When Imitation Trumps Innovation - Shop Art Theft Feature + Abby Galloway Interview

Originally published 5th September, 2016

When assessing the characteristics of a high-street retailer, one of its most widely-recognised (and initially celebrated) attributes is a masterful ability to duplicate high-end designer collections. The fast-fashion industry's formative years garnered acclaim for breaking down traditional barriers of exclusivity. In a similar vein to live runway streaming and instant digital commentary, both resulting in all-inclusive unveilings of new-season creations, its very ethos sought to capture the most coveted of catwalk trends and generate bargain equivalents with inimitable ease (and volume). This newfound capacity to manufacture near-identical pieces en masse elevated the term "trend guide" to unprecedented heights. Physical print publications and virtual platforms alike would construct "get the look for less" features on attaining celebrity style, noting where readers could purchase a DVF wrap dress or Louboutin-esque stilettos at a fraction of the original version's cost.

Even as increasing numbers of "high-fashion" power players have been cautious to champion disposable-wardrobe tactics - encouraging more considered garment purchases that, ideally, will last longer than the next several retail seasons - 2016's outlook on high-street imitating high-end still appears to be largely favourable. The latter was quickly proven during a recent fashion-week launch event, wherein the evening's focus centred on reasonably affordable, trend-conscious collections. During the main showcase of the night, an impeccably-dressed model stepped out in a resplendent blazer-suit; her endless limbs clad in the most dazzling of metallic jacquard. Mental images were instantly evoked of Alessandro Michele's beloved Gucci aesthetic - his technicoloured design ethos and seamless gender-fluid approach manifesting in this low-cost tailored look. Even the catwalk commentator couldn't mask his surprise when declaring the name of its high-street creator. For manys a Michele enthusiast, there is a great sense of satisfaction in capturing his creative vision whilst keeping spending budgets firmly rooted in double digits.

Although acts of design-oriented plagiarism are rarely left undocumented, when the perpetrators decide to shift their focus from a well-profiled fashion powerhouse to an independent entity, the public's reception drastically alters. Such notions were verified when LA-based illustrator and artist Tuesday Bassen took to her social media platforms in late July, following months of notifications from her burgeoning fanbase that a number of enamel-pin designs remarkably similar to her own had been spotted in Zara. Having initially kept silent as the Spanish retail brand appeared to continue plucking from her portfolio, she decided to take action after coming across an unaltered copy of her Girls Pennant design in person. After hiring a lawyer and pouring $2,000 into legal fees - with the hope of attaining, at least, a letter of contact from the offenders acknowledging their theft - she discovered additional duplicates of her work in Zara and its retail subsidiaries, all helmed by Inditex. When Bassen ultimately received a response from Zara's legal team, their insouciant stance towards her claims was the final straw:

Bassen's post opened the floodgates for a staggering number of devoted fans and enamel-pin neophytes alike to declare their support - many of whom calling for a universal boycotting of Zara and its sister outlets. It also gave rise to a multitude of independent artists stepping forward and revealing that they, too, had recently been on the receiving end of Zara's copyright infringement. One such talented casualty was Brooklyn designer Adam J. Kurtz, who first adopted a similarly silent approach to that of his friend Bassen's when he stumbled upon a Bershka copy of his "Thank You" pin. However, following her widely-documented revelations on social media (alongside discussions with the numerous creatives whose pins had been stolen) he realised that stowing away his experience would be a disservice to other independent artists affected by Zara's actions. Deciding to compile a website page of the pin and patch designers whose works had been turned into inferior imitations, Shop Art Theft's ever-evolving archive now encompasses 42 copyright-infringed designs by 26 original artists:

Shop Art Theft's case perfectly illustrates why, in many instances, our viewpoints on design emulation can vary (rightly or wrongly) depending on whether the victim is a universally-renowned fashion house or an emerging - if thriving - independent artist. This is demonstrated in Zara's letter of contact to Bassen, which essentially states that their global reach is too vast for any consumer to mistake their pin designs as Tuesday Bassen duplicates. That statement alone distinguishes Shop Art Theft's battle from that of Louboutin's eight years prior, wherein the company sued Zara for replicating its aforementioned red-soled shoes. Despite having cultivated a distinct brand aesthetic over several decades that centred around its red-lacquered soles, Louboutin ultimately lost the case and was forced to pay $3,600 as compensation. Nevertheless, no question was ever posed as to who first conceived the design concept.

The vast majority of high-street customers procure knock-offs with full knowledge of the design's provenance - if anything, this aspect often incentivises their purchase. Dolce & Gabbana admirers unable to fork out €1900 for a floral-lace dress will pursue cheaper carbon copies, while thrifty Balmain fanatics will roam the rails of (you guessed it) Zara for heavily-embellished mini dresses and double-breasted blazers. In this day and age, most designers have each item accompanied by a certificate of authenticity, verifying the source of their customer's chosen investment - though many of these labels need never seek trademarks for signature designs, considering their global exposure and notoriety among the rich and famous. The reality is far removed for Shop Art Theft's members, however: their pieces can be bought for universally-accessible prices, yet many of these artists can only afford to produce a couple of designs in pin and patch form.

The meteoric rise of the flair community over the last 18 months has cultivated a greatly-supportive environment between artists and customers across the globe. Its largely-digital platform has been characterised by mutual promotion and fandom amongst big names and earnest newcomers alike, as creative initiatives such as Pin Club have visibly proven. As a result, its prevalence on social media is nothing to be underestimated - a factor that Zara and other offending retailers clearly did not take into account when their enamel-pin theft was laid bare across enraged virtual forums.

