What's in a Name?

Urban Outfitters, the retail mecca for once and future hipsters, recently scrubbed its website of all references to “Navajo.” What was once the “Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask” is now the “Printed Fabric Wrapped Flask”; the “Navajo Hipster Panty” is now the “Printed Hipster Panty”; and so on. The items are still available for purchase, but they’ve all been renamed.

AP Photo/Matt York

Urban Outfitters' former "Navajo" hipster panty.

The move comes on the heels of a Web-based campaign against the retailer’s marketing practices and official requests from the Navajo Nation Department of Justice. In June, the Navajo Nation sent a cease-and-desist letter to Urban Outfitters CEO Glen Senk, citing the company’s numerous registered trademarks for “Navajo” on clothing, footwear, household products, textiles, and online retail sales. This was followed by an open letter at the Racialicious blog by Sasha Houston Brown, a member of the Santee Sioux Nation, who assailed Urban Outfitters' “mass marketed collection of distasteful and racially demeaning apparel and décor.” She also pointed out that the company's actions were in fact illegal under the 1990 Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act, which prohibits selling goods under the pretense that they are made by Native Americans.

Ed Looram, the company’s spokesperson, initially insisted that the retailer was merely following a fashion trend and had no plans to modify or discontinue any of these products.” So when Urban Outfitters finally removed “Navajo” from the names of their products in mid-October, many viewed it as a legal, cultural, and moral victory for the Navajo Nation—including Brown, the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, and a journalist from Indian Country Media network who playfully suggested that the simple Printed Hipster Panty might also be called the Righteous Undergarment of Cultural Victory. But the solution leaves me wondering: What does deleting the word "Navajo" from the Urban Outfitters website actually achieve?

In removing the Navajo name from its products, Urban Outfitters has technically complied with trademark law, but it hasn’t addressed the larger problem of cultural appropriation. Fashion institutions and individuals have a long history of co-opting non-Western items and practices of dress for profit. In repackaging these items, the relevant cultures and histories are often misrepresented. Cultural appropriation underpins a system of consumer capitalism and racism that enables global corporations to profit from imitation goods while native designers struggle to earn a living. As a result, complex native cultural practices are represented as flat stereotypes.

Imitation cultural products reinforce fashion’s social dynamics, which celebrate cultural dress as exotic for some but reject it as backward when worn by minorities. While purchasing say, a native headdress, may lend already-privileged hipsters an aura of bohemianism and coolness, native people who invest economically, emotionally, and culturally in the same garment are interpreted as traditional and unmodern. By reducing cultural dress to a fashion statement, appropriation removes all of the political meaning, including histories of racism and imperialism, from cultural objects.

Intellectual-property law provides the illusion of regulating naming rights but still allows companies to exploit minority groups. These cases should not ask who “owns” ideas—which is difficult to determine in creative and collaborative industries like fashion. Rather, they should seek to determine who benefits from the use, exchange, production, and consumption of a particular cultural aesthetic.

Given the publicity this controversy has received in mainstream and alternative media sites, Urban Outfitters consumers will be hard-pressed not to read the Navajo name onto these popular products anyway. Fashion’s long history of cultural poaching has made it possible to know these commodities and their associated practices when we see them; they needn't be named. Silk robes embroidered with gold floral patterns or dragons are recognizably Asian. Likewise, products bearing the bold, geometric patterns associated with and often stereotyped as Navajo design will be visually identifiable as Navajo or at least “native-inspired.”

The Navajo Nation’s legal victory won’t prevent Urban Outfitters and other fashion companies like it from continuing to manufacture and sell an array of fringed and feathered sweaters, jackets, shoes, and accessories that consumers identify as “native” by sight if not by name. Neither has intellectual-property law’s ethical shadings induced the company to make broader and long-term changes in its marketing practices. For proof of this, check out the many items available in Free People and Anthropologie (Urban Outfitters’ other retail stores) that are still described as “Navajo.”

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