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A $100 T-shirt may be inherently obscene, but a recent online offering from Urban Outfitters drew ire not for the price but for what it included: a pocket patch in a six-pointed shape resembling the yellow Star of David that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Europe. In Philadelphia, the anti-defamation league complained: "We find this use of symbolism to be extremely distasteful and offensive, and are outraged that your company would make this product available to your customers."

In fact, the shirt with the patch wasn't available – Danish designers Wood Wood explained that when the resemblance became clear, the patch was immediately removed. In error, Urban Outfitters then posted a photo of the rejected sample on its website rather than the actual blank shirt. No Star of David shirt exists, so no harm done, right?

Harm, though, is perhaps the point – and a lucrative one. Every few weeks, news reports of Urban Outfitters' provocations flood the Internet like Rihanna remixes. Before St. Patrick's Day, the company issued products and shirts emblazoned with slogans such as "Kiss me, I'm drunk, or Irish, or whatever." Several Irish-American congressional leaders publicly lambasted the company, while the Ancient Order of Hibernians of America called for a boycott.

The company's gaffes, though, are equal-opportunity, offending everyone from African-American church leaders through the promotion of Ghettopoly (pulled from shelves) to the conservative group One Million Moms with a recent catalogue photo of two young women kissing.

Over all, UO's brand of controversy doesn't seem to stand for anything except a need to be discussed, which implies strategy. In a clogged market, a business that is controversial can "cut through the clutter," says Australian marketing professor David Waller. The negative reverberations are obliterated by the positive ones – Urban Outfitters lingers in my column and your head while the anti-Semitic overtones fade away.

This winter, the company released a line of products wrapped in Navajo prints, including panties, flasks and plastic dream catchers. Within weeks, the Navajo Nation launched a civil legal action. Reducing a culture to an aesthetic stereotype should at least require permission: The suit alleges trademark violations and a breach of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which makes it illegal to sell goods that misleadingly imply they're produced by American Indians.

Over the past few years, many designers have dined out on aboriginal imagery. Anna Sui, Alexander McQueen and Proenza Schouler have all "gone native," as the cringe-worthy headlines say: Fringes and beading have been recycled and revamped, while fashion editorials never shy from featuring (usually white) models in war paint and feathered headdresses. Is it homage or exploitation?

In a country like Canada, trading food, customs and clothing among cultures seems like a natural push-pull – it's globalization, baby. A commenter on The Fashion Spot wrote: "As a person [of]Middle Eastern ancestry, I like that our traditional males' scarf has found its way to the international fashion scene. It's encouraging and interesting to see one's heritage portrayed in a global context."

But context is everything, isn't it? In native cultures, headdresses are significant markers, worn by chiefs or shamans. When Kesha throws one on halfway through an American Idol performance, the sacred becomes a little more profane.

In the process, we find ourselves in front of that muddy question of "representation." What if the bony white girls writhing in fringe jackets in French Glamour are all we know of native life? If natives are underrepresented in popular culture (or only represented through the faint echoes of disposable trends), snatching their symbols comes to seem like plundering. Fashion can romanticize and celebrate, but it can also turn real people into costumes.

There are, of course, ways to reference with respect. Last month, Rodarte was criticized for a fall collection that featured prints evoking aboriginal art. But Rodarte had consulted an artist's estate and licensed the images. Agent Anthony Wallis of the Aboriginal Artists Agency, arrangers of the licence, said: "The widow of artist Benny Tjangala … will appreciate the royalty flow over the next 12 months!" Those dollar signs equal recognition, and an effort to shift just a little power. It's a start.

Katrina Onstad's second novel is called Everybody Has Everything . Follow Katrina Onstad on Twitter: @katrinaonstad

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