Urban Outfitters: An Affront to Sensitivity

Pop-hipster store Urban Outfitters has recently come under fire for selling a shirt that many have found to reek of holocaust imagery. The short-sleeved men’s t-shirt is mustard yellow, with a blue six-pointed star over the breast pocket. The image called to mind when looking at the shirt are the yellow “Jude” stars Jews were made to wear during World War II in order to easily identify themselves. The Canada Free Press, who broke the story on April 18th, is quick to point out that the stars worn by the Jews were sometimes blue, and that the yellow coupled with the star of David is an unmistakable combination that is “yet another sign of the times that liberal ideology is elevating anti-Semitism back to mainstream acceptability once again.”

This is quite a weighty assessment; then again, the message seems to fit nicely into a pattern that the Pennsylvania-based, international company has exhibited over the years. In 2003 their shelves were graced by a line of shirts emblazoned with the words “Everyone loves a ________ girl,” with the blank containing various identifiers such as “Asian,” “Irish,” or “Catholic.” On the Jewish version, the words were surrounded by dollar signs and what have been called either shopping bags or purses. It’s a pretty ugly stereotype, but it’s certainly not the worst thing we’ve seen from them. In 2008, the store carried a depicting a young Palestinian boy (he’s wearing a keffiyeh and crouching next to the Palestinian flag), clutching an AK-47 over the word “Victimized.” The blatant anti-Israel message is deafening, and the shirt was eventually pulled from shelves with a letter from the Operations Manager claiming the shirt “never intended to cause upset.”

It’s ugly stuff, but lest you think it is only the Jews they are targeting, the store still stocks a shirt titled “OBEY Salem Spring Tank-top,” which has offended Christians with the depiction of an upside down cross. Additionally, in 2004 the chain carried a “Jesus Dress Up” game. The magnetic depiction of Jesus is in the classical crucified position, only this time he is wearing “tighty-whiteys” and comes with accessories such as a pink tutu, a coconut bra, and a devil suit complete with pointed horns. Considering these episodes, the company is obviously no stranger to the mistreatment of religious symbols.

Maybe you hope the offense stops at Judeo-Christian circles, but that’s not so. In 2010 the company sold a shirt with bold block letters reading “Eat Less.” The piece was believed by many to be a pro-anorexia statement. And as recently as last month the company set off controversy in the LGBT community by marketing a greeting card that many have interpreted to be transphobic. Even if it is not that, and it is simply misplaced humor, it is in terrible taste and, as a warning, contains strong language in their rhyme based on Jack and Jill. For those who do not wish to see the actual language, the story is essentially that Jack takes Jill up the hill to fool around and is shocked to find she has male genitalia because she is “a closet tranny.”

The incidents presented above paint a pretty hideous picture. According to the Company Profile available on the corporate site, the brand seeks to connect with customers “on an emotional level.” Additionally, they hope to foster an environment in which “the customer feels an empathetic connection to the brand and is persuaded to buy.” It would appear that with the amount of people they are ticking off, there will be no one left to connect emotionally with. And perhaps you feel differently, but it would seem these types behaviors are not ones that inspire “empathy.” As a closing note on the rundown of their corporate history, it should be mentioned that the list above is not complete, and that they have had many other similar incidents over the years, which can be found, in part, here.

This brings us back to the shirt in question, the “Wood Wood Kellog Tee.” First and foremost, a number of misconceptions must be cleared up. Many have come to believe that Urban Outfitters has labeled the line “Auschwitz Chic” and have been marketing it thusly. This moniker, while perhaps apropos, was not, if fact, put forth by the company in any way. The origination of this phrase is the original Canada Press article where author Fred Dardick describes the shirt as, “an item of clothing that can best be described as ‘Auschwitz chic.’” The phrase, while pithy and arguably fitting, did not come from the clothing company itself.

That stipulated, a company’s decisions cannot be looked at in a vacuum, but neither should their individual circumstances be overlooked. In the aftermath of outrage over the design going public, the design company, Wood Wood, released the following letter:

Dear friends,
As some of you are aware, several news sites have been writing about our ‘Kellog’ T-shirt, which feature an image of a six-pointed star, allegedly similar to the yellow badge Jews were ordered to wear by the German Nazis.
First of all the graphic is not the Star of David, and I can assure you that this is in no way a reference to judaism, nazism or the holocaust. The graphic came from working with patchwork and geometric patterns for our spring/summer collection ‘State of Mind’.
However when we received the prototype of this particular style we did recognize the resemblance, which is why we decided not to include the star patch on the final production T-shirt.
I assume the image people have reacted to come from Urban Outfitters´ web site. This must be a photograph of an early sample, which is of course an error.
Here is the actual T-shirt as it is in stores: http://woodwood.dk/store/product/category-men-tees/kellog-tee
I am sorry if anyone was offended seeing the shirt, it was of course never our intention to hurt any feelings with this.
Brian SS Jensen,
Co-Founder of W.W.

As of Monday the 22nd, the Urban Outfitters website began to carry a picture of the “current” sample, which is now a plain yellow t-shirt but still bares the $100 price tag. The hope is that the biggest crime here is overcharging, and false advertising for a shirt that looked on the site, according to the above, nothing like what would have arrived had someone ordered it prior to the switching of the picture. It is understandable that this explanation has left some skeptical, however, it is worthwhile to look into the “State of Mind” collection Jensen mentioned. Doing so, a relevant result is a shirt called the “Wood Wood Match 1 Tee,” with obviously the same use of the “star” design as on the Kellog shirt of the same line; however, in this instance it is plain to see that the intended design is not really a star of David, but the intersecting “geometric” planes mentioned in the letter above. Compare it to the star on the Kellog shirt, and it becomes, not an excuse, but perhaps a window into a grey area as the lines on the star become interpretable as the delineations of planes. It is worth mentioning that the Match 1 shirt bears the caption “Mescaline Mathematics;” a quick Google search reveals mescaline is a hallucinogen similar to LSD. This doesn’t clear up the caption, only makes one sure they should stay far away from this unsavory clothing line and its inflated price tags.

No one is making the suggestion that Urban Outfitters is free of transgression in this case; rather, it would appear that this shirt has become a rallying point that truly should have been found months, if not years ago. In this case it would seem there is room for debate, but the company has had far too many inflammatory incidents in the past for it to be overlooked. Was this a case of malice, or is it simply incompetence at its finest? Both answers appear to have merit, and at it’s very best, this incident can be seen as an egregious miscarriage of sensitivity in the world: I, like so many others, see the offensive imagery. But I also see that it is not quite the black and white condemnation it has been touted as. Nevertheless, I think the company, who by the way also own and operate Anthropologie and Free People, has fully earned the boycotts and defamations now being lauded upon it. If you make the choice to withhold your business, do so informed, do it completely, and make a call to reduce hate and increase sensitivity in the world.