The Limitation of Imitation
By Kenly Craighill
Adolescence: the age of bad acting. In this graceless phase of acne and braces, teenagers strategically morph into anything resembling some abstract idea of “cool.” The teenage brain, so adeptly designed to rapidly draft the building blocks of identity, clings to the trademark traits of others that outwardly express character. It’s basic social conditioning for the developing self to seek validation and comradery by following the leader, defining oneself by mimicking others—often to the extreme.
Despite the irritated piercings and questionable haircuts, this is mostly a good thing. It allows people to safely learn cultural behaviors, create clear visual cues that build community and affinity around similar interests, and it explains the uncomfortably segmented nature of the dreaded school cafeteria.
But, there’s a thin line between innocently emulating and annoyingly mimicking. The teenager so harmlessly establishing personality must eventually grow into an adult… one who personalizes—not plagiarizes—their influences. There’s a reason those adolescent years evoke the most cringes later in life. No one likes a cheap imitation.
Unfortunately, not all amateurish facsimiles are restricted to adolescent aping. Companies shamelessly duplicate the original work of artists all the time, often contradicting brand stories centered around individuality and distinction. Yes, drawing influence from the masters of any trade ensures quality growth and natural product evolution. With proper acknowledgment and compensation, emulation can even be flattering—an homage to another’s talent. But hit the nail too precisely on the head, and a company risks becoming a shallow mirror of success—a copycat.
Large companies are especially frequent offenders of this counterfeit originality, coopting trends that catch fire in small communities.
ModCloth, the Walmart-owned women’s retailer known for its unique vintage inspired pieces and “values of female empowerment and inclusivity,” found itself in hot water after its “Opportunity for Unity” t-shirt went viral. The top featured an illustration worthy of a front-line protest sign—three fists of different ethnicities, nails lacquered with matching red polish, sandwiched by the phrase “fight like a girl.” It was a perfectly inspiring design—at least for anyone unfamiliar with Deva Pardue’s “Femme Fist” illustration.
For those who were familiar with Pardue’s work, the ModCloth top wasn’t revolutionary—it ripped off the revolution. Crafted for the Women’s March in January 2017, the design raised funds for The Center of Reproductive Rights and Emily’s List—two non-profit organizations supporting reproductive freedoms and advancing the election of pro-choice women. Pardue’s piece, sold under her brand For All Womankind, garnered a total $12,000.
The discovery that Modcloth had slapped her design on a shirt was disappointing and exhausting: “For All Womankind is a side hustle on top of my full-time job,” Pardue explained in an email. “I find it extremely frustrating when something pure and grassroots is co-opted and monetized by huge corporations.”
“What do you have to say about this?” she tweeted to Matt Kaness, ModCloth’s CEO at the time. “Where is your profit for these sales going? I’ve never profited from this image, my small biz For All Womankind has donated $12,000 to date and is donating another $5,000 by the end of this year.”
Social media leveled the playing field between Pardue and the $150 million retailer, after its failure to acknowledge several formal cease and desist letters from her lawyer. ModCloth removed the shirt from the site after four weeks, but didn’t respond to requests to disclose revenue made from the shirt, destroy inventory, or pay a retro-active licensing fee.
ModCloth did, however, release the following statement:
“We work closely with our vendors to ensure that they have the copyrights to the designs we are purchasing from them and have zero tolerance for intellectual property infringement…We are talking directly with Deva to address any issues she may have. We always want to support unique designs and local artists and will work to make things right, so we have asked if we can donate the profits from the sales of this T-shirt to a charity of Deva’s choice.”
The response seems genuine enough, but the shirt had no business hitting shelves in the first place. This is less of an issue of third-party product sourcing or lack of responsiveness than it is one of core brand misalignment. ModCloth describes itself as “the fun, friendly spot for style and decor that’s as expressive and unique as you are” and claims its team of in-house designers “pull out all the stops to give each garment that special something.” The integrity of these claims, so vital to consumer confidence, now feel hollow. Be it malicious intent or pure accident, ModCloth failed to uphold its promise to put women first, offer unique pieces, and create original prints. Its brand has been polluted. Its word no longer credible.
