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How Urban Outfitters Peddles Ironic Conservatism, Hipster Racism and Other Terrible Values

Every company uses consumers to sell products, but Urban Outfitters' way of doing so feels especially slimy.
 
 
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Urban Outfitters is the kind of place where you see a lot of young, idealistic progressive types both browsing the racks and standing behind the cash register. Young Republicans, not so much; for khaki pants, bow ties and pin-striped blazers, you’re better off heading to Brooks Brothers.

In 2008 the company sold all kinds of Obama T-shirts, including one that featured the now-famous Shepard Fairey illustration of the Democratic candidate, and no one batted an eye. College kids and hipsters wanted Obama T-shirts! Many of them would probably buy one today.

Which raises the question: Why on earth is Urban Outfitters now selling T-shirts featuring Mitt Romney?

There are a few reasonable explanations for why the Urban Outfitters Romney tees exist, actually. For one thing, Urban Outfitters (which also owns Anthropologie and Free People) is owned by a far-right conservative, Richard Hayne. All that youthful, vaguely hippie-feeling merchandise in his stores? That’s just a way to make some dough – dough that Hayne, in turn, gives to right-wing politicians like Rick Santorum. For Hayne, the young people and lefties who shop in his stores are just chumps to whom he can sell $69 peace-sign tank tops while supporting conservative politics.

Now the company is selling shirts that represent Hayne’s political perspective while appealing to hipsters’ penchant for irony, with slogans like “Mitt Is the Shit” and “2 Legit 2 Mitt.” Ironic conservatism: hilarious(ly stupid)! As Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams put it:

What’s revolting about the latest Urban Outfitters gambit is its sneaky ploy of making conservatism seem so uncool it’s cool, all funny and retro and Kelly Kapowski. Which, in turn, is how some doofus winds up using his chest as free advertising for a candidate he’d otherwise never in a million years vote for.

The other reason we can’t be surprised by the Romney shirts is that Ironic Conservatism fits so nicely into the Hipster Racist and Unabashedly Unethical oeuvres, of which Urban Outfitters has the market cornered. Let’s take a moment to remember some of the company’s least-great hits:

Anti-Semitic apparel: The Anti-Defamation League once went after Urban Outfitters for selling shirts with the slogan “Everyone Loves a Jewish Girl” and pictures of dollar bills and shopping bags. The company also once sold yellow shirts with a Star of David on the pocket, which of course has horrible connotations.

“Pro-ana” apparel: Who in their right mind would sell a shirt to young women with the slogan “Eat Less?” Urban Outfitters, that’s who.

“Ghettopoly”: It’s like Monopoly, but shockingly racist! The game, which drew the ire of the NAACP among other groups, featured liquor stores, “Ghetto Stash” cards, and crack, basketball and pimp playing pieces. “You got yo whole neighborhood addicted to crack. Collect $50 from each playa,” read one space on the game board.

The color “Obama black”: A few years ago, Urban Outfitters put a henley T-shirt in its online shop that came in the colors “White/Charcoal” and “Obama/Black.” Nothing to add. [Update June 19:A sharp-eyed reader has pointed out that Urban Outfitters did offer an explanation for Obama/Black. The shirt in question was apparently two colors -- "Obama Blue" (a color the chain had used in the past) and black, and the two colors were presented on the site incorrectly as Obama/Black. Still offensive, but unintentionally so, it seems.]

Transphobic greeting cards: “Ye Olde Jack and Jill,” reads a card Urban Outfitters sold earlier this year. “Jack and Jill / Went up the hill / So Jack could see Jill’s fanny / But Jack got a shock / And an eyeful of cock / Because Jill was a closet tranny.” Off-color and irreverent is one thing, but using the transphobic slur “tranny” is another. It’s no surprise that Hayne’s views on LGBTQ issues are reportedly “bizarre and old-fashioned.”

Appropriating Native imagery: The blog Native Appropriations has detailed at length the many ways Urban Outfitters has appropriated Native symbols. Headdresses, “tribal” patterns and dream catchers have become hipster mainstays, in fact, and Urban Outfitters is in large part responsible for their proliferation.

Stealing designers’ work: The ripping off of indie designers’ ideas is a problem that’s rampant among all fast-fashion chains, and Urban Outfitters is no exception. Both Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie have been accused many times of stealing designs from local designers and jewelry makers who sell their wares at places like the Brooklyn Flea and Etsy.

Unapologetic use of sweatshop labor: Urban Outfitters not only uses sweatshop labor, they're proud of it. Hayne told the Philadelphia Weekly in 2003 that he has no qualms about his company sourcing the vast majority of its clothing from sweatshops in the developing world. He said he was aware that garment workers were not paid fairly, but “most of his customers could not afford the price he would have to charge to turn a profit” (little consolation for the people buying that $69 peace-sign tank top).

As a teenager growing up in Dallas, back before Urban Outfitters stores were ubiquitous, I looked forward to trips to Austin so I could visit the Urban Outfitters on Guadalupe. My friend and I would spend hours browsing the faux-vintage T-shirts and strings of fish lights. At 15, Urban Outfitters’ cool, edgy, ironic sensibility was everything I wanted in a store.

But I was being used. Yes, every company uses consumers to sell products, but Urban Outfitters’ way of doing so feels especially slimy: exploiting young peoples’ desire to be cool and progressive and ironic while supporting a conservative agenda and filling the world with mass-produced, racist bullshit.

Shoppers, we can do better.

Lauren Kelley is the activism and gender editor at AlterNet and a freelance journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon, Time Out New York, the L Magazine, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter.
 
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