Urban Outfitters, that corporation of choice for those flirting with counterculture, has gotten itself in trouble again. This time, it’s for putting a pretty unmistakable gang sign on one of their shirts. An online-only men’s shirt bears a design that looks a whole lot like the symbol for one of Chicago’s most violent gangs, the Gangster Disciples. Politically iffy moments like these have earned Urban Outfitters a famously sketchy reputation over the past decade. Despite their hip, left-leaning fanbase, UO is also notorious for plagiarizing indie designers and supporting right-wing politicians like Rick Santorum. Thankfully, the target audience isn’t totally fooled, and young stars like Miley Cyrus have spoken out against the corporation’s inherent shadiness. After the jump, we round up some of Urban Outfitters’ most shameful moments.
Gangster Disciples shirt
Without a doubt, UO’s biggest controversy in recent years was that time they “accidentally” made “Obama/Black” one of the colors for a completely apolitical shirt. Their explanation didn’t really help: “The burnout pattern on this shirt is comprised of two colors — one is an internally developed color we called ‘Obama Blue’ and the other is ‘Black.’ Unfortunately our website database truncated this combination to read ‘Obama/Black.'” Irin Carmon of Jezebel responded perfectly: “So: Not racism, just run-of-the-mill and arbitrary cashing in on our president’s popularity!”
Offensive St. Patrick’s Day products
While it may seem hidden to most consumers, Urban Outfitters betray their conservative nature in the unfortunate habit of perpetuating stereotypes. UO has been pissing off the Irish community for a long, long time, thanks to an abundance of particularly fratty St. Patrick’s Day merchandise. Shirts, hats, and glasses have been decorated with phrases like, “Kiss Me, I’m Drunk, or Irish, or Whatever” and “Irish I Were Drunk.”
The African-American community reacted furiously when Urban Outfitters sold a Monopoly parody called “Ghettopoly,” which made fun of gang violence, minorities’ relegation to low-income housing, and a whole host of deeply offensive stereotypes. In a USA Today article, the game creator predictably claimed Ghettopoly was “a medium to bring together in laughter,” but the game also mocked black leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X by misspelling their names. It was eventually pulled from shelves.
Ripping off indie designers
Urban Outfitters doesn’t hesitate to steal from designers, and the short-lived blog Urban Counterfeiters was dedicated to calling out UO’s plagiarism. They handed out the above pamphlets outside of an Urban Outfitters in Vancouver, and the location agreed to pull the imitations from their store if the group stopped protesting outside. Urban Counterfeiters said they’d start handing out pamphlets at other locations, but the blog hasn’t been updated since 2007. While probably not related to the original group, this “Urban Counterfeiters” Twitter occasionally keeps track of the store’s more recent rip offs.
“Voting is for Old People”
This shirt caused an uproar in the “Vote or Die” era of 2004, and it was rightfully viewed as an attempt to discourage young potential voters. The designer told MTV News that his shirt was intended “to sum up the current state of political affairs, pointing a finger at all of us who’ve been so apathetic in the past.” But the design doesn’t read like that at all, and it wasn’t exactly helpful satire in a notoriously apathetic election year. This was surely a convenient alibi for the right-wing CEOs, who had every reason to keep kids away from the polling booths.
Pulling a pro-gay marriage shirt right after Prop 8
About a week after the above shirt was released, UO made the suspicious decision to remove it from their California stores. To make matters worse, the tees disappeared from shelves soon after Proposition 8 passed. New York magazine’s reported that “[a] buyer cited the reason as ‘too much bad press’…though the designer couldn’t find more than one blog entry that dissed the shirt.” Not a very good or tight explanation, considering the press that followed was even worse, and publications made sure to call attention to the company’s politics in their write-ups.
A transphobic greeting card
Last year, UO earned the ire of the LGBT community for a regressive greeting card the website described as “charming.” After it was blasted on Reddit, the card conveniently sold out. What occasion would even call for a card like this anyway?
“Preserve Your Daughter’s Virginity”
The “ironic,” old-fashioned ideas in Urban Outfitters’ designs aren’t limited to race, class, or sexual orientation — they sold this creepy, misogynist shirt back in 2010. “While I suspect this T is supposed to be, ahem, ‘ironically sexist,’ it grosses me out that Urban is happy to make money off of ha-ha-misogyny, but finds real social issues to be too ‘controversial,'” said Amelia McDonell-Parry of The Frisky.
“New Mexico: Cleaner Than Regular Mexico”
This shirt attracted the Anti-Defamation League’s attention back in 2005. It promoted not only stereotypes, but a harmful nationalist philosophy. “It is unfortunate that Urban Outfitter’s design and marketing teams think being offensive is a fashion statement,” said Susan Seligman, the director of ADL New Mexico.
“Chinese Man” costume
And the racism doesn’t stop! After he noticed a “Chinese Man” costume at UO, professor Richard M. Lee of the University of Texas at Austin sent emails to Asian-American student groups across the country. A national boycott ensued, and the costumes were eventually removed from stores. In an article for The Harvard Crimson, activist and editor Caroline T. Nguyen perfectly summed up UO’s dodgy history: “This ignorance does not get diminished by simply pulling the items off the shelves.”