Urban Outrage: should we feed the troll?


Someone, somewhere is incentivising fashion brand Urban Outfitters to keep putting out scumbag merchandise. Otherwise, they would have stopped by now.

The company’s bloodstain-chic “Vintage Kent State Sweatshirt” echoes the 1970 Kent State Massacre, when the Ohio National Guard shot four unarmed war protestors. The victims have company: along with their avant-garde angle on police brutality, Urban Outfitters have also woven kitsch attire out of kooky behaviours like living with depression, having an eating disorder or believing in a Hindu god.

Whose fault was it this time?

If we ask Urban Outfitters, it’s no-one’s fault. In an extensive Twitter statement, they claimed that it “was never [their] intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970”. This offering has been precisely as placatory as apologies ever are when they follow the “I’m so sorry that somewhere, in a causal chain far removed from me, you feel a bad thing might have befallen you” format. It seems almost redundant to ask whether the person who approved the sweatshirt still enjoys decision-making powers.

Nor is the “things happen” apologism coming only from the horse’s mouth. The chairman of a New York-based retail consulting agency and investment banking firm told Slate that these mishaps are “just part of the business and it always will be”. Clothing designs are apparently processed so rapidly that a few offensive designs are bound to slip through the cracks. However, it remains unclear why this conveyor belt should so consistently churn out a very particular class of insensitivity – directed, always, at people who have comparatively little cultural capital available to respond. If the odd outburst of bigotry is the inevitable byproduct of your company’s brainstorming sessions, you should probably look into securing better brains.

No-one really believes that Urban Outfitters just happen to keep tripping up and landing on a marginalised group. The more common theory is that they have hit on a weaselly marketing plot: being an awful brand equals awareness of their brand’s awfulness equals brand-awareness equals profit. If this is true, we would perhaps do well to stop feeding the troll. But is it worth letting their awfulness go unremarked on when staying quiet also does nothing to dent their impunity?

It certainly seems plausible that the company’s self-identified “upscale homeless” consumer base would be comfortable employing glamourised suffering to imaginary seditious ends (the clue is in the term “upscale homeless”). If this is how Urban Outfitters view their target audience, it would make a lot of sense for them to calculatedly stir up mainstream outrage: the better to convince a bunch of unexceptional rich people that they can mark themselves as different by purchasing a given range of products.

If giving Urban Outfitters more attention does encourage spoiled millennials to throw more money at them, then my temptation is to let them wilt. But there are two things worth bearing in mind.

Firstly, people who have been denigrated by Urban Outfitters should probably have the first, last and intermediate say in what they do about it. Terms like ‘glamourisation of mental illness’ or ‘cultural appropriation’ often seem nebulous to people not affected by the issues involved: when activists can find a particular example to crystallise the concept they have been trying to get across to the not-yet-initiated, they might view the advancement of that aim as being more important than the individual effect on an individual company.

Secondly, activists might also feel – not unreasonably – that Urban Outfitters and their customers, i.e. the people who make products that dehumanise them and the people who buy products that dehumanise them, do not care very much what they think either way. In light of that, explaining what is happening to them and how they feel about it might seem a more important aim than that wildest of goose chases: trying to make consumer capitalism a force for social good. NB: its incentive structure resulted in Urban Outfitters making these sweatshirts in the first place.

Ideally, though, hipster consumers would cotton onto the deep conservatism of the slogans and beliefs they are endorsing. (Well, ideally ideally we would all do good things just to be good people, but I will very much settle for people doing whatever they think makes them anti-establishment if it furthers good aims, so whatever.) This idea is far from complicated. Repression of student protestors is neither edgy nor even slightly at odds with a neoliberal agenda. Mental-illness-as-fashion-statement and minority-religion-iconography-as-fashion-statement serve a very particular, very right-wing agenda of taking neither seriously. Probably, the best way to align yourself against the status quo is to stop bankrolling the people who benefit from keeping it in place.