With all offending pins and patches now suspended from Inditex outlets, the last number of weeks have only further solidified the brazen loyalty of flair enthusiasts. Shopping from authentic pin purveyors has been heavily endorsed, be they individual sellers or independent, online flair bazaars. This extensive coverage of Shop Art Theft's evolution has also highlighted the pioneering talent and innovation of its featured designers. One shining example of the latter is Abby Galloway - an eclectic Kentucky artist and illustrator whose colourful collaborations include an array of pins and prints for Valley Cruise Press, a charming collection of bespoke patterns + illustrations and a technicoloured Beach Hut design for Pin Club. Following Shop Art Theft's inauguration - in which her Pink Cadillac pin was shown as an original stolen design - I spoke with Galloway to gain further insight into her diverse creative process:

When/how was your interest in design and illustration first sparked?

Probably the day I was born! I can’t ever remember a time when I wasn’t drawing or coloring on something.

What are your most prevalent sources of inspiration when designing?

Different cultures, time periods, people, nature, and colors & patterns in everyday things. My favorite is anything tropical or bold.

What does your creative process typically entail - from brainstorming to finished product?

Usually I’ll see something or think of something small and think “Oh, neat. Let’s see where I can take this”. Then there's hours and hours of lazily making Pinterest boards and mixing styles to create a theme that suits my style. Then that’s used as a reference to different works of art. Its great to have to look back and see my color schemes as a collection of inspiring images instead of just tubes of paint. My mood determines what process I take in the illustrations. Some days I want something quick and will draw with ink and color digitally to make a clean graphic look. There are other days I’ll spend hours on a watercolor image, but even with both methods I like to incorporate the same process so it all feels the same.

What has your most memorable commission or design partnership been thus far?

I love working with Valley Cruise Press! They are always so easy to work with and just let the artists design whatever they want and are always supportive. They have such a large collection of great artists including their own pieces of work. I’ll always be happy to work with them! 

My favorite project so far has to be the pin I just designed for Bracelegs Collective. They wanted to commission a pin design from me and they picked the one I designed after my cat! Its so exciting to see my little baby as a pin that’ll be around forever.

Who would you list as your ultimate design collaborator?

I’m always open to designing pins! As far as anyone specific, I don’t have any one in mind at the moment, but I’d love to start doing more with jewelry outside of the enamel pin world. Mainly, I’d like to start collaborating with companies in using my pattern designs.

When did you first discover the news of Zara’s copyright infringement - both for your Valley Cruise Press pin and the works of your Shop Art Theft contemporaries?

I stumbled across all of the images on Instagram and was curious to see if any of my designs were on the list. Lo and behold, it was on there. Later on, there were a few other artists that messaged me and had discovered it.

The steadfast followers of your imaginative pins - alongside the general fanbase of Shop Art Theft - appear to have played a pivotal role in spotlighting this breach of copyright from the very beginning, using their online platforms to vocalise their solidarity and total indignation. How do you feel these devoted supporters can continue to aid your case?

They have definitely made an impact just by re-posting the photos and spreading the word. It’s been an eye opener just to see how many people know us and are willing to stand by us.

There have been claims made by online commentators that in a general sense, greater copyright restrictions are enforced on illustrations than garments or accessories such as enamel pins.. is this a verified statement and, if so, does this offer you any leverage if your pins started out as illustrations? 

Most artists could say that each pin started from an original illustration. Whether or not it was intended for that use or solely used for that doesn’t really matter. An original work of art doesn’t mysteriously give up all copyrights as soon as its pressed onto metal. My pink car was originally a watercolor illustration made into a pattern that was used on dresses & other products 2-3 years before it was ever turned into an enamel pin. 

pinkcars.jpg

What has surprised you the most – in a negative and positive sense – throughout this Zara pin revelation?

It’s been an eye opener just to see how little us artists are in the eyes of companies. Hopefully with everyone’s support, the rate of art theft will decline and we can live happily ever after!

What can we expect to see next from you – are there any exciting creative projects and/or impending designs in the pipeline?

I’m in the process of buying my first home so there is definitely some larger home interior projects coming up! 

With Francescas’ theft of over 20 original pin designs marking the latest wave of fast-fashion appropriation, the current dominance of digital platforms can often seem like a double-edged sword. While showcasing one’s creative portfolio online is a cost-effective means of attracting potential buyers, collaborators and followers, it can equally result in multinationals bereft of inspiration treating your design concepts as fair game. While copyright legislation is still subject to blurred lines, some of the most successful ways to help protect your work online are the most simple. Adding a waterwork to photos, “digitally imaging” your creations (marking the time and day you photographed your designs, thus proving when your idea originated) and adding copyright warnings to your website are some quick but vital preventative measures. How Design’s recently-published guide (alongside its archived features on copyright infringement) is a resource any uncertain designers should avail of.

If one thing is certain, modern-day consumers are showing increasing intolerance for fashion brands void of transparency and authentic design ethics. With Tuesday Bassen’s lawyers still embroiled in correspondence with Zara’s legal team – and Inditex having released a more virtuous statement following Bassen’s viral Instagram post – Shop Art Theft’s narrative proves that in 2016’s digital era, not even the largest clothing corporation in the world is untouchable.

Click here to visit Shop Art Theft’s official website and shopping guide, where the original designs and details of its featured designers can be found. An array of Abby Galloway’s creative projects and commissions can be found on her website “here“, while following her on Instagram and Twitter will keep you fully up to date on her upcoming works.

Amelia xx

La Femme Éclectique