The fast fashion industry and designer knockoffs are inextricably linked, for better or worse. But while you regularly read stories about major, multi-million-dollar labels like Aquazzura suing Steve Madden over copycat shoe designs, what you often don't hear about are the small artists whose ideas are reportedly being stolen standing up to giant clothing corporations, David and Goliath style. Although this is hardly the first time Zara has been confronted by a designer claiming their ideas had been used unlawfully (the company previously sold a T-shirt that appears to have been inspired by an image of French fashion blogger Le Blog de Betty and famously won a case against Christian Louboutin and his signature red soles), last week, allegations emerged that the company had infringed on the pin designs of a relatively unknown illustrator who decided to put up a fight.
Tuesday Bassen is an LA-based independent artist and pin and patch maker who came forward last week with claims that her designs had been stolen by the Spanish retailer Zara. She wrote on Instagram, "'I've been pretty quiet about this, until now. Over the past year, @zara has been copying my artwork (thanks to all that have tipped me off — it's been a lot of you). I had my lawyer contact Zara and they literally said I have no base because I'm an indie artist and they're a major corporation and that not enough people even know about me for it to matter. I plan to further press charges, but even to have a lawyer get this LETTER has cost me $2k so far. It sucks and it's super disheartening to have to spend basically all of my money, just to defend what is legally mine."
Bassen posted this message alongside an image of a few of the designs in question and the response Zara sent to her, which reads: "We reject your claims here for reasons similar to those stated above: the lack of distinctiveness of your client's purported designs makes it very hard to see how a significant part of the population anywhere in the world would associate the signs with Tuesday Bassen. Please note that such (third party) notifications amount to a handful of complaints only… millions of users worldwide visit the respective websites monthly."
As Georgia Perry, another pin artist who reports seeing unauthorized versions of her work on Zara's website, put it in an email to i-D, "they're basically saying you're one tiny person — and we're a gigantic company — no one will know or care that we stole from you." But Tuesday's close friend Adam J. Kurtz, whose designs have also allegedly been copied, is pleased with the company's blunt rebuttal, telling us over email, "Frankly, I'm glad that Zara's reply to Tuesday's initial action was as offensive as it was, because it was undeniable and spread like wildfire the minute Tuesday posted it. And then we found more. And then her case became rock-solid."
Since Bassen posted her initial Instagram image, Kurtz has begun investigating the company's use of other artists' work more closely, and he now believes it isn't just Bassen, but a huge community of artists whose work is being repurposed without their consent. "Originally Tuesday knew of four pieces of her art being stolen," he said, "I found another two. I found my own and the work of other mutual friends and online acquaintances. I just looked at Zara, and Zara-owned company websites, and searched for products with "pins" or "patches" in the title. Unauthorized artist work was all over all of their websites. Nobody knew. None of us were contacted. Nobody had an arranged licensing agreement." He says that while the primary offender was a fashion company called Bershka, he's also spotted what he believes to be copyright theft at Zara, Pull & Bear, and Stradivarius, but insists, "It's actually impossible to know the full scale because we are limited by what we can dig up online and what fans have spotted in-store."
Though Bassen has plans to continue pursuing legal action against Zara, despite the overwhelming financial burden it places on her personally, Kurtz has found another way to shame the company while also directing revenue back towards the real creators. The artist started a website, shoparttheft.com, which catalogs all of the work Zara is apparently infringing upon, providing links to where viewers can purchase the original pin or patch directly from the artist who made it. "I wanted to create a way to do something useful," he says, "We can all say 'FUCK ZARA' for a week and then move onto the next thing, or we can support the people affected by this by purchasing their work directly. Most of the artists are running small-scale operations and I don't think any of us have the resources to dedicate to a legal battle. I'm hoping that by clearly showing how blatant the theft is, and the shocking scale of their wrongdoing, they'll have to apologize and arrive at some sort of settlement."
For Perry, regardless of the legal outcome, this moment is a testament to the power of social media to create an even playing field. Platforms like Instagram and Tumblr have not only given young designers a place to showcase their work, but also a medium to voice their concerns and call out injustices, communicating directly with their fan bases. She says, "The people that follow and support our work have been mobilized, and there's been an outpouring of anger and disbelief — no one can fathom how blatant and systematic this plagiarism is (with over 17 artists now claiming their work has been stolen). If nothing else, I hope that the social media shit storm being aimed squarely at Zara makes them wake up and realize that there is no way they will ever get away with this kind of thing again."
Text Emily Kirkpatrick