An Indie Biz: Design Theft

UO versus PP

It’s becoming a growing issue within the handmade community- and one that it’s high time we addressed here on Pierogi Picnic: Design Theft. Having become one of the latest victims, I have chosen to speak out in the hopes of raising awareness of this burgeoning trend.

My first encounter with this phenomenon was many years ago at a Renegade craft fair. I was making my merry way around the booths when I stumbled upon a vendor who had a “no photos please” sign up in her tent. I inquisitively asked behind her reasoning – thinking it was a shame to discourage people from photographing and promoting her work. She shared her actual purpose: to prevent idea theft. She explained that large companies send out “spies” to fairs such as Renegade in the hopes of scooping up inspiration for their next season of designs. I was shocked, appalled, and in somewhat disbelief. How could it really be?!

That had been my first time hearing about these alleged scouts, and at the time, I wondered if the vendor’s concern had any basis. Sadly, many years later, I know her fears were well founded.

cosby sweater skirt from pierogi picnicA recent explosion of social media attention surrounding the blatant design thieving done by Cody Foster has given me the where-with-all to add my voice to the discussion. The growing trend to replicate the unique designs of handmade artisans has become more than disturbing. It sets a precedent for the entire creative field to freely scavenge ideas that have difficulty being protected by intellectual property laws. Those of us who create “utilitarian apparel” don’t have the legal safety net of print makers, musicians, and authors. Our copyrights are vague, if even plausible in the first place.

This is what makes this growing movement by big-box stores and chain boutiques so frightening.

As a clothing creator who lovingly hand-makes each individual item, the thought of being put out of business by these thieves is more than heart-breaking. Unless consumers are made aware of the implications to small business owners, and readily begin to boycott companies who promote this kind of behavior, the small batch marketplace we have so tenderly developed will disappear.

It is impossible for makers like me to go up against my own design once it’s being manufactured en masse by an international retailer. It’s simply not feasible to remain competitively priced when someone who steals my designs has them created in a sweatshop and then charges half the price. And now, with sites like Etsy changing their policies to allow outsourced manufacturing, the sad reality of our place within the so-called “handmade” realm is coming into focus. We are serving the purposes of large-scale corporations by dreaming up designs that they can plunder as capitalist parasites.

And do I have a sober understanding of the nuances that separate trend from theft? Absolutely! Whether you are a painter, sculptor, jewelry maker or rug designer, we are all shaped by the world around us. It would be naive to assume that we can create in a bubble and not allow cultural influences to penetrate our process. So in instances where I’ve been in a big-box store, picking up contact solution, only to discover a Pierogi Picnic knock-off in the clothing section, my reaction has been consistent: “Great minds think alike! It must be a happy coincidence! I must have sparked a trend!”

But recently that “glass have full” attitude was violated by a brand that ripped off, not just a product design, but the titling of it as well.

As a one-woman-makes-all designer, my pieces are created in small quantities and can be found in boutiques across the globe. Making all my items from pre-loved fabrics, each creation is truly unique and each design has a specific aesthetic and character. This makes any duplication efforts of my creations grossly obvious. So when a friend of mine stumbled across a series of skirts by the Urban Renewal label at Urban Outfitters that looked just like mine (even down to the length, fabric and elastic type) I knew something was afoot. Going online to do some further research I found that my worse nightmare had come true: Urban Outfitters ripped off a Pierogi Picnic design. Adding insult to injury, they didn’t even bother to change the design title. Coincidence? I think not. Titling their re-purposed sweater skirts “Cosby Skirts” on the UO website, my suspicions of design pillaging were confirmed. This was highway design robbery.

But what could I do?

As an individual making clothing from her humble urban abode, I don’t have the means to take on a massive lawsuit against an international giant like Urban Outfitters, which also owns Anthorpologie and Free People. Not only would their power-house of lawyers intimidate me into submission, I’d waste valuable energy and efforts making my case. I would spend nights lying awake dreading hearings and court dates. I’d become stressed, start grinding my teeth, become sick. I’d jump through all the hoops only to walk away empty handed – as has been the case with other apparel designers who have attempted the same.

cosby skirt

So what’s left to do? Beside coming up with newer, better and greater designs, I want to add my voice to those who are speaking out against these companies. Brands who I adore (haven’t you seen all my anthro-love-fest posts?!) are leaching onto the visions and love-filled-labors of small no-name designers like me – and it’s simply not something we should let them get away with.

So I ask, as lovers of all things handmade, that you join me and the many other artisans whose visions are being corrupted by the big-box deep-pocketed companies who appropriate our designs, to speak out.

The best way you can help is to  lift your voice – tell UO that you love them – but that they’re also stealing designs of small labels like mine.  They’ve even admitted to doing it in the past – tell them it’s still happening. Point to the evidence by showing that Pierogi Picnic has been making Cosby Skirts since 2009. Ask them to request permission from the designers, maybe even collaborate, instead of bogarting what’s not rightfully theirs.

Join me, and other artisans, by voicing your disdain by writing to Urban Outfitters’ Chief Executive Officer Tedford Marlow on my behalf:

Thank you in advance for taking the time to hear this lament. My purpose is not to gain financially in any way – but for there to be fair-play in the design world. Support handmade by purchasing from artisans who make their items from start to finish, by shopping locally this coming holiday season, and by continuing to encourage the creators who you support.

The handmade movement is one that bolsters, inspires, and celebrates small business. Let’s not allow for these large corporations to turn the tide and quench the spirit of our conscious consumer revolution.


4 thoughts on “An Indie Biz: Design Theft

  1. Karen Chew says:

    We artists in California are in full support and will share your article via social media, let’s keep spreading the word! (And I just love the cowl sweatshirts! Will shop and get in an order sometime soon…) 🙂

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