Urban Outfitters under fire for 'Navajo' collection

Caitlin McCormack
Shine from Yahoo! Canada
October 17, 2011
(Two of the items from Urban Outfitters' 'Navajo' collection.)
(Two of the items from Urban Outfitters' 'Navajo' collection.)

With all the recent controversy surrounding several major fashion retailers, you would think that clothing companies might have learned a thing or two about sensitivity and appropriateness. Apparently not.

Retailer Urban Outfitters, who was previously accused of copying an independent designer’s necklace, is now coming under fire for their “Navajo” collection.

Sasha Houston Brown, 24, a Native American woman from Minnesota, blasts the retail chain in an open letter for selling the “culturally offensive” items.

ABC News reports that she sent the letter to the company’s CEO, saying she was offended by, "plastic dreamcatchers [sic] wrapped in pleather hung next to an indistinguishable mass of artificial feather jewelry and hyper sexualized clothing featuring an abundance of suede, fringe and inauthentic tribal patterns." She went on to call the collection "cheap, vulgar and culturally offensive."

Other websites quickly picked up on the issue, posting the text of Brown’s letter.

"It was the experience of being there and immersed in that setting, surrounded by all of these items, that took this cultural offense and cultural appropriation to another level," Brown told ABCNews.com.

[See also: Gisele Bundchen lingere ad sexist?]

Ed Looram, public relations officer for Urban Outfitters wrote in a statement to ABCNews.com: "The Native American-inspired trend and specifically the term 'Navajo' have been cycling thru [sic] fashion, fine art and design for the last few years. We currently have no plans to modify or discontinue any of these products."

Further fuelling the flames of controversy is Brown’s claim that the items in question might even be illegal, due to an American Act which "prohibits misrepresentation in marketing of Indian arts and crafts produced within the United States" and states the following:

"It is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States."

Brown’s letter is certainly bringing the issue to broader attention, and we can only hope it will have the desired effect of giving fair treatment and respect to the culture and histories of Native American peoples.

The issue doesn’t just affect America’s indigenous peoples. At the National Gatherings on Indigenous Knowledge, members discussed the concern of authenticity of Native Canadians’ artistic works. The report lists “knock-offs” as a major concern of First Nations, Inuit and Métis artistis. “For example, many imitation Aboriginal arts and crafts are produced in foreign markets and imported back into Canada for sale to tourists,” says the report.

Do you think retailers need to wake up and recognize the mass disapproval of what are perceived to be sexist, racist, and poorly thought out marketing campaigns, or do you think people are overreacting?

(Images via screen grab from UrbanOutfitters.com)

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