Illustrator and graphic designer Anna Santaguida was walking through a Forever 21 store when she spotted a pair of socks that looked familiar. Too familiar.
Hanging from an otherwise innocuous rack was a pair of high-top white socks covered in logos of a cartoonish, sultry-looking mouths with a gap between the front two teeth. They were an exact replica of the original design from her Etsy shop, Bananna Bones. She had never granted Forever 21 permission to use her work, nor was she being paid for it.
“I nearly fainted,” Santaguida said. “It’s the worst feeling. You’re like ‘Wait, I drew that. Why is that on their shirt? How did they even find that!”
Santaguida is one of many designers that have started to speak out in light of Tuesday Bassen’s public battle with Zara. On Tuesday night the popular indie artist took to Twitter to share a note Zara sent to her lawyer, refuting her allegations that the retailer stole her artwork and appropriated it for their apparel without proper compensation or attribution.
“It has an awful impact on the livelihood of an artist,” Bassen said. “This is how I support myself, and they are diluting my brand by literally stealing from me.”
Though Santaguida had the jarring experience of finding her stolen work firsthand, more often than not designers like Bassen are discovering the lifted art from fans sharing images with them on Twitter after seeing the garments on shopping trips. Bassen said she first started noticing the Zara replicas in early 2016 as the result of hundreds of fans reaching out to her directly. She said the company has since used four of her designs. The similarities are striking.
“Their lawyers claim that my work is both ‘too simple’ to defend and that I have no base because I am a small artist with 90,000 followers on Instagram, but they are a major corporation with 90 million customers and only ‘a handful of people’ would notice that the designs are mine,” she said.
Brooklyn-based designer Adam Kurtz spent part of his Wednesday morning compiling an infographic of designers that have allegedly had their work stolen from Zara, including himself and Bassen, as well as by other retailers like Urban Outfitters and Asos.
“In the case of Tuesday, it’s sort of so big that it’s impossible to ignore,” he said. “It’s the most blatant, to take half of an artist’s collection at the same time.”
Issues around attribution have become particularly pervasive as more and more information is readily available online. Last year, popular Instagram accounts like the Fat Jew and Fuck Jerry came under fire for not crediting comedians in their posts. In a much-shared Vulture article last August, Fat Jew’s Josh Ostrovsky admitted to stealing jokes and announced he would begin including attribution on all photos.
For small independent artists, one of the major barrier to fighting major retailers is the pricey legal services required that often exceed their budget. Bassen noted on Twitter that it cost $2,000 just to simply have her lawyer correspond with Zara.
“It’s the classic side hustle — many of us don’t have the resources,” Kurtz said. “To have $2K just to have a lawyer start the conversation is already out of reach for most of these people. It’s essentially ‘We’re big, you’re small, fuck off.’ It’s extremely disheartening.”
Some independent designers have legitimate relationships with retailers — or at least want to work for them. Kurtz, for example, has worked on designs for Urban Outfitters and has had a positive experience, but many feel pressured not to complain lest they jeopardize any possible opportunity.
Gabriella Sanchez, a freelance illustrator in Los Angeles, recently discovered that Bershka, a company owned by the Inditex group (which also owns Zara), used one of her designs without authorization. It was, she said, almost like a backhanded compliment: A company she loved and admired was using her design, and yet she felt taken advantage of.
“I didn’t say anything right away, because I really liked them and I didn’t want to have any bad repercussions or shut any doors.,” she said. “That’s how they get away with things.”
The larger issue, many of the artists said, is in-house design teams that appear to sanction using other artist’s work without permission. Brendan Megannety, artist and founder of Explorers Express in Canada, said he caught one major retailer (which he preferred not to name so as not to jeopardize future business) selling his work, passing it off as original.
“A third party designer sold them the design, because they were lazy and didn’t want to make anything original and copied us,” he said. “[The retailer] didn’t do their due diligence to see if it was an original.”
Ultimately, the artists claim much of the theft goes unnoticed because the designers don’t have wherewithal to go against these major companies. Rather than fight for their work, they instead get a tainted perspective of these retailers that they formerly would have clamored to work for.
“It’s really upsetting because a lot of these brands, as anyone who is involved in apparel or illustration knows, are ones that you would have loved to work with,” Sanchez said.
As for Bassen, she said that though she didn’t expect her tweets to draw so much attention, she is grateful to foster dialogue around the issue.
“I feel very lucky that this story is taking off and extremely heartened that people care enough to donate their time to helping me,” she said. “I honestly didn’t think it would take off, I initially just wanted to share my grief and show people how hopeless corporations try to make artists feel who stick up for themselves.”