Two Artists Opened A Pop-Up Shop Filled With Fast-Fashion Rip-Offs

Photo: Courtesy of Wacky Wacko/Ethan Scott.
Fast-fashion megaliths churn out new designs at an alarming rate — and this year, they've been caught repurposing the work of independent creators and calling it their own on multiple occasions. Thanks to social media, small brands can band together to call out the retail industry for this all-too-pervasive practice — and get their followers to follow suit. (Adam J. Kurtz’s Shop Art Theft project started in response to seeing Tuesday Bassen’s illustrations ripped off in Zara’s new arrivals section.) Still, aside from a virtual slap on the wrist, there hasn’t been much progress made in this conversation about how the fashion business deals with intellectual property. So, instead of waiting for yet another unfortunate incident to transpire in 2016 (and oh, there have been many), artists Peggy Noland and Seth Bogart decided to have the discussion IRL with an unsanctioned “Zara” pop-up inside their L.A. boutique, Wacky Wacko. The goal: to bring attention to the culture of knock-offs that plagues the industry — and to what constitutes appropriate usage of logos and recognizable imagery in the age of social media.
Originally, the installation's concept actually had nothing to do with making a statement about fast-fashion’s tendency to rip off indie artists. “Seth and I had an apartment together a few years ago, and we had painted it pretty similarly — we called it ‘the mall,” Noland told Refinery29 of the concept of creating faux-storefront-esque spaces. “We moved out of that place, but ever since, we have been looking for a way to do it again.” Then, news broke about Bassen’s Zara plight — and Bogart found himself in a similar predicament. “Tons of people started sending me pictures of a new tee at Zara with hand-drawn perfume bottles all over it,” Bogart said. “It looked very similar to the Perfume Maniac Tee I designed for Wacky Wacko. Although it’s not as extreme as the cases where they directly copied people’s art, it’s close enough to be like, ‘Huh? Why didn’t they just ask me to make them a print?’ Not that I would have.”

Noland has also seen her illustrations end up at unsanctioned retailers (and isn’t afraid to call it out). “[Seth’s and my] work gets ripped off a lot,” she wrote on Instagram. “We usually don’t even post about it — our time is better spent making the next thing than chasing a notoriously difficult and costly [intellectual property] lawsuit.” Instead of documenting every single instance she’s seen her work pop up elsewhere or even pursuing legal action, she’s more interested in examining what parts of her work are protected. For instance, so many of her prints draw from pop culture and advertising and use recognizable and trademarked logos. So, are copies of her work technically rip-offs of other rip-offs?

Mine vs. Theirs. Part 2 These rip offs feel different to me- less personal I suppose. This is from some company called @7mang . They actually made it cuter lol, but so strange they replaced FANTA with SUNKIST! Why just that one lol? Anyhoo, @sethbogartofficial and I's work gets ripped off a lot- we usually don't even post about it- our time is better spent making the next thing than chasing a notoriously difficult and costly IP lawsuit - especially with these (pictured) rip offs from some no name factory in China. But that's not the fun part of this convo for me. This is: The content of this shirt is my paintings of soda cans. Can I claim intellectual property rights when I have used someone else's intellectual property? (Not talking about parody, changing 40%, legally, etc...) Talking about the PRINCIPLE of the issue, that's the fun stuff, cause there is not an answer. Sure, there is a difference between me and Pespi. I am an artist who still has trouble making rent sometimes and they are a billion dollar co. But do the same rules apply? I never asked to be advertised too, the Pepsi logo is planted firmly in my brain. Isn't it inevitable that it will come out of my hands? Is the principle of 'ripping off' the same in both directions? When a 12 year old tags me on a photo of something they made that was inspired by or even a copy of what's I made, I love it. But when a company (even mine) stands to make money off of something they clearly deem valuable without paying for that value, it's different. So one would conclude it's about the money... right? I am clearly missing a buisness gene here, because for me it's not. If it's in a gallery/museum the convo is also way different that if it's in a retail store. I want to be clear I am speaking specifically about rip offs of 'rip offs.' When original artwork is stolen it's a completely different convo. This is my original artwork, as I spent time and thought creating it, but the content of my original artwork is someones elses' original artwork. You see what I'm saying? Does it matter is the artists that is being ripped off is creating in their bedroom or a boardroom? These are honest questions. What do you think?

