WHAT HAPPENS WHEN BIG COMPANIES RIP OFF INDIE DESIGNERS?
THE FAST (FASHION) AND THE FURIOUS
This past July, eye-catching headlines such as “We’re Really, Really Disappointed In You, Zara” splashed across our computer screens. The reason? Since early 2016, popular fast-fashion retailer Zara had been producing near (if not exact) replicas of artwork originally by independent artist and designer Tuesday Bassen. After she posted an excerpt from Zara’s harsh response to her cease-and-desist letter on Instagram, fashion fans everywhere called out the retail giant on social media.
Bassen and fellow Zara victim and artist Adam J. Kurtz, who created a website and Instagram account called Shop Art Theft to call attention to the scandal, are just two of dozens of designers whose work has been plagiarized by Zara. Rightfully so, public outcry against Zara and its parent company Inditex was extreme.
After about a week, however, other news took precedence. The story seemed to fade. But I still had a lot of questions, most notably what happened next, what was the end result? I reached out to Kurtz, who said that he, Tuesday, and other designers are pursuing legal action against Zara and Inditex as a group, so he can’t speak to it. He directed me to the Shop Art Theft tumblr, where I quickly learned that Zara wasn’t the only fast-fashion retailer ripping off independent designers. In fact, Shop Art Theft cites nearly fifty large brands including Zara’s sister stores Stradivarius, Pull and Bear, and Bershka.
Intellectual property theft in fashion isn’t a new occurrence. According to Art Law Journal, Zara itself has been sued many times by independent and luxury designers alike. But what’s up with this crime? It seems to be commonplace for large retailers to steal work from smaller companies; as Zara told Tuesday in their letter, they have “so many customers, followers, and consumers,” especially compared to small, independent brands, they feel they can do what they want without significant repercussions.
For the artists whose work is stolen, the consequences are enormous.
BoyGirlParty is “one of 20+ artists” involved in a mass-design-theft case with Francesca’s, a mall shop with over 650 locations that, like Zara, specializes in fast fashion. It’s a mass intellectual property theft case completely separate from that of Adam, Tuesday, and the Shop Art Theft crew versus Zara. BoyGirlParty’s owner and creator Susie Ghahremani discovered the infringement about a month after the Zara case went viral, and says it’s been “handled horribly by Francesca’s all around.”
BoyGirlParty (L), Francesca’s Copy (R)
That’s an understatement: Francesca’s has ignored cease and desist letters sent by the many independent artists, who “could see that there was a mass infringement right away” and “didn’t wait” to band together and fight it. The Francesca’s company has blocked the artists, their followers, and even some of their own shocked customers on social media platforms instead of acknowledging the charges and working to resolve their infringement. “They seem to be inviting escalation instead of seeking peaceful resolution,” Ghahremani says.
In her past fourteen years as an independent illustrator, Ghahremani has “dealt with many, many infringements.” “But,” she adds, “the Francesca’s/Zara infringements seem particularly brazen.” The companies have robbed artists en masse—“over 40 between the two cases,” says Ghahremani—and have shown to act poorly in the aftermath. According to Ghahremani,“their responses (and non-responses) seem to implicate their guilt.”
An original enamel pin design was copied by a retailer that the team at Columbus, Ohio start-up brand TeesAndTankYou “grew up idolizing,” according to their Social Media Manager, Sydney Cologie. TATY found out about the theft from a customer who sent them a screenshot from the Claire’s UK Instagram account, which featured a “unicorn enamel pin that looked almost exactly like the one [TATY] had created four months earlier.” After posting on Instagram to bring attention to this theft, Claire’s didn’t acknowledge it at all: “[they] didn’t comment on the post or reach out to us,” explains Cologie.
Tees And Tank You Original Design
TATY design (L), Claire’s Copy (R)
Emily Johnson from Hartland Brooklyn experienced two thefts of the same artwork in one fashion season by children’s retailers Baby Gap and Osh Kosh. While the products weren’t exact replicas, they were eerily similar to Johnson’s original design. She’d experienced this plagiarism before with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba and shut it down pretty quickly when they connected her directly to the factory. Gap and Osh Kosh, by nature of the companies’ production processes, are a little more difficult to combat. Johnson says she “let the Gap artwork go,” but did get in touch with Osh Kosh and was forwarded to their legal team—she hasn’t heard back. Like other independent artists, she’s considering hiring a lawyer.
