Urban Outfitters' Black History Month Celebration Isn't Sitting Right With Some HBCU Grads
The retailer launched a collection of HBCU sweatshirts in partnership with an HBCU alumnus who said the grievances are nothing more than social media hype.
February 12, 2021 at 11:07 pm
According to Good Morning America, the collection "was inspired by the cultural vibes of HBCU homecomings and streetwear."
SY’all better not be giving Urban Outfitters no damn money for HBCU stuff. https://t.co/4rzN1cUOon— Gabe (@mejiafgabe) February 8, 2021
Educational consultant Ada Smith, a two-time Xavier University of Louisiana graduate, told Blavity that she feels that the collection is "disingenuous and not respectful of our institutions."
"'Inspired by' is just a way to say you are stealing our culture for profit," Smith said. "HBCU culture is sacred to those of us who have chosen to attend each fine institution and it should not be mocked for profit. Companies need to do better than stealing our likeness for their own profit."
While all involved companies are white-owned, Alife partner and campaign creator Treis Hill, who has been erroneously referred to as a co-founder of Alife, is an HBCU alumnus having graduated from Hampton University. Hill told Blavity that Alife could not successfully contact each institution individually, but that the intentions were to be authentic and inclusive of HBCU alumni.
Some alumni have pointed out the designs aren't representative of their institutions, as is the case with the Xavier University of Louisiana sweatshirt which does not feature the full name of the school or its official colors. Hill told Blavity that the full name was too long, but he was unsure as to why the green font was used as opposed to the university's gold or white.
The use of green font was especially upsetting to university alumna and clothing designer, Theresa Bew, who owns the cardigan company, The Talented Tenth, which is licensed to sell HBCU letterman cardigan sweaters.
"All designs have to be approved that use the school's logo, colors or likeness regardless of previous [CLC] approval of other products or designs," Bew said.
A representative from Xavier University of Louisiana said that Alife's design never appeared in his CLC queue for approval, as is the process for officially licensed merchandise. He declined to comment further.
Hill, however, stands on the idea that the collection authentically represents HBCUs. According to the collection's advertisement, everyone involved with the campaign is an HBCU alumnus, including the cast, director Amandla Baraka, photographer Michael Grant and stylist Pamela Shepard Hill.
"This was a collaboration to bring awareness and opportunity to put this in front of a retailer that gets millions of views on Instagram and a large footprint across the country on a retail base and say, 'hey, America, here's HBCUs. Black folks will support you, Urban Outfitters, and oh, by the way, let me get inside your company and make you guys change,'" she said. "We're making sure Urban Outfitters is doing the right thing and holding their feet to the fire."
But for some HBCU grads, it's the Urban Outfitters partnership coupled with the designs that makes them uneasy about supporting the collection.
Kent A. H. Olden, a Morehouse College alumnus who works in communications, told Blavity that he takes a 'do it right or don't do it all' stance when it comes to promoting Black culture.
"I'm in full support of [Urban Outfitters] appointing an HBCU grad to run the campaign and even employing graduates from the schools represented to be the models. But you're not going to slap the schools' names on these white hoodies, most of which have the wrong color anyway, charge $89 and expect us to swoon because of 'representation,'" Olden said.
"These schools have been around since 1837. We know how to represent ourselves. I really wanted to give it a chance because I'm all for the promotion of our HBCU culture and legacy if it's done right. HBCU students and alumni are a tough crowd to please, and this line just missed the mark," Olden continued.
Hill said that the negative social media attention is not indicative of the line's sales.
"It's beyond successful," he said, declining to provide on-the-record details on the extent to which the sales are successful.
"Everybody has an opinion on Instagram, but the purpose of this is about driving awareness."
The designs, too, had a purpose. Hill said he was looking to have something with clean lines where the names could stand out.
"I don't like chenille patches, I don't like bedazzled things, I don't like all the extra stuff," Hill said. "I just like simple, plain, clean things, and that's what the collection speaks to, the element of clean lines and the ability to kind of tell a story and make a statement. That's what it meant for us and we weren't about to do something different."
Hill told Blavity that the real creativity in the collection is the campaign and the ability to have a nationwide retail chain carry HBCU products.
"The HBCUs are all making money and none of that stuff on Instagram is deterring us -- we're moving forward," Hill said.
Hill was approached by Urban Outfitters after displaying some mock designs on his Instagram account. The featured institutions were chosen as Urban Outfitters wanted to reach liberal arts schools for a related initiative.
"I told them, 'I'm all about having a conversation with you as long as you're willing to do the right thing,'" Hill said.
Urban Outfitters doing the right thing, according to Hill, would be the retailer allowing him to take the lead on the design and marketing.
"I had to be able to select an HBCU staff and we wanted [Urban Outfitters] to do something to benefit HBCU graduates in the long haul, which they are doing," Hill said.
According to a press release sent to Blavity, Urban Outfitters will be launching, “UO Summer Class ’21,” a new initiative this spring in tandem with the collection.
"Program participants will consist of one excellent student from each of the five participating HBCUs, who have been nominated by their school in acknowledgment of their academic excellence," the release stated. "These students will be invited to participate in an extension of UO’s 10-week paid internship program where they will receive one-on-one mentoring with leaders within the Urban workforce throughout the summer."
Five percent of all Alife's sales, including the HBCU Capsule Collection, are being split between UNCF and Thurgood Marshall College Fund. Urban Outfitters has not said it would be donating proceeds, however, the licensure allows for up to 15% royalties to the institutions through their independent contracts with CLC, which could land each featured school up to $13.50 per shirt depending on their contract details.
Urban Outfitters has faced lots of scrutiny from BIPOC groups, especially its Black employees who just last summer unveiled claims that the 50-year-old Philadelphia-based retailer is an unsafe work environment for them. Employees at its headquarters also said they do not feel safe working during COVID-19, according to a report this week in Philadelphia magazine.
Blavity reached out to Urban Outfitters to discuss the HBCU Capsule Collection but did not receive any response.