Urban Outfitters Becomes Political: Che Guevara and Freedom of Expression

Who are you wearing?  More than just brand-mongering fashionistas
are concerned with who they wear because clothing now has the power to send socio-political
messages. URBAN OUTFITTERS, the clothing company known for its edgy fashions
has pushed the boundaries too far according to some.

Recently URBAN OUTFITTERS marketed a
poster featuring Ernesto “Che”GUEVARA imposed over the Cuban flag and bearing
the word “Revolución”. According to the Maryland Institute College of Art,GUEVARA’s
image is one of the most an iconic 20th century photos. Although
previously used as a symbol of rebellion,GUEVARA’s image continues to spark
controversy due to his checkered past.

Guevara played a vital role in overthrowing
the Bautista regime in Cuba in 1959. 
Undoubtedly, he played a vital role in the Cuban Revolution but his
proximity to Fidel and Castro and their subsequent actions make him a controversial
figure.  Although he helped to end the
Bautista regime, he and Castro proved to be just as dictatorial as the regime
they helped to overthrow.  Under their
rule, Cuba was controlled by a police state and human rights were summarily
violated.  As noted inGUEVARA’s personal
diaries, he advocated for hard labor camps and mass executions.  Although originally, he was the revolutionary
voice of the Cuban people, his heavy-handed policies can hardly be called
humanitarian.

His policies were so polarizing that
Urban Outfitter’s choice to feature GUEVARA’s image led to a response form the HUMAN
RIGHTS FOUNDATION President, THOR HALVORSSEN. 
In his letter, Halvorssen citesGUEVARA’s image as one associated with
the “tyranny and repression for the millions of people who have suffered under
communism”.  He adds that, as part of a
ban on fascist and totalitarian images, Poland prohibits the distribution of GUEVARA’s
image.  Yet, HALVORSSEN quickly adds, “HRF
does not advocate the banning of an image -- no matter how offensive” and cites
freedom of expression as a human right.  However,
the question remains as to why URBAN OUTFITTERS is taking the heat for offering
a commonly reproduced, if somewhat controversial, image.

But, perhaps the most interesting
piece of the puzzle is URBAN OUTFITTER’S response to the criticism.  Instead of staying true to the rebellious
spirit synonymous with GUEVARA, URBAN OUTFITTERS pulled the product.  The poster is currently listed as
“unavailable”.  This response does not
fit with the brand’s avant-garde image and certainly does not uphold freedom of
expression.  In this way, America has a
social censor.  Although the outcry did
not come directly from the consumer base, URBAN OUTFITTERS headed-off
controversy by removing the offensive material.     

Dissimilarly, Los Angeles based
clothing company, AMERICAN APPAREL, continues to produce its politicized
merchandise.  Made famous by their
“Legalize Gay” emblazoned clothing, American Apparel is also promoting immigration
reform with their “Legalize L.A” line.  Although
no less controversial, American Apparel has the gall to stitch together
political activism and clothing.  This
brand defends freedom of expression and even seems to revel in the controversy
it creates.

Unlike URBAN OUTFITTERS, American Apparel
is marketed as a socially progressive company; featuring “sweatshop-free”, “made
in the U.S.A” clothing.  This brand makes
no bones about its liberal, socially minded ideology. Despite political
controversy, AMERICAN APPAREL does not kowtow to social pressures; it upholds
Che’s rebellious spirit.  In a world
where even clothing sends a political message, you are what you wear.

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