Alex Dakoulas recognized the cursive letters outlined in orange and blue on major clothing retailer Wet Seal’s website, and realized: his store had been ripped off.
Wet Seal was selling an iron-on patch that used the exact design of independent artist Vaughn Fender — an exclusive design found only at Dakoulas’ store Strange Ways in Westville.
Dakoulas and Fender had collaborated on the patch, which reads “Oh Yeah” in bright script, and sold nearly 100 in a limited run by early summer.
Dakoulas immediately took to social media to protest the knock-off item for sale, writing a post last Tuesday on Strange Ways’ Instagram page that netted more than 300 likes.
“The exclusive patch design we released with @vaughnfender has been copied by @wetseal—they didn’t even *try* to adjust it! Two different (crappy) Etsy shops also recreated it for sale!” he wrote.
Strange Ways has more than 28,000 followers on Instagram. Some of them bombarded Wet Seal with angry messages.
Last Wednesday, Wet Seal took down its version of the patch from its online store and issued an apology. “We respect independent artists and their work and it was never our intention to give the appearance of even a slight resemblance of someone else’s work.That is why we remove the patches from our site and immediately began an investigation with our vendors to determine how designs that they represent as original could be similar to those as other artists,” reads a statement attributed to the company Chief Executive Officer Melanie Cox.
Both independent Etsy shops Craft Applique and Craft Supplies World also stopped selling their versions of the “Oh Yeah” patch.
Strange Ways focuses on stocking goods from independent artists and designers. Dakoulas said there are three ways for Strange Ways to profit: buying directly from an artist’s body of work, getting an artist to produce original designs, or collaborating with an artist to put out designs exclusive to the store. The rights always stay with the artists.
Usually Dakoulas reaches out to artists making work that appeals to him. These artists often sell and promote their work on social media under the tags “#patchgame” and “#pingame.”
He met Stamford-based Fender through a friend and was attracted to his art’s “great typography.” They worked together to come up with an exclusive patch and pin to be released at the same time. Strange Ways paid Fender a royalty fee, a percentage of the limited run, and sold the patch for $7 and the pin for $6 each.
Wet Seal selling the patch diluted Strange Ways’ limited run, especially since the large retailer sold it for less, Dakoulas said. “We won’t get credit for originally selling it,” he said.
In a follow-up email with the Independent, Angelo D’Agostino, Wet Seal vice president of marketing, said company officials are working with their vendors to figure out exactly why and how the art was stolen.
“At present we’re working with our vendors to understand what happened and why something that was presented to our buying team as unique, original art could be similar to someone else’s work. We are also reaching out to the artists and parties directly involved to open up communication and keep them informed as to our actions,” he wrote.
Dakoulas said he hasn’t received notice of how many “Oh Yeah” patches were sold, whether they are still available in stores or whether the artist will receive any compensation.
Strange Ways also stocks many of the artists who found their designs in Spanish retailer Zara’s summer line without their permission and without stated intention for compensation. Los Angeles-based artist Tuesday Bassen first brought the matter to national media attention in mid-July, when she looked at Zara’s website and saw several of her designs there.
“We reject your claims here for reasons similar to those already 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,” she heard back from Zara’s lawyers, at the start of her suit against the retailer.
Zara’s parent company Inditex is investigating other allegations “on a case by case basis,” spokesperson Lisa Lam told the Independent. The items under investigation have been suspended from sale, she said.
Zara is technically violating copyright infringement laws, if it has copied the artists’ designs, according to an art copyright lawyer.
New York City-based artist Adam J. Kurtz created a website called “Shop Art Theft” to document the work of other artists who found themselves in the same position. “The community making pins and patches is very much like your high school friend who wanted to start a t-shirt line,” he told the Independent, in an email. “When you take existing artwork and replicate it exactly for mass-market products, you’re not just violating intellectual property law, but you’re also very immediately and directly profiting from it. The original artists deserve compensation for this theft and any profit that comes from it.”
Dakoulas walked around his store and plucked several brightly colored pins and patches from the racks—all of which can be found on Kurtz’s art theft catalogue.
Strange Ways hasn’t taken legal action against any of the retailers or vendors stealing artists’ work. Dakoulas said he doesn’t want to. It’s an expensive process. “I don’t want to send a $2,000 letter and then maybe get nothing out of it,” he said.
But he plans to help Vaughn and other artists as they figure out how to protect their art.
Social media sites make it easier for larger companies to take from smaller artists liberally. But Dakoulas sees a bright side. “It’s easier to support the people making original items,” he said.