Zoila Darton and Angela Carrasco felt sad about the state of women’s rights in the United States, and they decided to channel some of their frustration into action.
With the defunding of Planned Parenthood in the daily news, Darton and Carrasco wanted to do something on that group’s behalf. Darton enlisted her husband, a graphic designer, and together they played around with the idea of a benefit T-shirt design. They came up with a shirt with the word “woman” written in several languages, black type marching down a white background.
Darton and Carrasco aren’t fashion designers. They’re partners in the Word Agency, a marketing and public-relations firm. The shirt was a side project. “It was a creative outlet,” Darton said.
Carrasco said, “We wanted to do something to kind of protect ourselves and protect Planned Parenthood.”
They placed a small order for the shirts in early July, and publicized the shirts on social media and through friends, planning to donate a portion of the proceeds to Planned Parenthood. “Of course, we hoped it would turn into something, and it has,” Carrasco said. “Unfortunately the reason is not necessarily the brightest.”
Earlier this month, they were meeting with a customer who wanted to exchange her shirt for a different size. “As we were leaving, she was like, ‘Yeah, I’m so glad I bought this one because I saw the other one in Forever 21 and I love yours so much better!’ We were like, ‘What do you mean?'” Darton said.
Searching the retailer’s website, they spotted the shirt. Forever 21 was also selling a T-shirt with “woman” spelled out in different languages, in black type in a vertical line down a white front.
They posted a side-by-side comparison on Instagram, taking care not to explicitly accuse the fast-fashion behemoth. By the next morning, the post was shared not only by fashion editors but also by left-leaning people outside the industry, along with the tired eye roll: It looked as if Forever 21 had copied the work of an independent designer.
This felt as familiar as an old knockoff purse. Back in 2011, Jezebel documented 50 complaints against the clothing store.
Earlier this month, Freckled Ace accused the brand of ripping off its tribal-print tank top; last month, the gender-bending boutique brand Wildfang complained when its slogan, “Wild Feminist,” appeared on a T-shirt sold by Forever 21. And in May, Valfre fired off a cease-and-desist letter when it believed its rainbow iPhone cases were being replicated.
Less than 18 hours after Darton and Carrasco posted the comparison, Forever 21 removed its version of the shirt from its website. “I follow Valfre, and I’ve bought some of her stuff,” Darton said. “I saw the Wildfang thing. I’ve known this is a thing, so when it happened I wasn’t totally surprised. I was surprised by how quickly they did it.”
In a statement to The New York Times, Forever 21 said, “The shirt in question was bought from a third-party source. As soon as Forever 21 was alerted to the issue, we respectfully removed it from our website. Because this product did not have trademark or IP protections, there were no red flags raised at the time of purchase.”
Darton said the company’s apology was not an apology but “an admission of guilt.” She feels grateful that she and Carrasco aren’t designers by trade. They didn’t lose revenue here, only the opportunity to give to Planned Parenthood. “We live in a corporate society — what can we do? What can these designers do?”
In Europe, said Susan Scafidi, the founder of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University, “there is protection for design, a lot more extensively than there is in the U.S.”
This is why European fast-fashion companies including H&M, Zara, Mango and Topshop don’t find themselves in these situations as often. “Their model isn’t to take runway pieces and knock them off, per se, but to interpret trends,” Scafidi said. “There is nothing wrong with interpreting trends for the mass market. They learn to switch things up, design-wise, to avoid liability.”
A designer’s path of less resistance may be to send a cease-and-desist letter or hope for a hefty settlement. One designer approached for this article could not speak to The Times because of the terms of her agreement with a fast-fashion brand.
And big brands that believe they have been copied, such as Gucci, Diane von Furstenberg and Puma, have the resources to pursue more extensive legal action. But for independents or ordinary folks, the less-expensive, and possibly less-rewarding, practice is to shame the copiers on Instagram.
“Indie designers now have this secondary strategy of appealing to the public via social media,” Scafidi said. This recourse is even cheaper than the stamp it costs to send a cease-and-desist order.
Valfre, the phone-case maker, contends that Forever 21 did not comply with its cease-and-desist letter. The company has filed a federal lawsuit against Forever 21, which has denied all liability. The legal case is moving toward trial.
Emma McIlroy, the CEO of Wildfang, is still reviewing her legal options but has an idea. “The only way this is going to change is to stop supporting these brands,” she said. “If you walk into Forever 21 and spend your dollars there, you’re quite literally taking money out of the pocket of small businesses like mine. You’re threatening the jobs of people who work in small businesses like mine.”
McIlroy is further distressed by the “poetry” of a large corporation selling a feminist T-shirt to young women that it may have stolen from an actual young woman’s feminist T-shirt brand. “It’s more than ironic,” McIlroy said. “It’s painful.”
SundayMonday Business on 09/24/2017