Urban Outrage: The aftermath of the Urban Outfitters Twitter disaster

I know, I know. The Urban Outfitters Twitter disaster is soooo two weeks ago. I have been wanting to write this post since before Memorial Day. And now, I’m finally getting the chance to do so.

It’s all about me, me, me

Hey Internet, we need to talk for a sec. First, I tweeted something that went insanely viral, trended internationally. Hundreds of thousands of retweets? Complete insanity. The day this happened, I was about to go to the gym and throw some weight around, but decided I wanted to stop by Starbucks and write a post about what happened instead. Why? I thought that maybe a few people would click from my Twitter profile to my blog, and I was a little embarrassed that I hadn’t updated it in a while. Oh, and I’m totally turned on by social media and fascinated by word of mouth marketing and social justice and all that, so hey, perfect post opportunity.

Then something crazy happened. THAT post went viral. Whoops. I didn’t count on that. And if I had known that it would get hundreds of thousands of clicks, dozens of comments, and over 25,000 shares (from my blog alone, which on a given day gets 300 views) I would have written it a little differently. Less about “OMG I WAS TRENDING, AIN’T IT CRAZY???” and more… reporter-y? More telling the whole story, and not just giving my perspective of how things happened, to me. The whole day, my phone and email were blowing up. I was interviewed by the Washington Post and a national Canadian news radio station. I was on the local news. I got a job offer in Seattle. Weird crap was happening. Meanwhile I was trying to pack for a 3-day camping trip. The husband was not amused.

You got me twice, Internet! Many, many people commented on the fact that my post was very “me, me, me” in the first place. And then when dissenting opinions came out about the origin of the necklace in the first place, even though I linked to them in my followup post, I got a lot of comments like these, on Twitter and on my blog:

mad comments

I left Saturday morning (the day after the media blitz and my other post going viral) for a camping trip and had no phone or internet for 3 days. Then I was back in my office for a day and went to Minneapolis for the AIGA Leadership Retreat (which was ah-maze-ing and life changing, no seriously). And I had zero time to work on things for my clients much less make a blog post. I got a few really angry @replies that I was “ignoring the issue” and being silent. A couple people asked me to print a retraction. Wild! Okay, so here is my official feelings on the whole thing.

What I learned

No matter how invisible you think you are… you aren’t.

I probably would have changed the way I “reported” things if I knew my post (and tweet) would have gone viral. But I didn’t know. I also didn’t schedule it so I wouldn’t have time to respond to everyone since I was traveling when this all happened. I just reacted from my (yep, self-centered) perspective. In both cases. And both times, my words were in very public view. So I’ve taken a lesson. Think before I speak (write). Think about how this tweet or post will look if it makes national news. It could, you know. Social media is a crazy thing.

I offer my apology to those who I have not been able to respond to in a timely manner. I’m human. I’m not a reporter. I’m short on time. I encourage you to write your own feelings on the subject. Put them out there.

So what about the fact that there are *lots* of those necklaces out there?

Abbey of Aesthetic Outburst had this to say, which is exactly how I feel about the whole “whose idea was it first” debacle:

Artists can (and often do) come up with similar ideas, independently of one another. Just this weekend, I was looking at Pinterest and happened to see this lovely print by Jaime Derringer of Design Milk. I’ve been making a similar pattern without ever having seen Jaime’s print…a genuine mistake on my part to not research the pattern better. I didn’t intend to copy Jaime and was genuinely mortified when I realized that I had been drawing the same pattern. With regard to the current U.O. situation, it’s very clear that several artists have been making very similar work (see this post on Regretsy). Who came up with the necklace design first? I’ll admit that those waters are pretty murky.

Here’s the thing though: this isn’t the first time an independent artist has cried foul. Urban Outfitters and Cody Foster & Co have repeatedly been accused of stealing ideas from independent artists (people like you and me!) and are making a profit from these stolen ideas. Do I really need to say this out loud?! Making a profit from stolen work is not OK.

Uniform Natural had a great post about the collective conscious. And Renee from Wolfie and the Sneak had these wise words:

Here’s the thing: just because you see many versions of similar items doesn’t mean someone somewhere wasn’t ripped off. It means there is an epidemic of thievery because copyright is difficult to protect. It means there was a designer who created something that fit a trend, had the design stolen and didn’t (or couldn’t) protect their work on the front end of the process, so another designer stole the design, then another and then another. For the purpose of this blog post, this is specifically a nearly identical creative design, duplicated by many different sources. Design theft is still a part of this process, the infringement is harder to trace, though, due to the saturated market of identical designs.

With regards to the collective conscious, many similar items will be made. We have a lot of information coming at us in strong tides. Themes, trends and interests sweep like waves and we can’t help but absorb the information. There will be other items similar to the ones we make. It will happen, and they will show up in shops large and small. To say there is nothing original is simply to make an excuse not to try.

