It wasn’t just a culturally insensitive gaffe when retailer Urban Outfitters put a line of Navajo-inspired items — including panties and a flask — in their stores: It might be a lawsuit. A Native American blogger recently denounced the company’s wares as “perverted cultural appropriation,” launching a blogosphere conversation about when fashion goes too far.
By naming their items after the Native American tribe (i.e., the Peace Treaty Feather Necklace or the Staring at Stars Skull Native Headdress T-shirt), the company may have to pay a hefty fine for violating trademark law. The Navajo Nation owns 12 trademarks on the use of the word “Navajo,” and according to the Department of the Interior, it’s illegal to sell items in a manner that falsely suggest they are produced by Native Americans.
Pending litigation aside, this isn’t the first time that Urban Outfitters has found itself on the wrong side of public opinion for an item sold in its stores — nor is it the first company to offend a portion of the population by pushing the boundaries for questionable merchandising decisions over the last 10 years:
April 2002: Abercrombie & Fitch offends with Asian T-shirt that bears the slogan “Wong brothers Laundry Service: Two Wongs Make it White.” The T-shirts featured Asian men with caricatured faces, slanted eyes and rice-paddy hats. The company was surprised by the controversy — “We personally thought Asians would love this T-shirt,” said Hampton Carney, with Paul Wilmot Communications in New York, the public relations firm where Abercrombie referred a reporter’s call.
May 2002: Abercrombie & Fitch debuts child-size thong. Christian and parent groups protested the chain’s child-sized thong underwear printed with slogans such as “wink wink” and “eye candy.” A&F said it was not its intention to offend anyone: “The underwear for young girls was created with the intent to be lighthearted and cute. Any misrepresentation of that is purely in the eye of the beholder.”
January 2004: Urban Outfitters offends Jewish people for selling a T-shirt that says “Everyone Loves a Jewish Girl” surrounded by dollar signs, perpetuating a negative stereotype of Jews. The company discontinued the shirt after a complaint from the Anti-Defamation League.
March 2004: Abercrombie & Fitch offends West Virginia with its men’s T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “It’s all relative in West Virginia.” The shirts prompted a response from West Virginia governor Bob Wise, who wrote to Abercrombie CEO Mike Jeffries to ask that the chain remove the shorts from stores. “This item subjects our youth to unsubstantiated and false impressions of West Virginia,” wrote Wise. “By selling and marketing this offensive item, your company is perpetuating an inaccurate portrayal of the people of this great state. Indeed, such a depiction of West Virginians undermines our collective efforts to communicate a positive representation of the spirit and values of our citizens.”
July 2005: Urban Outfitters upsets New Mexico with a shirt that reads “New Mexico, cleaner than Regular Mexico.” Protesters picketed the store, and the Anti-Defamation League once again issued a complaint.
November 2005: Teens launch a “girlcott”against Abercrombie & Fitch for the company’s sexist shirts. Some of those slogans read: “Who needs a brain when you have these?” and “I had a nightmare I was a brunette.” The Allegheny County Girls as Grantmakers, a group of teenage activists from Pennsylvania, “girlcotted” the store, later meeting with company executives to explain their point of view. Abercrombie pulled the shirts off of their shelves and issued an apology. The company later issued T-shirts with positive slogans like “Blonde with a brain.”
January 2007: Urban Outfitters pulls kaffiyehs from stores after a blogger criticized the retailer’s decision to label the garment an “anti-war woven scarf.” According to the New York Times, the blogger posted photos of terrorists wearing the tasseled scarves, and the company pulled them from stores with the explanation, “Due to the sensitive nature of this item, we will no longer offer it for sale. We apologize if we offended anyone, this was by no means our intention.”
August 2011: J.C. Penney earned feminist ire with a shirt that said “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.” The blogosphere erupted, and within hours the department store had pulled the product, issuing a statement to the Village Voice: “We agree that the ‘Too pretty’ t-shirt does not deliver an appropriate message, and we have immediately discontinued its sale. Our merchandise is intended to appeal to a broad customer base, not to offend them. We would like to apologize to our customers and are taking action to ensure that we continue to uphold the integrity of our merchandise that they have come to expect.”