A photo posted by Peggy Noland (@peggynoland) on

Noland and Bogart decided to roll all these parallel conversations into a single exhibit. “We tore down our old installation and re-imagined the space as a cartoon-style mall,” she explained. With 60 yards of satin, they created a “Zara” store, its hangers displaying actual knock-offs they’ve found on the internet of their work. They chose to model it after Zara because of the recent bevy of complaints raised against the retailer as of late. “I think fighting back in ways like this and publicly making them look bad is the best we can do,” he said. “It seems like a lot of people are noticing.” The duo opened the shelves up so that other creators who’ve been surprised to see their work on fast-fashion shelves can sell their goods, too.

The garments on display are sold at the fast-fashion retailer for $20 to $40, but, for the pop-up, Noland and Bogart repriced them for $200 to $400. They are very much aware of the outrageous inflation, but the proceeds from this pop-up will go to the people who actually bear the burden of cheap clothes: garment workers. “The reason the cost of rip-offs is so low is because of the working conditions in the country they are produced,” Noland reasoned. “I worked in a factory in Delhi before I made my own clothes, and I know firsthand that not all factories are sweatshops, but there’s a good chance they are.” Despite increased awareness of the working conditions in garment factories following 2013's tragic Rana Plaza collapse, upsetting reports still emerge of how little the industry has progressed in the years since — not just in terms of working conditions for the people actually making your clothes, but also in terms of environmental impact. Noland and Bogart plan to donate the money from their pop-up to Labour Behind the Label, a U.K.-based organization that campaigns for workers’ rights worldwide.
Photo: Courtesy of Wacky Wacko/Ethan Scott.
While social media has been crucial for indie artists to reclaim their work from large corporations, it can be a double-edged sword: Smaller brands benefit from various platforms to both promote their creations and get inspiration, but this exposure also puts them at risk of being copied in the long run. “Once you put something on the internet, you have to basically come to terms with the fact that it’s not necessarily yours anymore,” Bogart admitted.

It can go in the other direction, too, especially for Noland, who often draws from ad culture in her work: Both artists have received cease-and-desist letters from brands in the past (and they say they wouldn’t be surprised if they received something from Zara regarding this pop-up), and they’ve conceded to the requests. “Trends move so fast now that by the time the company catches up to it, it's usually lived and died on Instagram anyway,” Noland said. Still, it’s when the roles are reversed that the situation becomes fraught for independent creators. “Generally speaking, it’s unreasonable to expect that an individual would have the resources to fight a major company,” she explained. “At the very least it takes a lot of time, and usually a few thousand dollars, to even start the conversation with a lawyer. The only way I have been able to pursue anything is through the kindness of pro-bono lawyers, and only then in specific instances.”
Photo: Courtesy of Wacky Wacko/Ethan Scott.
Noland has tried to make use of these resources, although she’s never made it to court. As if intellectual property in general weren’t nuanced enough, her work is rich in logos and references to advertising, which makes it tricky to argue what constitutes an “original” idea. After all, this entire industry is built on this question, according to Noland — it's just that now, more people are paying attention to it. This is largely because of social media, which has allowed creators to make a space for themselves and their work and, in some cases, has forced large corporations to respond. “If people keep being vocal about [the rip-offs], it will at least draw attention to their brands and hopefully the public will order from one of the companies who had the original idea,” Bogart added. (The Fashion Law has done great coverage on this topic, and about why copying is so pervasive in fashion overall.)

More importantly, Noland and Bogart hope to highlight that the rip-off culture we're seeing in fashion has ramifications beyond just indie designers versus corporations. "Our participation in fast fashion is keeping millions of people trapped in horrific working conditions," Noland explained. We all play a role in this cycle, she admitted, but seeing how small brands have been able to initiate an industry-wide conversation speaks to how much power a consumer actually has. If we can build momentum, Noland explained, "we could actually change something that affects peoples' lives positively, not only their livelihood."