NEW YORK MAGAZINE: Urban Outfitters, the official clothing store of Outrage Twitter, reached a new low yesterday when shoppers noticed that the site was selling a “vintage” Kent State sweatshirt, complete with blood spatter. The Ohio university was the site of the 1970 Kent State shooting, when the Ohio National Guard killed four students during a peace protest. Urban was selling the sweatshirt for the low, low price of $129 (after all, it’s one of a kind). But after the sweatshirt hit BuzzFeed, someone quickly scooped it up. Now, of course, it’s for sale on eBay. The starting bid is $550 — or, if you don’t want to get into a bidding war with a fellow terrible person — you can buy it now for $2,500. According to the seller, it’s “perfect for Halloween or whatever your deal is.” To be fair, 50 percent of the profits from the eBay auction will go to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The other 50 percent will presumably go toward buying the next obnoxious Urban Outfitters item to provoke internet outrage. MORE
TIME: The thing is, this isn’t the first (or second, or even third) time Urban Outfitters has caught flak for selling horrible products. Making extremely offensive clothes has been almost synonymous with the company’s brand. Before Kent State, there was a top covered front-to-back with the word “depression.” Before that, another Urban Outfitters shirt featured a star that appeared nearly identical to the insignia Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany. (More recently, Zara pulled a shirt from its shelves for the same reason.) And before that there was the infamous “Eat Less” shirt, which prompted One Tree Hill star Sophia Bush to boycott the store in protest of what she saw as a “pro-anorexia message.”
So is Urban Outfitters run by a bunch of jerks? Perhaps, but—and this is an important but—they’re jerks with business sense. Urban Outfitters Inc, the company that owns Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Free People, Terrain, and Bhldn brands, recently announced record quarterly sales of $811 million. If courting controversy was bad for the bottom line, Urban wouldn’t be doing it. That begs the question: Is any publicity good publicity, as the saying goes, or will the company eventually suffer if it goes too far over the line?
Kit Yarrow, PhD, a consumer psychology expert and professor at Golden Gate University (and MONEY contributor), believes being repugnant is (regrettably) a good business strategy, especially for clothing brands that target a younger audience. “I think they get encouragement to keep doing it because they do get a lot of attention for it,” said Yarrow. “It’s offensive and a little bit tasteless, but shock value just can’t be underrated these days. In some ways it’s a little bit appealing to consumers to connect with a store that’s on the edgier side, and that’s one of the ways the store tells consumers they’re pushing the boundaries and aren’t your parents lame old store.” MORE
WIKIPEDIA: The Kent State shootings (also known as the May 4 massacre or the Kent State massacre) occurred at Kent State University in the US city of Kent, Ohio, and involved the shooting of unarmed college students by the Ohio National Guard on Monday, May 4, 1970. The guardsmen fired 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine others, one of whom suffered permanent paralysis. Some of the students who were shot had been protesting the Cambodian Campaign, which President Richard Nixon announced during a television address on April 30. Other students who were shot had been walking nearby or observing the protest from a distance. There was a significant national response to the shootings: hundreds of universities, colleges, and high schools closed throughout the United States due to a student strike of four million students, and the event further affected public opinion—at an already socially contentious time—over the role of the United States in the Vietnam War. MORE
URBAN OUTFITTERS: Urban Outfitters sincerely apologizes for any offense our Vintage Kent State Sweatshirt may have caused. 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. Again, we deeply regret that this item was perceived negatively and we have removed it immediately from our website to avoid further upset. MORE
RELATED: Despite its slacker aura and carefully calibrated antiestablishmentarian cachet, Urban Outfitters Inc. is in fact a very Establishment, hypercapitalist multinational retail concern with 51 stores in North America and flagship locations in London, Dublin and Glasgow. Urban Outfitters also owns and operates 40 Anthropologie stores (the 41st store opens this Friday), which peddle a variety of upscale apparel and housewares to women aged 30 to 45. The company also markets a wholesale line of housewares and apparel called Free People to approximately 1,100 retail clients. In fiscal year 2003, a year when most retailers’ bottom lines crapped out, Urban Outfitters opened 13 new stores and posted a company record of $423 million in sales–with net profits jumping up a whopping 83 percent over the previous year to $27.4 million.
But the difference between stage-crafted storefront image and corporate reality doesn’t end there. It extends all the way to the top, to the man who built the company from scratch–Richard Hayne, Urban Outfitters’ president and founder. While the typical Urban Outfitters shopper is likely to be liberal-minded–as is the province and privilege of youth–the fiftysomething Hayne is mom-and-apple-pie conservative. He and his wife Margaret have contributed $13,150 to the campaign coffers of Paleolithic right-wing Republican Sen. Rick Santorum and his Political Action Committee over the years.
Hayne, who would prefer this fact not appear in this story, did not always tilt hard to the right. In fact, he and the retail concern he founded came of age in the heady, longhaired lefty crucible of the ’60s. Back then he was vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War, the Nixon administration that perpetrated it and the big business military-industrial complex that financed it. The times, however, have a-changed. [...]
When PW was frogmarching Hayne down memory lane to the pre-history of Urban Outfitters, he recalled how seeing Dylan and Joan Baez perform in 1964 was a transformational experience. It opened his eyes to everything that was phony and uptight and unjust in the world–and made him want to change the world. And there is a part of him that believes he has done just that in his own small way. But as the hippie party of the ’60s devolved into the post-Vietnam hangover of the ’70s, it must have occurred to him that idealism–like the length of your hair or the cut of your clothes or rebellion itself–was nothing more than fashion. And fashion is a commodity to be bought and sold for a profit. MORE