October 12, 2011

Media covers Urban Outfitters controversy

With Sasha Houston Brown's open letter getting reposted widely, the Urban Outfitters controversy is taking off in the mainstream media. Here's a report on Time.com:

Urban Outfitters Taken to Task for Faux 'Navajo' Products

By Allison BerryThis season, tribal prints have been a major trend, showing up in numerous fall runway shows, such as Isabel Marant and Proenza Schouler. Naturally, the trend has trickled down to the fast-fashion chains as well. But the ready-to-wear designers who have jumped on the Native American bandwagon have, for the most part, tried to avoid specifically labeling their clothing or marketing their collections as “Navajo.”

A key issue is whether Urban Outfitters is describing the style of the product, or suggesting that it was actually made by Navajo artisans. Currently there are 23 products labeled as “Navajo” on the company's website, as well as 13 described as the more generic “tribal.” And the trend is not limited to Urban Outfitters: Forever 21 also has 6 “Navajo” products, and a whopping 113 that are “tribal.”

Urban Outfitters has not yet issued a public response to Brown's letter.
On ABC News:

Urban Outfitters Under Fire for 'Navajo' Collection

By Christina NgIn a statement to ABCNews.com, Urban Outfitters public relations director Ed Looram wrote: "The Native American-inspired trend and specifically the term 'Navajo' have been cycling thru fashion, fine art and design for the last few years. We currently have no plans to modify or discontinue any of these products."

Looram added that the company is dedicated to inspiring customers and interpreting trends.

Brown said that not only were the company's items offensive, but they may also be illegal.
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On the popular Jezebel blog:

Urban Outfitters And The Navajo Nation:  What Does The Law Say?

By Jenna Sauers"The story with the Indian Arts And Crafts Act, though, is that it only protects, as you would expect from the title, 'arts' and 'crafts,'" says Scafidi. "So while there is general language [in the Act] about putting the term 'Indian' or 'Native American' or the name of a particular nation on any goods in a misleading fashion, that generalized language about 'any good' is narrowed by the description of 'arts and crafts' items in particular. Which is why things like the Jeep Grand Cherokee are not barred by the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, even though Cherokee is obviously a nation as well." A car isn't a piece of art, or a craft product.

And neither is a piece of clothing. Fashion is not considered an "art" (nor is a clothing design, under current law, copyrightable in the U.S.). And mass-produced items such as those Urban Outfitters sells are not really "crafts" either. In Scafidi's view, the fact that the Navajo Nation took the step of trademarking the name "Navajo" offers the tribe a much higher level of protection. That puts "Navajo" on the same footing as trademarks like "Chanel" or "Burberry." And the Navajo Nation has already warned Urban Outfitters to cease an desist from using the tribe's trademarks on its goods.

"There is a trademark on 'Navajo' for clothing," says Scafidi. "It mentions specifically jeans, and tops, and shirts, and sweatshirts," along with more general categories like "sportswear." Not all of the products that Urban Outfitters is selling under the name "Navajo" are enumerated in the trademark, "but you could imagine that other similar items could fall into the 'confusingly similar' category," meaning that they would also be protected from infringement. Of course, in court, "Urban Outfitters could come back and say, 'Well, if you wanted that trademark to cover panties, then you should have listed panties.'" It would be up to a judge to decide.
Plus some cultural context:

Urban Outfitters’ “Navajo Hipster Panty” Is Just the Tip of the Racial Iceberg

By Jim EdwardsFashion retailers have, historically, fumbled the ball when it comes to race, with companies frequently offending their own customers by presenting stereotypes and outright racism as if they were merely styles. It was only last year that Victoria’s Secret relegated its black models to a “tribal” skit complete with animal prints and a jungle motif.

And who could forget American Apparel’s (APP) “conical Asian hat”—i.e. a rice paddy coolie hat—which was withdrawn from sale following an outcry earlier this summer?
And:Back in 2003, Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) published a catalog that featured 67 white models and not a single non-white model. It also sold T-shirts that said “Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wongs Can Make It White,” and CEO Mike Jeffries told Wall Street analysts he was “delighted” to “exclude people” from his stores. An employee discrimination lawsuit followed and A&F ended up settling it for $40 million.Comment:  Once again we see the awesome power of protest. Adrienne Keene's initial posting and Sasha Brown's open letter have compelled the mainstream media to cover the issue. It's only a matter of time until Urban Outfitters caves in.

For more on the subject, see Forever 21's Columbus Day Sale and Neo-Navajo Fashion Trend.

Below:  Images from Urban Outfitters.

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