Two weeks ago, on March 17, local editor Lolla Mohammed Nur saw an image of a dress on Twitter. The dress was familiar to her, but not by this label.
There, in the photo, was an Urban Outfitters model wearing what Mohammed Nur knew as a traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean dress, known as a "hager lebs" or a "zuriya," and worn by women in those East African cultures on special occasions. But on Urban Outfitters' website, it was described only as "Vintage '90s Linen Dress," and marked with the price tag of $209.
[jump] Within an hour, Mohammed Nur, who is herself Ethiopian and Eritrean-American, started tweeting with the hashtag #MYcultureNOToutfit and created a petition on Change.org. By the next morning, over 1,000 people had signed (Change was impressed enough with the reaction to reach out to Mohammed Nur).
Now nearly 7,000 people have added their names, asking that Urban Outfitters change the labeling on the dress to credit its cultures of origin, apologize, and going forward, promise to mark its items with culturally appropriate labeling.
Urban Outfitters has a long, messy history of getting called out for cultural appropriation (or, some would say, for "hipster racism"). Most notably, about a year ago, the Navajo Nation sued the company over items like the "derogatory and scandalous" "Navajo Hipster Panty."
This time, Mohammed Nur and others decided to protest for similar reasons. "I was angry," Mohammed Nur explains. "There was no doubt for anyone who is familiar with Ethiopian or Eritrean cultures that this dress is ours. I felt like a really important aspect of my culture was being marketed in a way that was dishonest."
In the days after she first saw the dress, Mohammed Nur started blogging about her efforts to get a response from the company. She spoke with a customer service representative, then emailed with a spokesperson. Both explained that the dress was part of the company's "Urban Renewal" vintage collection, and a one-off item whose design and origins the company couldn't verify. (That response echoes the company's explanation for January's controversy over "Juan At Wal-Mart" shirts.)
Meanwhile, the dress was removed from the website, and Urban Outfitters tweeted that it had been sold: The dress wasn't "one-of-a-kind" at all though, Mohammed Nur countered. To prove it, other supporters of the campaign sent in photos of themselves in their own traditional dresses: When City Pages contacted Urban Outfitters, a spokesperson repeated comments similar to those she had given to Mohammed Nur.
"The dress is part of our One-Of-A-Kind Vintage collection, which is a curated selection of vintage items that our buyers have found throughout their travels from various cities and locations in the USA," the spokesperson wrote in an email. "In this case, like many of our vintage finds, the dress was purchased with no labels and therefore we do not know the manufacturer, designer nor country of origin. If we did, we certainly would credit them."
"Once we became aware of concerns over the origins of the dress, we were prompted to further investigate the dress," the spokesperson later clarified, but would not detail how the company is investigating.
She also declined to disclose Urban Outfitters' policies on cultural labeling, or whether it would issue a response to the #MYcultureNOToutfit campaign.
Mohammed Nur explains that she's not opposed to people borrowing from each other or being inspired by cultural designs. Many people in the diaspora, she says, just want their culture's items identified as such when they hit the mainstream, in part to provide a positive representation.
"Africans in Africa tend to be portrayed in negative ways," Mohammed Nur explains. "When you think of Africa you think of things like famine, and war, and poverty, and disease, and so we hold dearly onto African culture."
"When an American company tries to take that away from us," she continues, "it does make you feel like you're being robbed of something that your own people made and celebrate. If you're going to borrow from our cultures, at least be accurate in where it came from."
Mohammed Nur's personal stance is that cultural credit isn't always enough, and that a mass retailer's involvement can raise a flag for appropriation right away. In her ideal model, she says, Ethiopians and Eritreans would be the ones designing, selling, and profiting from any culturally-inspired items.
Along those lines, and in order to extend the conversation beyond Urban Outfitters, on Monday, Mohammed Nur co-created the Twitter handle @AfriOutfitters -- African Outfitters.
"One thing that's come out of this campaign is people saying, 'I don't blame Urban Outfitters, because we didn't do it first,'" Mohammed Nur explains. "Where were we as Africans owning our designs? I can't think of too many African designers or people of African descent who are in the mainstream fashion world, so I figured it would be really interesting if we started a Twitter account that focused on our culture in a positive light."
"Once this particular campaign is over, that doesn't mean the issue of cultural appropriation is over," Mohammed Nur says. "So how can we create more positive narratives, more that's celebratory and not reactionary, to counteract that?"
For more on #MYcultureNOToutfit, read Mohammed Nur's thorough blog post, "'Hey, Urban Outfitters: My culture is not for sale!' An open letter from an angry habesha woman," and listen to her today on Al Jazeera English at 2:30 p.m.