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Is Courting Controversy An Urban Outfitters Strategy?

Earlier this week, Gawker published an image of an invitation sent to Urban Outfitters employees, exhorting them, as the invite put it, to "break out your juttis, kurtas, turbans, saris, lehenga cholis and harem pants" for the company holiday party.

"As you can see," Gawker's Jordan Sargent wrote, "employees are being asked to dress up in some mish-mash of Orientalist signifiers so obviously offensive that two separate Urban employees forwarded the image to us this morning."

This comes barely three months after the infamous red-stained Kent State University sweatshirt that made apparent reference to the tragedy there, after which Urban Outfitters issued a sorry-not-sorry statement via Twitter and pulled the item from its website. The company soon followed with a more circumspect-sounding apology to Time that acknowledged its penchant for pushing buttons: "Given our history of controversial issues," it said, "we understand how our sincerity may be questioned."

Questionable sincerity aside, the recent pile-up of apparent missteps raises another question: Are they doing it on purpose?

"Yes, absolutely," says Jason Mudd, president of Axia Public Relations, a national firm with clients that include Verizon and Blue Cross Blue Shield.

"It's happening too frequently to be an accident," Mudd says. "It's certainly intentional, and perhaps part of their brand strategy and positioning."

It's happening too frequently to be an accident. It's certainly intentional, and perhaps part of their brand strategy and positioning.

There is plenty of evidence to support that conclusion. (We reached out to Urban Outfitters for insight, and will update this post with any responses.) Here's a nowhere-near-exhaustive list of the company's cultural firebombs: the menacingly yellow " Chinese Man Costume" (1998); the " Ghettopoly" board game (2003); the " Everybody Loves a Jewish Girl" dollar-signs T-shirt (2004); the " New Mexico: Cleaner Than Regular Mexico" T-shirt (2005); the " Navajo Hipster Panties" (part of a collection, 2011); the Irish apparel line and the Holocaust-recalling star T-shirt (2012).

As Mudd says, "They've been the subject of multiple controversies, particularly those concerning religious [and] ethnic issues. And it seems to be the area they're really comfortable in, and kind of living on the edge there."

The strategy — if it is a conscious one — shows no signs of letting up. Peruse the Urban Outfitters site and you'll find several examples of the company revisiting actions it has previously been criticized for.

For instance: Urban has been accused of stealing ideas from indie designers in the past; now it has a T-shirt depicting Bruce Lee as a DJ — which is a clear (if mirrored) rip-off of a design released by the Asian-American pop culture magazine Giant Robot in the early 2000s.

The store currently sells a Great Wave-style T-shirt with the imperial Japanese flag in the background — a flag that has been a proven controversy generator in the past.

Moreover, "India" has become a bit of a running theme of late.

Here's a Great Wave-style T-shirt with the imperial Japanese flag in the background.
/ Urban Outfitters
Urban Outfitters
Here's a Great Wave-style T-shirt with the imperial Japanese flag in the background.

Just two months before the Kent State sweatshirt, Urban angered Hindus with its Lord Ganesh duvet cover: "Lord Ganesha was highly revered in Hinduism and was meant to be worshipped in temples or home shrines," Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, said in a statement, "and not to be slept upon." The previous December, a pair of Lord Ganesh socks had drawn similar criticism.

According to a company statement published by the Huffington Post: "We sincerely apologize if we offended the Hindu community and our customers. We appreciate Rajan Zed and the Universal Society of Hinduism for bringing this matter to our attention and for helping us understand the cultural and religious sensitivities this product carries. We will remove the Ganesh Socks immediately from our website and stores."

But a " Ganesha Tapestry" is available right now on the Urban Outfitters website. In one photo, the item appears spread across a bed.

So while the recent invitation was probably never meant to see the light of day — incidentally, Instagram party photos show "henna tattoo" cookies, Bollywood-style dances and some cultural cosplay — it's part of a long-established pattern.

But why?

Depending on your point of view, this approach is either winning as a PR strategy or losing as a business strategy. In either case, sales are declining.

According to a BuzzFeed report: "Urban is also worried that it's gotten too young. Richard Hayne, CEO of the parent company, said in March that the brand is trying to win back its core demographic of 18- to 28-year-olds after drawing in too many 14- and 15-year-olds customers."

Could it be purposely trying to drive off the parents of these undesirable high-schoolers, presuming that its slightly older and more financially independent customers will "get" the joke? (After the "Jewish girls" T-shirt incident, JWeekly reported that "[then-president Ted] Marlow said he has received very few complaints, and none from young people, Urban Outfitters' desired demographic.")

"They're clearly alienating some of their employees and perhaps their customers," Mudd says, "and I think it begins to beg the question: Is there an absolute lack of any racial sensitivity or any sensitivity whatsoever within the organization as part of their culture?"

As for whether the constant detonation of what, for many companies, would be PR disasters will continue apace, "I think it comes down to the heart of the company," Mudd says. "I think they have to be genuine and true to themselves."

All indications are that's exactly what the company is doing.

Steve Haruch is a writer, and a contributing editor at the Nashville Scene. You can follow him on Twitter @steveharuch

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Steve Haruch