When I was younger, Urban Outfitters used to be the coolest shop in our small college town. Now, the once-hip retailer has gone from the epitome of cool to a troll-in-the-form-of-a-shop: selling offensive apparel, ripping-off indie designers, and courting controversy when its CEO donated money to Rick Santorum.
So why are prominent LGBT artists like Perfume Genius and Tegan & Sara partnering with the problematic retailer and risking being associated with an offensive brand? The answer is that selling out in the music world is still in fashion.
“The ‘collaboration’ [between Perfume Genius and Urban Outfitters] simply involved UO financing a rather costly music video with zero creative input,” Nils Bernstein, publicist for Perfume Genius, told Unicorn Booty. “It was a situation where UO’s corporate profits funded LGBT-positive art by a very vocal LGBT artist.”
In December, Perfume Genius released a music video for his song, “Fool,” exclusively on Urban Outfitter’s YouTube page. The video featured Perfume Genius wearing fire engine-red lipstick, matching nail polish and gold rollerblades. The last scene has the artist provocateur writhing suggestively in front of stuffy business executives flicking money bills at him.
Previously, Urban Outfitters CEO Richard Hayne made a $13,000 personal donation to Rick Santorum, the anti-gay, anti-abortion politician who once publicly compared same-sex marriage with bestiality.
“I can’t speak to [UO’s corporate goals], as I didn’t work on the project. But honestly, I think the actual people doing this stuff at UO feel as divorced from their owner’s personal views as you and I do,” Bernstein added. “They are genuine fans.”
No one can blame Perfume Genius and his management team for taking Urban Outfitters’ money in order to make a music video. Artists often rely on corporate brand integrations to be able to pay the bills.Bernstein said that the “Fool” video wouldn’t have been made otherwise. It’s quite possible that Perfume Genius received more money from the Urban Outfitters partnership (all of which went directly to producing the video) than he’s made from his entire catalogue streaming on Spotify. And if the video for “Fool” is any indication, Perfume Genius has embraced a “take the money and run” mentality: a form of queer empowerment in a mainstream, heteronormative world.
Mike Hadreas, the man behind the Perfume Genius musical persona, has opted not to address the Urban Outfitters-funded project publicly. Urban Outfitters did not respond to Unicorn Booty’s request for comment.
When the video first premiered, however, some of Perfume Genius’s fans quickly noted the hypocrisy involved with partnering with Urban Outfitters. Facebook fans of the artist were not shy about sharing their thoughts on social media.
“Urban Outfitters?! Seriously?,” wrote a Facebook fan. “Read about their owner and policies and you might want to take that back.”
“Strange that an outspokenly gay artist is exclusively featured by an outspokenly anti gay company,” read another comment.
More Facebook fans chipped in, calling the partnership “not the smartest move” on Perfume Genius’s behalf. Others wrote it was “sad,” “disturbing” and “evil.”
There was a similar social media outcry when Tegan & Sara released a limited edition t-shirt for Urban Outfitters in late February.
“Disappointed you would have any interactions with Urban Outfitters,” read one response on Twitter. Other responses pointed out that Urban Outfitters also has a history of creating “socially horrible clothing.”
In February, the same month Urban Outfitters began carrying the Tegan & Sara tee, the Anti-Defamation League criticized the retailer for selling a tapestry with a pink triangle that was “eerily reminiscent” of the clothing the Nazis forced gay prisoners to wear in concentration camps. In September 2014, Urban Outfitters was accused of hitting the “outer reaches of bad taste” when they started selling a blood-splattered Kent State sweatshirt, the same university where four students were massacred by the Ohio National Guard during the Vietnam War protests in the 70’s. In 2012, even Unicorn Booty called them out for selling a transphobic greeting card. In 2011, representatives of the Navajo Nation demanded that Urban Outfitters pull its “distasteful and racially demeaning” Navajo-labeled clothing that falsely suggested had been made by Native Americans. In 2010, feminists accused Urban Outfitters of promoting anorexia among young women by selling a top with just the words, “Eat Less.”
Urban Outfitters has been constantly embattled in controversy after controversy, that you could have forgiven Perfume Genius and Tegan & Sara and their “take the money and run” approach, but when that’s the thing your fans first notice after releasing new material or a new product, then you have to ask yourself if the money was worth it.
Tegan & Sara’s publicist at Warner Brothers Ian Quay did not respond to Unicorn Booty’s request for comment.
Besides the CEO having homophobic right-wing associations and the racist, transphobic and all around offensive merchandise the retailer routinely carries, fans also noted that Urban Outfitters has been accused of ripping-off inspiration from independent designers. You’d think this would have resonated deeply with indie artists like Perfume Genius and Tegan & Sara.
While other retailers like H&M, American Apparel, and Zara are embracing its LGBT customers (and profiting from it), perhaps Urban Outfitters is using these partnerships with queer artists to clean up its reputation as a fashion troll hub. After all, being an inclusive, gay-friendly brand pays offs, but given Urban Outfitters’ high-profile faux pas, it’s going to take a lot more than funding a music video with a guy who wears lipstick.