Urban Outfitters has seen its fair share of controversies over the years. For instance, it sold a Monopoly parody game called "Ghettopoly" and a T-shirt with the phrase "Everybody Loves a Jewish Girl" surrounded by dollar signs. Now its Navajo-themed products have landed it in hot water again.
On Oct. 10, guest contributor Sasha Houston Brown wrote a scathing open letter to Urban Outfitters on the blog Racialicious about the clothing company’s new fall fashion line of Navajo-patterned apparel. She wrote that the products make her, as a Native American woman, feel “deeply distressed by [Urban Outfitters'] mass-marketed collection of distasteful and racially demeaning apparel and décor. I take personal offense to the blatant racism and perverted cultural appropriation your store features this season as ‘fashion.’”
The letter takes Urban Outfitters to task, saying that instead of supporting traditional Navajo arts and crafts made by actual Native Americans, the company has chosen to sell knock-offs.
The initial response from Urban Outfitters? Silence. In fact, it took the company three days to release the following statement: "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 product lines."
This isn't a case of a lone, angry blogger. According to Time, there are 23 products labeled as “Navajo” on the company’s Web site, and 13 more that are labeled as “tribal.” In addition, the Attorney General of Navajo Nation, which has 12 trademarks on the term “Navajo,” sent a cease-and-desist letter several months ago in relation to these items. The retailer did not respond publicly to this letter.
Most PR practitioners say that offering a "no comment" response to the media is always a mistake. The only thing worse may be no comment at all. Silence is not an option.