Urban Outfitters, the clothing manufacturer and hipster closet-filler, was marketing a “Vintage Kent State Sweatshirt” for $129 earlier today. The sweatshirt is splattered with what appears to be blood. According to Urbanoutfitters.com, the sweatshirt is now sold out, probably because only one was available in the first place, as is the case with all of Urban’s “vintage” wares.
Right on cue, the retailer issued an apology. It is a master class in terrible apologies. It reads, in full:
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.
Quite the coincidence, Urban! So weird that Kent State got the blood-splatter treatment but somehow these vintage looks for Penn State, University of Texas, Cathedral College, Providence College, Iowa State University, Bates College and New Mexico University emerged from the faux-aging process unscathed. Urban can say “the red stains are discoloration from the original shade of the shirt,” but they don’t have an explanation handy for why the shirt would need to be red in the first place. Kent State’s colors are navy blue and gold.
The sole Kent State sweatshirt was listed for sale on EBay this morning, and the seller promised that up to half the proceeds from the sale would go to the Southern Poverty Law Center. As Daily Intel reported, the sweatshirt was going for $2,500 earlier today. The EBay page seems to have vanished from the internet.
This comes on the heels of another “oops! We totally spaced on one of the most horrific acts of violence committed in the 20th century” clothier screw-ups. Last month, Zara pulled a children’s shirt from its shelves after consumers complained that the shirt looked like a concentration camp uniform.
Better together: crazytown Urban Outfitters Kent State sweatshirt + insane Zara concentration camp baby pullover pic.twitter.com/xKoXrwSrTR
— Elif Batuman (@BananaKarenina) September 15, 2014
Whether you want to believe the companies who claim these missteps were accidental—“We thought it looked like a little sheriff’s star!” “It’s just vintage!”—depends on which crime you find more egregious: ignorance or callousness. Making the case for Zara’s concentration camp cluelessness is hard enough, especially given that the store has previously been caught in the act of stamping handbags with swastikas. The mental gymnastics required to believe “there is no blood on this shirt” and that “the holes are from natural wear and fray” on a shirt bearing the logo of a university whose claim to the national consciousness is that it was the site of a fatal shooting would confound even our best Olympians.
Ninety-six members of the National Guard were on Kent State University’s campus on May 4, 1970. Each carried tear gas and a loaded M-1 rifle. The hundreds of students in the Commons—classes broke at 11:45 a.m., so the place was packed—were unarmed. It was too windy for the tear gas. General Canterbury had his troops stand down, and most of them did. But twenty-eight Guardsmen turned back around and opened fire. The rest is just numbers and history: Thirteen seconds, sixty-seven shots, nine students wounded, four students killed. Each of their stories is uniquely horrific, yet are also just numbers and history. For instance, Sandy Scheuer hemorrhaged to death. She was shot in the throat. It took about six minutes for her to die.
One would need to possess an extraordinary willful obliviousness to our nation’s past to not know that a torn-up and visibly bloodied Kent State University sweatshirt would call only this massacre to mind.
But Urban’s really got the art of the passive apology down, wherein they are not sorry for anything they have done but only for how you may have mistakenly judged their innocuous choices as offensive (“we deeply regret that this item was perceived negatively”). It isn’t too surprising they’ve got this “sorry not sorry” statement on lock. They’ve had to bust it out so many times before.
They were sorry-not-sorry for their appropriation of the Navajo Nation name and imagery, which Urban argued they “had a right to use” and “were not insensitive.” They were sorry-not-sorry about the “Kellog” t-shirt, which featured a six-pointed yellow star that the tee’s designer, Wood Wood, declared only “allegedly” bore a resemblance to “the yellow badge jews were ordered to wear by the German nazis” (the missing capitalization is all Wood’s; who has time to treat “Jew” and “Nazi” like the proper nouns they are when you’re issuing a non-apology for your accidental anti-Semitism?) They were sorry-not-sorry about the smattering of St. Patrick’s Day products with slogans like “Kiss Me, I’m Drunk, Or Irish, Or Whatever,” that the largest Irish-American organization in the U.S. complained served to “defame and debase a whole race of people.”
Looking to Urban Outfitters to be the arbiter of good taste is like looking to fashion magazines to be standard bearers in positive body image. So why is this so disturbing? Urban Outfitters is like that girl who always won limbo at your grade school birthday parties: just when you thought she couldn’t possibly go lower, she bent ever closer to the floor. We expect nothing better from Urban Outfitters; what’s one more awful choice?
Maybe it’s just that this sweatshirt places us squarely at the intersection of tragedy and commerce. We have been here before. We hate it here. But what are we even doing here? Why would Urban Outfitters sell something like this?
If Door No. 1 is that Urban legitimately did not intend to reference the shooting, we know why this happened: by accident. This seems… unlikely.
But if the answer is behind the more-probable Door No. 2 — that Urban Outfitters did it on purpose — what’s the why? The generous answer would be that this sweatshirt was a tribute that backfired. This also seems unlikely.
Was it all for a day of free press? Are they really so stupid as to believe that this spike in Twitter mentions is a good thing for business? Then again, does the Urban Outfitters target demographic, the oldest of whom were born in the early 1990s, know or care about a shooting that happened at least twenty years before their lives began?
What makes the most sense in this senseless scenario is that the minds at Urban Outfitters think that hipsters the nation over would actually find something like this funny. Maybe they thought they were telling a really clever, dark, sophisticated joke. That they were being ironic. And it is sort of hard to know what to say to that, honestly, because the rules for when to be ironic versus when to be reverent seem to be constantly shifting.
When you are just as likely to run across the #neverforget hashtag in irony or in branding as you are in sincerity, how is anyone supposed to know the line of bad taste until someone, usually Urban Outfitters, bolts carelessly across it? Maybe we don’t have the right to be surprised that Urban Outfitters expects our capacity to find humor in this humorless imagery to be so high.
1970 wasn’t so long ago. You don’t have to look very hard to find recent incidents involving a militarized police force attacking unarmed citizens. We just made memes of pepper spraying cops.
Kent State University issued a statement condemning the item:
We take great offense to a company using our pain for their publicity and profit. This item is beyond poor taste and trivializes a loss of life that still hurts the Kent State community today.
“Beyond poor taste.” Sounds like Urban Oufitters just found itself a new slogan.