On Monday, New York City streetwear brand Alife released a special-edition apparel collaboration with Champion and Urban Outfitters centered around HBCUs.
The line, featuring grey hoodies with various HBCU university names splashed on the front is on-brand for Alife. The brand, founded in 1999, focuses on minimalistic designs. The HBCU Capsule drop pays homage to historically Black institutions and was inspired by their Homecomings. Alongside the range, a documentary-style clip and lookbook were unveiled showcasing the energy that’s only found at HBCUs. A band, current students, and alumni of the prestigious universities were a part of Alife’s campaign.
When the drop arrived on Urban Outfitters’ website, social media users almost immediately spoke out about HBCU culture being flipped for profit. One user declared, “This shit is sickening and disrespectful,” this tweet was paired with a screenshot of one of the pieces from the collab. Another user, writer, Jourdan Ash tweeted, “ALIFE is dropping an HBCU collab for Black History Month. While I like it, I wish more brands would go beyond the 5 most known HBCUs.” An additional Twitter user shared, “Y’all better not be giving Urban Outfitters no damn money for HBCU stuff.”
These issues with the collection come across as tone-deaf. If anything, the range exposes the mainstream to the excellence and creativity that exists at HBCUs. But, it’s clear the critiques are coming from a space of worry of blackness and Black culture being co-opted. It’s common knowledge that many HBCUs are underfunded and underserved. These are valid thoughts that ring loudly especially amid the ongoing pandemic that has proved to be an issue for Black communities nationwide. Ash’s critique points out the fact that it’s common for institutions like Howard University, Spelman College, and Florida A&M University and others to continue receiving call-outs while others are often ignored.
It’s worth mentioning, Alife Partner Treis Hill is a proud Hampton University alum. He traces his family’s roots to where his grandfather and parents attended school: North Carolina Central University. There’s also some good that comes with the range. In a press release, Alife pointed out that along with the drop, UO will launch a new initiative titled “UO Summer Class ‘21.” It will consist of students from five participating HBCUs, who have been nominated by their respective schools. The students will participate in an Urban Outfitters 10-week paid internship program and will receive one-on-one mentoring from leaders at the company over the summer. It will also take place virtually if the pandemic worsens.
It’s not surprising that social media users took to their accounts to declare the collection as lazy or lacking in creativity. The bigger picture here is that HBCUs are being offered a space to shine during Black History Month which is a bright moment amid abysmal, gloomy times in the U.S., that can’t be ignored. Alife plans to donate 5% of all proceeds from all its sales during Black History Month towards the United Negro College Fund and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
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