Urban Outfitters is no stranger to controversy – last year, feminist activist Shelby Knox urged a ‘girlcott’ of the store because she deemed T-shirt slogans like “Eat less” to be hurtful to women. But now they’re causing controversy in another way. An eagle-eyed reader emailed The Gloss when he noticed that several photos from the Urban website were shot in Israel. (Since then, Urban has posted a collection of photos from their Tel Aviv shoot as well as candids taken by models on their Facebook page.) While there’s certainly nothing wrong with using Israel’s storied landscape as a backdrop for their clothes, it rings false in light of the fact that Urban’s reputation in Israel isn’t the best.
In 2008, Urban Outfitters sold keffiyehs, the cotton or linen scarves commonly worn in the Middle East and popularized by late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in their stores and online. Available in several colors and patterns, the scarf was a bestseller until several Jewish blogs jumped on the store for selling them and accused Urban of having an anti-Israeli political agenda. Eventually, Urban bowed to the pressure and stopped selling keffiyehs, although they still sell similar products that are sometimes mistaken for keffiyehs.
While it isn’t unusual to choose exotic locations for fashion shoots, Urban’s use of Israel as a backdrop for menswear is a multilayered issue. Surely, going to Israel and spending money there means that Urban in some way contributed to the nation’s economy. However, the chain has also been criticized for not opening any stores in Israel. Due to economic and political complications, it’s often challenging for Western companies to open up locations in Israel – when H&M opened a store in Tel Aviv in 2010, several pro-Palestinian groups urged their supporters to boycott the chain. Urban does ship to Israel, however, as well as to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait.
Can you do a photoshoot in a place where you don’t have any stores? It’s a tough question to answer, but Urban Outfitters has never shied away from challenging questions.