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Urban Outfitters products labeled “Navajo” (screen shot via Yahoo! News)

Urban Outfitters executives may spend the weekend partying in their infamous “Navajo Hipster Panties” and sipping from “Navajo Flasks”: the retailer has just won a partial victory in its ongoing trademark battle with the Navajo Nation, the largest indigenous tribe in the United States.

In 2012, the tribe sued Urban Outfitters for using the word “Navajo” on a number of its products, including the aforementioned flasks and panties. The Navajo Nation holds many trademarks on the use of its name, including those governing clothing and accessories. The nation also accused the company of violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, a law that protects Native American–made designs and goods from being ripped off and appropriated by prohibiting the “misrepresentation in marketing of Indian arts and crafts products within the United States.” The nation has demanded that it receive either all profits from Urban Outfitters products labeled “Navajo” or $1,000 per day for every day that such products were sold.

But this week, the ongoing case took a hit: the court dismissed two of several claims filed against Urban Outfitters, the AP reported. The court’s reasoning? “Navajo” is not “famous” enough as a tribe trademark for Urban Outfitters’ use of it to qualify as dilution.

“While plaintiffs’ evidence may be relevant to their infringement claim, it is not legally sufficient to establish a ‘famous’ mark and, hence, to defeat defendants’ motions for partial summary judgment on the claims for dilution by blurring and garnishment,” said US District Judge Bruce Black in New Mexico, according to The Fashion Law. “‘Famous’ requires more than just widespread distribution and significant advertising expenditures,” he said, though he acknowledged that “very few courts have found a mark legally ‘famous.’”

“Just as the term ‘Light Beer’ is generic for a type of beer that is light in body or taste or low in alcoholic and caloric content, ‘Navajo’ is today a generic descriptor for a particular category of design and style,” Urban Outfitters’ lawyers wrote in an April 2012 court filing.

Urban Outfitters’ “Navajo Hipster Panty” (screen shot via Yahoo! News)

It’s long seemed like Urban Outfitters is intentionally courting controversy with politically incorrect products as some sort of perverse no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity stunt — especially given that the company was founded by a rich Rick Santorum supporter. The Navajo case is only one example in a long history of Urban Outfitters controversies: from faux-bloodstained Kent State sweatshirts to the listing of a color as “Obama/Black” to transphobic greeting cards, the company’s offending products often seem to disguise conservative propaganda as ironic cool. It also has an abominable track record when it comes to ripping off independent artists and designers, a category into which Navajo Nation craftspeople fit.

A search for the word “Navajo” on Urban Outfitters’ site no longer turns up any results, but the Navajo Nation claims that the retailer has sold more than $500 million worth of Navajo-branded goods. The case is not yet over, though, so there’s still time for some of those earnings to change hands: six counts are still pending against Urban Outfitters, including trademark infringement, unfair competition, and false advertising.

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Carey Dunne

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

14 replies on “Urban Outfitters Wins Partial Victory Over Navajo Nation in Trademark Dispute”

  1. Yet another reason to continue to boycott Urban Outfitters. Seems like at least once a season they come up with something racist, sexist, homophobic, or just plain hateful to put on their racks.

    1. who cares? the people for whom you do not speak for care; people you don’t represent, care; people who don’t think this particular exploitation is, “fine,” care.

        1. I am Romanian and Navajo designs do not look Romanian to me, or vice versa. Maybe your mind’s eye sees all folk art as being the same, since they are all basic shapes and lines. I actually see many more similarities between some Native American and African designs. Textile designs from the “Stans” look similar too. Also, you used the word “motives” when it should be “motifs”. Also, to call this UO merchandise Navajo is definitely false advertising. Pendleton, Hudson Bay and Ralph Lauren very often use Native American designs in their merchandise. They just are not offensive and exploitative like UO. That’s why they have been successfully marketing the stuff for decades.

  2. I am not feeling Urban Outfitters right now. I think they needed to back off exploiting Native American designs and not giving some of the money to them. Historically referring to the fact whites tried desperately to keep Native Americans disenfranchised for hundreds of years. Urban Outfitters is not Native American owned they are white owned so they should not use the their designs just in respectful reference to American History north and south Americas. And Native Americans are not Romanians. Romanians are Romania’s issue this is an North American issue and it’s not right! Urban Outfitters needed to step down from this case even before stepping in to court. For real.

  3. These and similar motifs have been used for hundreds, if not thousands of years, by many tribes and nations, big and small. Of course they appear on oriental rugs, but that would not be quite as much fun discussing. In North America, they are called Navaho because here people believe they can steal, then own geometrical shapes, and then brand them on their underwear. They do appear on Romanian rugs very possibly borrowed trough eastern influences, but Romanian, Iranian, Afgan and other artisans belonging to the small peoples are too busy surviving, to sue for authorship of their ornamental tradition. If we cannot share ornamental motifs, there’s very little left to share.

    1. I don’t think it’s an issue of design so much as name. if they simply called it “geometric” it wouldn’t be a question of trademark infringement. In this case, there is an actual group with an actual trademark on a name that a court has decided they have actual claim to. UO is employing that name to sell products clearly not made by the owners of that trademark. Seemed like a textbook case, but apparently not.

  4. Raf Simon is such a “rip off” using the labels which long originated by Navajo Indian artwork; on negligees, underwear and all sorts of clothing and jewelries; and none of his models are native Indian. The Navajo nation should probably try a different route by taking these Outfitter “whores” to court in California court system rather than New Mexico. In New Mexico there has to be a lot of money changing of hands in order to get favorable ruling for Urban Outfitter’s money hungry entrepreneurs.

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