recent merchandise that the LGBTQ community found offensive, an image of Hayne is circulating on Facebook, with information about his political views (like this snippet on Snopes).

Do any of these controversies have any effect on Urban Outfitters’ bottom line? Not really. A Change.org petition that asks Hayne to stop supporting anti-gay rights politicians has not garnered many signatures so far. The company’s stock price recently declined, but that was after it reported lagging fourth-quarter earnings. Boycotts from aggrieved groups have resulted in negative PR and the removal of items from stores, but not not much else. The controversies may even increase the company’s appeal for some.

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.

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