Surely you've heard of Forever 21. They're your go-to store for $3 tank tops, they love copying indie designers, and they're apparently really into hip-hop — which is why they recently released a line of tees that say things like "Ice Cube," "City of Compton," and "N.W.A.: The World's Most Dangerous Group." They slapped the shirts on a bunch of white models, styled them (inexplicably) with a heavy dose of Seattle grunge/wannabe-Cara Delevigne attitude, and tweeted a picture of the new collection with the line "New arrivals...straight outta Compton."
The negative backlash was immediate, and Forever 21 pulled the tweet (you can see a screenshot here).
You'd think that such a profitable company would be able to afford a better publicist, a savvier stylist, or even just a social media intern that can tweet without offending large numbers of people, but alas, Forever 21 just doesn't know how to make a buck without stepping on someone's toes. This is a company that scores a sweet $3.4 billion in revenue every year and employs 30,000 people, and yet scandals like this keep on happening. There is no good way for a mega-retailer to sell a "City of Compton" shirt — unless perhaps the shirt is made in Compton (it wasn't), is designed for Compton kids (it isn't), or in some way benefits the city of Compton (it doesn't). And yet they do it anyway.
Uh, and how did they not anticipate the awkwardness of the whole who-should-model-this-shirt issue? On a white girl, it's cultural appropriation; on a black girl, it's gonna look like stereotyping. There is no good way to sell a "City of Compton" shirt.
Full disclosure here: I am a huge Tupac fan. Sometimes he sings about Compton. I also like Dr. Dre. He sings about Compton, too. If I had stumbled upon that "City of Compton" shirt at, say, a thrift store, my first reaction would have been you-guys-you-guys-this-shirt-is-so-cool-I-must-have-it-right-away. Maybe that's not the best response to have, but I'm being honest here: My initial, unfiltered reaction would have been a spark of interest. Because young white people like me enjoy the residual feelings of "cool" we get from the trappings of rap, gangster culture, street cred, urban appeal, and so on. This is not news.
But even though I am merely one person, and my personal PR/marketing/advertising budget designed to keep me from doing dumb things is exactly zero dollars, I would have eventually come to the conclusion that a shirt like that doesn't have a place in my wardrobe. Casually wearing a "City of Compton" t-shirt is just insensitive. It's relentlessly appropriating this concept of "cool" from a city that doesn't even have a Forever 21.
I'd been busily tweeting about Forever 21 while writing this article, as one does in 2013, when I got a thoughtful response from Matt (@joe_schmuck), who summed the whole thing up particularly well:
Yup, exactly. The Compton shirt has an ick factor that the "Ice Cube" one just doesn't.
Still, the question I keep returning to is not "How could Forever 21 be so insensitive?," but "Why does Forever 21 keep doing this?" Do they make so much money off the negative publicity that it's worth it to keep offending? Perhaps they're trying to keep up with their grittier big cousin, Urban Outfitters, who's been getting more and more comfortable with putting expletives on their shirts, and whose latest catalog showed teenage-lookin' models having a few beers on the roof. Looks like Forever 21 has tired of their glitzy sequined days and wants street cred at any cost, no matter who or where they have to steal it from.
God forbid they have to earn their stripes the way everyone else does, by creating something independently cool that stands on its own merit.