Zara’s Holocaust Shirt, Urban’s Kent State Sweatshirt: Offensive Clothing Is the Retail Version of a Sex Tape

In today's retail climate, is it possible to stir up sales without stirring up controversy?


From left: Zara children’s shirt, Urban ‘Eat Less’ top, Urban Kent State sweatshirt, Urban ‘Depression’ top.

Well, they got what they wanted.

We’re talking about them, just as we talked, over and over and over again, about American Apparel, which filled store windows with mannequins sprouting giant clouds of pubic hair; about Zara, which sold a children’s shirt that eerily remsembled those worn by concentration camp prisoners; about MAC, which once tried to name a nail polish collection after a town in Mexico known for the countless number of women raped and murdered there, without police response.

In this case, we’re talking about Urban Outfitters, which, as of this morning, had up for sale a “vintage” Kent State sweatshirt with faux bloodstains on it.

We gasp in shock—who would sell this? Who would buy this?—and then we forward it to our friends, we blog about it (because everyone else is blogging about it, and because people seem to like to read about major retail gaffes), we post it on Facebook and Twitter, and we give them all the attention they wanted in the first place because, really, all press is good press.

Sure, there are people who will now boycott Urban Outfitters. And there are people who will roll their eyes and tell their friends, “See? The reason I never shop there is because of stuff like this.” (These are most likely the people who boycotted the brand back when they were selling products that encouraged eating disorders/appropriated Native American culture/glamorized prescription pill abuse.)

But there are also the people who will click on the link for the shirt (which now appears as sold out; a site-wide search for the item, though, brings up nothing), and be wooed by the willowy models at the bottom of the page, who wear ripped-up jeans and flat-brimmed hats and flannel shirts and look very pretty and bored. These people will hate themselves for it, but they’ll click through and eventually buy a duvet cover trimmed in pom-poms or a ripped “vintage” t-shirt for $159 (someone’s actually already bought this; like the Kent State sweatshirt, it’s listed as sold out). Or they won’t buy anything at all, but Urban Outfitters will be pushed to the forefront of their minds: Oh yes, Urban, that store that sold that horrible shirt that mocked the Kent State tragedy … and also really cute acid-wash jorts!

It’s a tired schtick, but it’s working—in much the same way as sex tapes used to work, back in the days when grainy footage of celebrities having sex would shock us. A sex tape catapulted Paris Hilton into our consciousness, where she’s lingered desperately for the better part of a decade. It’s how Kim Kardashian became famous, and it reminded us that Dustin Diamond still exists. A sex tape is a golden ticket to fame (or at least notoriety). And notoriety—whether for “leaked” sex videos or offensive t-shirts—is better than obscurity.

We shouldn’t just see the Kent State sweatshirt as evidence of a horrifically tone-deaf company, but also as an example of how the retail landscape is changing—and apparently suffering. When you can’t entice consumers with good quality and smart designs, the next best thing is shock value. What else is Urban supposed to do? Their demographic is young people between the ages of 18 and 25, a group that thrives on ‘shocking’: Miley Cyrus wearing pasties, faux wardrobe malfunctions, Justin Bieber stripping down onstage.

The bar is rising—or falling: What will shock us—or fail to shock us—next? In ten years, will a shot glass shaped like a pill bottle catch our attention? Or will we be so immune to these frantic attempts at stirring up controversy, being “edgy,” that we’ll simply roll our eyes—ugh, them again, sales must be down, time for them to pull out that design that sortakinda resembles a swastika and plop it on a t-shirt—and move on?

As our skin grows thicker, and companies go to even greater lengths to get under it, we’ll have to continually remind retailers and designers where that line of decency should be—and when they’ve crossed it. Sure, we’re giving them the press they so desperately crave, but the alternative—to ignore it and hope the billion-dollar company withers away—might just be worse. After all, selling something like that is one thing. Buying and wearing it is another.