Local writer wages #MYcultureNOToutfit campaign against Urban Outfitters

Categories: Activism, Fashion
UO_Dress_header.jpg
screenshot of Urban Outfitters website via Mohammed Nur's blog.
Two weeks ago, on March 17, local editor Lolla Mohammed Nur saw an image of a dress on Twitter. The dress was familiar to her, but not by this label.

There, in the photo, was an Urban Outfitters model wearing what Mohammed Nur knew as a traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean dress, known as a "hager lebs" or a "zuriya," and worn by women in those East African cultures on special occasions. But on Urban Outfitters' website, it was described only as "Vintage '90s Linen Dress," and marked with the price tag of $209.

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Within an hour, Mohammed Nur, who is herself Ethiopian and Eritrean-American, started tweeting with the hashtag #MYcultureNOToutfit and created a petition on Change.org. By the next morning, over 1,000 people had signed (Change was impressed enough with the reaction to reach out to Mohammed Nur).

Now nearly 7,000 people have added their names, asking that Urban Outfitters change the labeling on the dress to credit its cultures of origin, apologize, and going forward, promise to mark its items with culturally appropriate labeling.

Urban Outfitters has a long, messy history of getting called out for cultural appropriation (or, some would say, for "hipster racism"). Most notably, about a year ago, the Navajo Nation sued the company over items like the "derogatory and scandalous" "Navajo Hipster Panty."

This time, Mohammed Nur and others decided to protest for similar reasons. "I was angry," Mohammed Nur explains. "There was no doubt for anyone who is familiar with Ethiopian or Eritrean cultures that this dress is ours. I felt like a really important aspect of my culture was being marketed in a way that was dishonest."
UO_Dress.jpg
screenshot of Urban Outfitters website via Mohammed Nur

In the days after she first saw the dress, Mohammed Nur started blogging about her efforts to get a response from the company. She spoke with a customer service representative, then emailed with a spokesperson. Both explained that the dress was part of the company's "Urban Renewal" vintage collection, and a one-off item whose design and origins the company couldn't verify. (That response echoes the company's explanation for January's controversy over "Juan At Wal-Mart" shirts.)

Meanwhile, the dress was removed from the website, and Urban Outfitters tweeted that it had been sold:
UO_Twitter_Response.jpg
screenshot via Mohammed Nur.
The dress wasn't "one-of-a-kind" at all though, Mohammed Nur countered. To prove it, other supporters of the campaign sent in photos of themselves in their own traditional dresses:
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At left, the Urban Outfitters dress. Right, #MYcultureNOToutfit supporter Makeda Seyoum.
Not_One_Of_A_Kind.jpg
Fevean Keflom, left, with the nearly-identical Urban dress at right.
When City Pages contacted Urban Outfitters, a spokesperson repeated comments similar to those she had given to Mohammed Nur.

"The dress is part of our One-Of-A-Kind Vintage collection, which is a curated selection of vintage items that our buyers have found throughout their travels from various cities and locations in the USA," the spokesperson wrote in an email. "In this case, like many of our vintage finds, the dress was purchased with no labels and therefore we do not know the manufacturer, designer nor country of origin. If we did, we certainly would credit them."

"Once we became aware of concerns over the origins of the dress, we were prompted to further investigate the dress," the spokesperson later clarified, but would not detail how the company is investigating.

She also declined to disclose Urban Outfitters' policies on cultural labeling, or whether it would issue a response to the #MYcultureNOToutfit campaign.

Mohammed Nur explains that she's not opposed to people borrowing from each other or being inspired by cultural designs. Many people in the diaspora, she says, just want their culture's items identified as such when they hit the mainstream, in part to provide a positive representation.

"Africans in Africa tend to be portrayed in negative ways," Mohammed Nur explains. "When you think of Africa you think of things like famine, and war, and poverty, and disease, and so we hold dearly onto African culture."

"When an American company tries to take that away from us," she continues, "it does make you feel like you're being robbed of something that your own people made and celebrate. If you're going to borrow from our cultures, at least be accurate in where it came from."

Mohammed Nur's personal stance is that cultural credit isn't always enough, and that a mass retailer's involvement can raise a flag for appropriation right away. In her ideal model, she says, Ethiopians and Eritreans would be the ones designing, selling, and profiting from any culturally-inspired items.

Along those lines, and in order to extend the conversation beyond Urban Outfitters, on Monday, Mohammed Nur co-created the Twitter handle @AfriOutfitters -- African Outfitters.

"One thing that's come out of this campaign is people saying, 'I don't blame Urban Outfitters, because we didn't do it first,'" Mohammed Nur explains. "Where were we as Africans owning our designs? I can't think of too many African designers or people of African descent who are in the mainstream fashion world, so I figured it would be really interesting if we started a Twitter account that focused on our culture in a positive light."

"Once this particular campaign is over, that doesn't mean the issue of cultural appropriation is over," Mohammed Nur says. "So how can we create more positive narratives, more that's celebratory and not reactionary, to counteract that?"

For more on #MYcultureNOToutfit, read Mohammed Nur's thorough blog post, "'Hey, Urban Outfitters: My culture is not for sale!' An open letter from an angry habesha woman," and listen to her today on Al Jazeera English at 2:30 p.m.
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7 comments
beckkilkenny
beckkilkenny

The term hipster comes the hepcat jazz culture of the 40s. Does anyone still get pissed off when they see old white dudes talking jive, wearing fezzes, and otherwise pretending to be a black guy from 70 years ago? Or is it possible that cultural appropriation can create new subcultures that are even more racially tolerant and inclusive than those that only accept a certain color of people?


So which is better, hipster racism or overt racism?

briansays
briansays

the dress is lovely and its sale is not being challenged just the need to pay some respect to the culture and country that gave rise to its design and accurately state so in its marketing

cms3642
cms3642

It's a dress.  Who cares?

Anna Alexandra Eleanore
Anna Alexandra Eleanore

I'm glad she noticed what was going on and tried to "right" a "wrong" by clueing them in. HOWEVER: I'm not Ethiopian and I wouldn't have known that was an Ethiopian dress. I'm guessing the stylists/marketers at U.O. didn't either. Especially if it was vintage. They probably acquired it and there's only so much research you can do on an item before you try to re-sell it. I have an Etsy shop where I re-sell vintage stuff and often times when I come across something that looks like it's from another country I try my best to figure it out. I probably have a better idea than some because I was an anthropology major, but many times it's very difficult to identify. Especially if there are no tags - which often time traditional cultural clothing does not have any tags because it's handmade. That being said, I don't think U.O. is "racist" per se, there are only so many ways to label clothes. I have Greek heritage and I don't get annoyed when something is labeled as "Greek Goddess" or "Toga", etc. It's just what it's called.

Dan Johnson
Dan Johnson

Good god some people are waaaay too sensitive. I have better things to do than worry about what some company names a dress.

moore_amanda
moore_amanda

anyone who shops at this store needs a reality check.  They buy their items for pennies at garage sales then sell them to for an arm and a leg.. it just doesn't make sense to me.


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