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Hello, and welcome to Urban Outfitters Cannot Stop Stealing From Independent Artists, part infinity. Over the past four years, we’ve brought you periodic stories about the Philly-based hipster monolith selling designs plagiarized from other artists, something the company has done again and again and again and again. But this latest episode looks just a little bit different, in that Urban has actually admitted, sort of, that there’s a problem.
Earlier this year, Urban began selling the skirt you see above, by Australian clothing designer bambam cloth. The design appears to have been lifted wholesale from a 2012 piece called “tryypyzoyd” by Massachusetts-based artist James Soares. He works under the name Spires and sells on Society6, an online artist’s marketplace. He learned there was a problem after a Society6 user named Chelsea Birnell left a comment on “tryypyzoyd” earlier this month: “I just wanted to let you know… I think you’ve been ripped off,” she told him, along with a link to Urban Outfitters, where the “bambam geo bodycon skirt” was selling for $59.
Soares didn’t see Birnell’s comment for nearly two weeks. When he finally saw it, and followed the link to the UO listing, he was very unhappy.
“I knew it was tryypyzoyd immediately because as you can see from the comparison, there was no attempt made to alter the art in any way but to rotate it 180 degrees,” he tells the Voice. “The colors are all the same and the positions of the shapes are identical.”
Soares took to Tumblr. “Urban outfitters is ripping me off with the help of a party named ‘Bambam,'” he wrote. “This is taken from my original work tryypyzoyd. I’m furious. PLEASE SHARE TO HELP.” Soares added that he’d already spoken to Urban Outfitters: “I emailed them and [I] have heard back. I’m currently finding the best approach to take action.”
The response was immediate and enormous. Tumblr users have reblogged his post more than 90,000 times, and in the midst of his fury, Soares seems delighted at how the story has taken off.
“I have been overwhelmed with interest about this situation, which I’m so happy about,” he tells us. “I have been considering how to take action. I am moving forward and there will be more to say on that later.”
This is, as you may recall, virtually the same situation that Tumblr artist Glamtrash faced in November, after she discovered a drawing of hers, a stylized pink heart featuring the words “Weird Girl,” had been slapped onto a t-shirt by a company called United Couture and was being sold at Urban Outfitters.
Glamtrash, too, got thousands of re-blogs after she called UO out on Tumblr. But there are two notable differences here. The first is that Urban Outfitters pulled the Soares-“inspired” skirt down on May 22, replacing it not with the words “Sold out,” as they did in the case of the purloined Glamtrash design, but with another notice, one that read “legal issue.” Here’s a screenshot:
They’ve since removed the listing altogether, although it lives on elsewhere on the site, under the user reviews. (Some of the more recent reviews are getting a little snarky: “I love this skirt, it looks like art!” reviewer Nicoooo enthused on May 21, after the plagiarism was public. “I feel like this should be hanging on a wall somewhere. It is great! You have outdone yourselves this time UrbanOutfitters!”)
The Urban Outfitters PR team also sent us and other news outlets this statement:
We take matters such as this very seriously and removed the product as soon as this was brought to our attention. Urban Outfitters has worked with Society6 since 2010 to help bring awareness and sales to their creative network of artists. As long-time supporters of Society6 and independent creatives, we would never intentionally appropriate their work. The origin of the design is still being investigated with the designers at BAMBAM Cloth. We appreciate your patience while we work to resolve this issue.
Meanwhile, over on Twitter, they assured everyone who tweeted about the plagiarism that their concerns were heard and understood:
— Urban Outfitters (@UrbanOutfitters) May 22, 2014
If that wording sounds at all familiar, that’s because it’s a template they’ve used before, back in January, when people got upset over the chain selling shirts that read “Depression” and “Eat Less:”
@ImaC4tt We know + we hear you. Both of these shirts have been removed from our site and are no longer for sale.
— Urban Outfitters (@UrbanOutfitters) January 5, 2014
UO has publicly apologized for lots of other things in the past, including selling shirts festooned with dollar signs and the words “Everybody Loves a Jewish Girl,” a shirt that ripped off the logo of the United Farm Workers, and for selling socks with the Hindu god Ganesh on them. But this is the first time they’ve admitted they were selling something that looked to be plagiarized.
Their newfound transparency only goes so far, though. Upon receiving that statement, we asked the company a series of follow-up questions about how they handle alleged plagiarism from the companies they work with: how do they investigate these incidents? Do they cut ties with companies who sell them ripped-off designs? (In at least one case, the answer to that is no. United Couture, the company selling the ripped off “Weird Girl” shirt, is still featured on the UO website. Right now the only item of United Couture clothing for sale is a hoodie that reads “Indian Summer.”)
Urban Outfitters didn’t respond to any of these follow-up questions. Bambam has also failed to respond to two requests for comment.
Still. Baby steps.