Did the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation License a T-Shirt at Urban Outfitters? (Sort Of!)

03.28.12 Marina Galperina

Urban Outfitters doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to gay rights considering the chain store’s CEO Richard Haynes donates to staunch conservatives — including over $13,000 to Rick Santorum alone.
In 2008, a marriage equality shirt was pulled from Urban Outfitters shelves within a week of its release.

Imagine my surprise when a t-shirt with the image Robert Mapplethorpe, one of New York’s great gay icons popped up in the men’s section. 

Urban Outfitters also has a history of swiping from artists, so ANIMAL checked with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to see if the t-shirt — with a relatively benign image of the photographer — was officially licensed. Perhaps too aggressively, I asked of the Foundation’s assistant Eugene Rutigliano about their motivations in being involved with Urban Outfitters, considering its anti-gay rep. “The Foundation’s motivations are listed on our website,” I was told, politely. According to the Foundation, the handsome Mapplethorpe image was licensed, though not directly to Urban Outfitters but Artestar who licensed it for manufacturing to Mighty Fine who sold it to Urban Outfitters. It looks like Urban Outfitters is the only distributor. Or, it was.

A month ago it was still there, hiding in the stacks of very heteronormative wear. I’ve asked employees at the Hollywood location who “just saw it.” The Greenwich Village? “Just saw it” too — all Mapplethorpe’s neighbor tees were still there. As an alternative, one employee suggested a shirt with a protestor-type return volleying tear gas. I’m sure Haynes’ favorite politicians would have loved that one.

I called the Urban Outfitters service center a few times and confirmed that the shirt was “not available” in any stores nationwide in any size at all. A few Large ones are being sold discounted online. The Foundation reps were not aware of the shirt’s sudden disappearance, but it was gone, simultaneously, everywhere.

Circumstances taken into the account, yes, this seemed to have happened suspiciously fast. Hidden amidst the boobs, blunts and OBEY, had Mapplethorpe been passing as straight enough for mall-wear with that tough guy pose? Until he wasn’t, until someone figured out that man with the switchblade is the man with a bull-whip up his ass and comes with a heritage of marvelous portraiture Urban Outfitters would definitely never put on a t-shirt? Was he then quietly hidden?

Or, perhaps scarier yet, is Urban Outfitters making bank on the kids’ counter-cultural t-shirt preferences and then turning around and donating it to staunch conservatives? Did the shirt just get snagged up by Urban Outfitters “18 to 30 year old target customers” who, in all their statistically growing support for equal rights, buy up all the Mapplethorpe t-shirts and put money back into the kitty of a company run by a bigot? That’s probably it.