On Monday, Urban Outfitters found itself apologizing for a women’s sweatshirt design, which had what looked to be blood splattered atop a Kent State University logo. The sweatshirt, which retailed for $129 and has since been pulled from the site, evoked memories of the 1970 incident where Ohio National Guard members opened fire on unarmed students at Kent State, killing four of them.
This coming on the heels of Zara having to one month ago stop selling a kids t-shirt design that reminded many of a concentration camp uniform.
In both cases, the fashion retailers went with the “we regret if our design was misinterpreted” non-apology apology. In a statement, Urban Outfitters said:
It was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970 and we are extremely saddened that this item was perceived as such. The one-of-a-kind item was purchased as part of our sun-faded vintage collection. There is no blood on this shirt nor has this item been altered in any way. The red stains are discoloration from the original shade of the shirt and the holes are from natural wear and fray.
Zara’s response to customer complaints was:
@eylanezekiel We honestly apologize, it was inspired by the sheriff’s stars from the Classic Western films and is no longer in our stores— ZARA (@ZARA) August 27, 2014
There has been plenty of righteous indignation on social media and the requisite “I will never buy another item from Urban Outfitters/Zara again” proclamations spilled forth.
But one question that isn’t being asked enough is how do these items make it to market in the first place? There are numerous design evaluations and approval processes that every item must go through before appearing on a store shelf or in your online shopping cart. The fact that no one voiced concern about either shirt is indicative of either ignorance, indifference, or both. Every option is troubling.
To the extent that I think about Kent State at all, it is about the massacre. I’m hardly alone. When you Google “Kent State,” the second search topic that comes up after the university name itself is “Kent State Shooting.” Apart from the shooting, it’s hard to think of any other reason the school’s name would resonate in the culture enough for a mall brand to sell it nationally. Meaning that, at best, Urban Outfitters was exhibiting questionable taste. The coloring, holes, and blood-like paint splatters only exacerbate matters.
Are we to assume that no one on the design or merchandising teams had heard of the Kent State massacre and was simply drawn to the well-worn patina of the sweatshirt the same way they were to the New Mexico University and University of Texas versions that Urban Outfitters also sold?
Sadly, the answer may be yes. We are now 44 years removed from the protests gone horribly wrong. The cultural and political touchstones for one generation quickly become obscure trivia one or two generations later. Being successful in fashion has never hinged on a deep knowledge of American history. It’s entirely believable to think that people at Urban Outfitters were too dumb to make the connection between the sweatshirt and the tragedy. That isn’t an excuse. It’s an honest assessment. And as much as it pains me to quote blue collar comedian Ron White, “You can’t fix stupid.”
The Zara example is a little more complicated. For one, the tragedy it references is one of the darkest moments in world history. Secondly, this is an item that was an original design. Urban Outfitters is guilty of re-selling a vintage sweatshirt, but it did not create the sweatshirt. The Zara shirt was designed by the team at the Spanish company. Zara’s argument that the design was cribbed from classic Westerns is incomplete. Sure, sheriff’s badges may have had six-pointed stars like the Star of David, but we can’t recall John Wayne wearing too many blue-and-white striped shirts. The resemblance of the Zara shirt to concentration camp attire is just too similar to be ignored. The fact that Zara made a handbag with a swastika on it a few years back doesn’t help matters.
The way to prevent these incidents from popping up again is with more a more diverse workforce at all levels. As a Jew, it’s impossible for me to look at the Zara shirt without thinking of the Holocaust. All it takes is one person to raise that red flag and PR crises like these can be avoided. While it’s impossible to represent every demographic at every designer and retailer, a diverse staff tends to have diverse friends. From there, a certain network effect of cultural awareness can take hold.
Now, this isn’t some cowering defense of some overly sensitive, PC attitude. There is plenty of room for boundary pushing, I mean, this is Playboy. However some boundary pushing isn’t for some greater good or political point, it’s just rooted in ignorance. Let’s try to limit the ignorance.