Exploitation-masquerading-as-art runs rife at folk-art wholesaler Cody Foster & Co, as well. The “Our Story” page of the brand’s website describes them as selling designs inspired by “off-beat vintage pieces” and “unconventional antiques,” but fails to mention the original work of independent artists it has also been so inspired by—a little too inspired.
Cody Foster & Co gained recognition selling cutesy ornaments and glittered home décor to big-name retailers like West Elm, Nordstrom, and Anthropologie. But, it isn’t the small-town design shop it appears to be. While the brand’s origin story boasts about a “rustic frontier” shop in “picturesque” Nebraska, don’t be fooled. Evidence suggests this nostalgic Mid-Western workshop is fueled by “designers” searching Etsy for original work by independent artists vulnerable to theft.
One of these artists, Lisa Congdon, was shocked after stumbling upon “poorly executed but clearly copied” versions of her work in the Cody Foster catalogue. Her Nordic-inspired illustrations of animals fashioned with intricate textile saddles had been ripped off by the company, who was profiting off kitschy Christmas ornament duplicates. Like Deva Pardue, Congdon publicly called out the company in an attempt to re-claim her work from the copycat wholesaler.
“If it had been less blatant, I would have thought twice about going public with this,” Congdon blogged. “Sometimes, the lines are blurry. But this imagery is very unique to me. You won’t find anything else like it out there on the internet.” Cogden’s post went viral, generating more than 250,000 Facebook shares in a week, and stirring an army of other ripped-off artists to action.
Unique creatives such as Abigail Brown, Mimi Kirchner, and Cassandra Smith spoke up regarding Cody Foster’s long history stealing their work to make a profit. To solidify these claims against Cody Foster, a Flickr group was created with documentation of the stolen designs, leaving no question that the $3 million business had unabashedly cloned the work of independent artists with no credit or compensation.
The company issued threats to sue the artists, but its overzealous defense attempts only cemented the company’s guilt. Amidst the controversy, Cody Foster’s most essential retailer partners decided they wanted nothing to do with a company built on hijacking the intellect and creativity of independent artists.
Being publicly perceived as a creative cheat is a nightmare for brands like Anthropologie and West Elm. They’ve built an entire customer base on concepts of colorful originality and confident individualism—customers who absolutely don’t want to be associated with knock-offs or cheap imitations. After a myriad of consumer demands to stop selling Cody Foster products, Antrhopologie, West Elm, and Fab.co made the public decision to end their engagements with Cody Foster & Co. Anthropologie released the following statement in response to the fury:
Anthropologie cherishes the relationships we have fostered with independent artists and designers, which allow us to delight our customers with beautiful, distinct merchandise.
Although extremely concerned by the allegations against one of our suppliers, we believed it was our corporate responsibility to carefully investigate the claims before taking decisive action.
After a thorough investigation, Anthropologie has decided to sever its relationship with Cody Foster & Co, remove any current items from our site and stores and cancel plans to include the company’s products in our holiday assortment. Unfortunately it is too late for us to make changes to our catalog in which a few items appear. While visible in photographs, they will not be credited or offered for sale.
We would like to thank our customers and friends in the art and design community for their patience as we resolved this matter with due diligence and with time. With this closure, we look forward to embarking on the holiday season with a shared vision.
The Cody Foster social media accounts quickly shut down, a cowardly attempt to hide in shame as emergency damage control took the front seat. The company ensured it would explore new ways to “engage with artists through commissioning designs and providing royalty agreements based on sales.”
Like a teenager struggling to find their place in the world, brands might be tempted to lean heavily on the work of others to sprint ahead and gain acceptance. But, all poseurs are eventually exposed—be they a wannabe punk or a hollow imitation of a fashion brand. Imitation may be a sincere form of flattery, but for brands who want to tell a story of authentic originality and creativity, there’s only one choice: if they talk the talk, they must walk the walk.
Kenly is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss how we can help tell your story.