Today brought the news that hipster-friendly retailer, Urban Outfitters, has offended yet again. Much like American Apparel, which has become known for its provocative and often banned advertising campaigns (think: sexualizing children), the Philadelphia-based retail chain is no stranger to controversy. On the heels of its most recent foray into completely offensive fashion (think: a "vintage" Kent State sweatshirt spattered with fake blood), today's controversy, a tapestry resembling the prisoner gray and white stripes and pink triangles that gay prisoners were forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps, joins the many handfuls of other inappropriate and/or illegal publicity stunts that the retailer has pulled in the past (Navajo-branded underwear and flasks; hypodermic needle pens and prescription drug-themed shot glasses; and depression and "eat less"-themed t-shirts, etc. etc.).
According to a statement from the the Anti-Defamation League's national spokesman: "Whether intentional or not, this gray and white stripped pattern and pink triangle combination is deeply offensive and should not be mainstreamed into popular culture. We urge Urban Outfitters to immediately remove the product eerily reminiscent of clothing forced upon the victims of the Holocaust from their stores and online."
These continued tactics, ones that appear to serve the primary purpose of maintaining some form of relevance, are being utilized in light of ongoing financial struggles for the brand. Following a 5.2 percent tumble in the first fiscal quarter of 2014, Urban Outfitters reported this fall that its sales fell another 2.4 percent for the second quarter. According to a statement from the company in connection with its recent financial report, it blamed the 194 basis point decrease in its gross profit rate on “underperformance at the Urban Outfitters brand.” Urban Outfitters' subsidiaries, Free People and Anthropologies, are reportedly picking up the slack for the retailer, which has been struggling for a number of reasons, including its inability to keep up with the fast fashion chains that are dominating the market. The brand's Chairman and CEO, Richard Hayne spoke to the status of the poorly-performing company early this summer, saying that Urban Outfitters is “working diligently to regain its fashion footing."
This seems to be proving a difficult move, especially given the strength of fast fashion giants, such as Uniqlo (a subsidiary of Fast Retailing), H&M and Zara, which have been reporting continued growth. The same cannot be said for Urban, though. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal last month, Urban Outfitters started out quite strong, operating in a niche a bit different from most fast fashion retailers, "Having opened its first two stores next to Ivy League colleges, it always has eschewed mall rats for an older, more sophisticated clientele. It also has a much stronger e-commerce operation than most." And yet, the publication continues: "Shareholders have been losing patience with that distinction," and with consistent quarters of disappointing growth.
Similarly situated teen-focused mall brands, Aeropostale, Abercrombie & Fitch, and American Eagle Outfitters, are also struggling, but it seems that Urban is the only one consistently relying on in-poor-taste shock tactics to maintain its relevance, if it still has any at all (a point that is very much up for debate). The brand's consistent efforts to gain press by offending via its garments and accessories seems like a lazy, unsustainable and down right pathetic strategy to me. But as they say, no press is bad press, and judging by the continued nature of its offending ways, the brand must be seeing some returns on its efforts. Thoughts?