Johnson hasn’t always been an independent artist; she first worked for high-end fashion brands, then moved to a mass-retail mall brand before starting her own company. She can understand how unintentional art theft may occur. Emily says, “In the company where I worked, before designing every season there was a ‘kick-off’ that included a full ‘mock store’ full of bought samples, both vintage and new. This is created for inspiration and to keep everything in the line cohesive, but if you take the inspiration too literally I can see how copying happens.”
Johnson adds, “another problem that I saw was that oftentimes designers are told to prove the salability of their idea to buyers who can’t always visualize the finished product. Designers must use products from the market to sell their idea. This can create similar products and use of others’ ideas. That being said, graphics have no excuse since you can illustrate your full idea.”
The retailers see a clear theme in the reason for these crimes: simply because large, rich, and therefore, powerful companies can. “They see the potential for our designs in a larger market, but feel they can earn more and disregard ownership (or possibly just willfully overlook due diligence as buyers) because as individual artists, they bank on us not having the resources or finances to defend ourselves,” says Ghahremani.
Cologie says, “Large companies take ideas that aren’t theirs so they can quickly get products manufactured and sell them cheaply. Creating unique products and designs takes time that they are not willing to sacrifice when their end-game is making a profit. Brands like Zara, Forever 21, and others know that it takes a lot of money to take legal action when it comes to stolen intellectual property that hasn’t been copyrighted,” says Cologie. Ghahremani echoes this “They’re fast fashion companies—they’re probably not known for the quality of their products. They may rely on their customers caring more about low costs and new inventory than ethics. Now they’re discovering, through social media, that isn’t the case.” Cologie told me that, like many other small brands, TeesAndTankYou unfortunately “couldn’t afford to take legal action.” They did, however, receive support from customers and their online fanbase who posted comments, sent encouraging messages, and declared to boycott the large businesses that copy independent businesses’ artwork.
It’s a sad state of affairs in contemporary fashion retail: when working for mass retailers, Johnson “noticed younger designers, who come in full of new ideas [but soon realized] that you can’t be that creative, and instead have to worry about sales, not being imaginative and new.” She adds that “a great design director can obviously change these points and create an inspiring creative environment—which I did have at one point—but it’s tough!”
Louise Androlia, victim of art theft by fast-fashion retailer Rue 21, wrote to me that she’s heard talk of a so-called design black market. “I have heard the idea that some companies purchase designs in bulk, which would mean an outside seller is collectively stealing from popular independent artists, and passing on. It’s lazy, especially when there are so many incredible independent artists who would be willing to work with big brands on cool collaborations, and also artists they could be employing.” Why don’t they work together? Again, for monetary reasons, says Androlia: “I assume it is to keep costs low. It is rude and disrespectful, but does highlight of course the huge difference between how an artist works versus how a corporation does.”
Thais Marchese of SleepyMountain (who has also been ripped off by Francesca’s) agrees with Androlia, saying that a collaboration between a large retailer and small business would be wonderful— and financially beneficial, too. “These companies could’ve purchased our items at wholesale and still made a profit while supporting small businesses. They chose to steal instead.”
“I think the main reason these companies steal is that they don’t know any better, but that’s no excuse,” adds Kim Lawler of Finest Imaginary. A customer spotted a replica of her cactus pin in a Francesca’s store this past August. She informed me that many larger companies work with smaller design houses, who are “chronic thieves” of independent designs, to produce artwork. Large companies are completely oblivious to this theft. But, says Lawler, “it’s a pretty lame excuse they continue to use. All it would take would be a quick Google [search] to see if the design was made by someone else!” But, as we’ve learned, large companies notoriously cut corners.
So what’s next for these artists? How can these chapters close, with happy endings for our independent heroes? It comes down to the choice to accept, rather than give up. “I just have to move on and keep creating awesome stuff,” Lawler explains. Although art theft is a lazy, disappointing, and destructive act, thanks to large retailers, a community has flourished. Says Lawler: “It’s been really heartening to see the creative community—and even regular consumers who didn’t realize this kind of thing happened—join together over these issues. It’s a shame it had to happen this way, but I think a lot of links have been formed, and customers/fans/followers have found people because of it. Every cloud, eh?”