Cultural Appropriation In Design

Urban Outfitters – Navajo Collection

Urban Outfitters is a brand that is focused on young to middle aged people, but over the years they have made several mistakes when it comes to cultural appropriation. Some of these include the “Irish I Was Drunk” tee, which aimed at St. Patricks Day, but was helping fuel harmful stereotypes towards Irish people. Another example was the Kent State sweater that was dyed pink and splattered with a red ink ,which looked very similar to blood. This was incredibly disrespectful, because it was pointing to the Kent State Massacre, where several people died protesting the Vietnam war. However, the designs that I would like to focus on today is the “Navajo” line of clothing that was released in 2012. This line appropriated Native American graphics, which were specifically created by the Navajo tribe. Some of the clothing and items that used these graphics included sweaters, pullovers, t-shirts, underwear, earrings, socks, tunic’s, flasks, totes, and dresses. Basically anything Urban Outfitters could slap a design on, they did. They also used the name Navajo as the descriptor for these items. The problem with all of this and where the company went wrong is that they are using a stereotypical Native American designs to profit off of, without any care or consideration for some of the tribes that produce them.

When the Navajo tribe found out about this collection they decided to take Urban Outfitters to court for “trademark dilution”. Trademark dilution is when a person or company uses someone else’s trademark designs, which dilute the market for the company/person who created the item. This makes it much harder for the original artist/creator to be able to profit, because it is much easier to receive the item through other means, which in this case was Urban Outfitters. With trademark dilution it also makes it harder for the viewer to know what product is authentic, which might “cheapen” the original designers work. On top of this lawsuit the Navajo tribe believed it was unethical to use the term “Navajo” to describe the Urban Outfitters products. They also filed a claim in court against UO (urban outfitters) on the terms that they were violating the Indian Arts and Crafts act of 1990. This act keeps people from selling crafts under the premise that they are native.

Urban Outfitters claimed that the designs and name Navajo was fair use, but once the suits were filed in court UO and the Navajo tribe reached an agreement for licensing and supply. The new agreement allowed the tribe to collect a small amount of compensation for items sold as well as opening an agreement to allow Navajo jewelry and other designs to be sold in stores when the time comes. Once the dust had settled an Urban Outfitter representative mentioned that “As a company, URBN has long been inspired by the style of Navajo and other American Indian artists and looks forward to the opportunity to work with them on future collaborations.”

All of this appropriation could have been easily avoided by contacting the tribe early on in the design process. It would have made much more sense to hire the tribe or artists from the tribe to create designs for the large clothing company. This would allow the designs to be original and not ripped off for a “for profit” scheme. I do think in the end it is great that UO will be selling authentic native designs in their stores, but it is almost a too little too late approach. This just shows that cultures who create authentic and memorable designs need to have a way to protect themselves. Some of these arts and crafts are a major way that these tribes support themselves as well as keep their culture alive for future generations.


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