I’m not talking about finding influence: liking the shape, proportion, even qualities, textures and colors, then digesting the design, playing around with it and creating something similar but with your own perspective distinctly added through materials, patterns, form and basic design. That’s how you place your own design fingerprint on something.

I’m talking about dissecting the design of an object and duplicating it. While I’m at it, the US copyright laws make no differentiation between personal use and resale.

But Urban Outfitters *does* support indie designers. What about that?

Did you see Urban Outfitters’ completely lame-ass press release about the whole thing? Other than the fact that they completely ignored that the story was happening on Twitter, with their customers, with the public… I find it HILARIOUS that they linked to the Regretsy post, which specifically calls them out for ripping people off. Is their PR department completely sans clues?

Renee from Wolfie and the Sneak points out that while yes, Urban Outfitters (and Anthropologie and Terrain) all have been accused of ripping off designs and selling knockoffs, they do actually sell some independent artists’ lines. So it feels a bit icky calling them out. But they also support Cody Foster, a giftware manufacturer who “shops” etsy and then sells identical items to UO and its sister brands. That’s not okay to me. At all.

Poppytalk had this to say about the (really lame) response from UO:

Corporate/Company Social Responsibility (CSR) can be seen as separate from a Company’s legal responsibilities. Just because something is legal to do, does not make it the moral thing to do. If the only guidelines of a company’s are legal, then we might – as consumers, and general members of society – question whether that company’s position within the marketplace is valid. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you do. Just because others have recreated a specific design, does not justify a large Company’s actions. 12 wrongs still don’t make a right. This is not a level playing field; a multi-national corporation is not operating on the same plane as a small independent.

Oh, and the token, small number of independents that the corporation supports by offering shelf space, does not wipe it’s hands clean. And the assertion that your reply is in defense of those few independents is PR spin; it’s really about damage control for the corporation’s face.

When a mistake is made, I believe the best course of action is to be human. Apologize. Ask how you can make it right. And do that. I think this goes for an individual and for a corporation, it’s even more important.

So what do we do now?

Some final words from Renee, she said it far better than I ever could:

Let’s consider placing value on a work of art or craft, I see no reason to differentiate art and craft. Let’s allow the designer their right to make money on art without the arrogance of devaluing their skills by copying. The artist’s skills are a culmination of experience, talent, skill and expression. Their work is their own unique fingerprint, their own expression.

By all means be creative, find influence, seek inspiration. Build, create, grow! Add to the dialog of the visual language. Get in there and express yourself, but don’t take another person’s cumulative experience (as expressed through a visual work) and tell the story as if it were your own.

Remember the person behind the design: the face, the designer. Respect the human being behind it all.
Honor their skills and hone your own skills by building upon creative dialog rather than echoing sentiments already expressed.

That goes for opinions, too. Digest the information available to you, think about it, form an opinion. If you don’t like the behavior you see, if you feel a designer has been trampled on and you feel the ick factor, speak up.

Ask for accountability.

Talk, it’s one of the ways we can increase the value of good design.

What do you think?

Thank you to everyone for your input (positive and negative), for the many lessons I’ve learned because of this ordeal, for the inspiration, for showing me that social media is exactly as awesome as I always thought it was. Any final thoughts on this whole thing? Tell me in the comments.


  1. Kevin says

    Thanks for following up, with a little more detail. You could’ve avoided the issue but you attacked it head on. Much appreciated

  2. says

    It’s sad that people felt you had to apologise for what was, essentially, your venting of something you felt strongly about and your amazement at how it spread across the internet. I loved your original post and I think it’s great that you gave an even bigger platform to an issue which is really important in the arts and crafts world, you know?

    I have nothing else to add, really. It’s just a very sad situation. Advertising is much the same – most “creative” adverts are re-workings of something an independent artist has done. x

  3. says

    Thanks for the follow up. It’s ironic, because as this was happening, I went through something slightly similar. Messing around with 5 minutes of free time at work, I came up with this one-off: http://icavedandgota.tumblr.com/post/5831753567/kickin-ideas-around-yesterday-with-fatty-and-came and almost immediately got some negative comments about how it “had been done before” or “was a ripoff.” I’d never seen it anywhere else, but to say that switching the “L” in the facebook like button to a “B” was super creative is a far stretch.

    I must say that while you called attention to a larger problem with UO and other big corporations ripping off designs (Sup IKEA), the concept of punching a heart out of a state outline wasn’t the most creative either. I’m not knocking what you did at all, just saying that people need to back off and realize that artists can come up with similar concepts independently.

    Thanks again for following up, and best of luck dealing with your 15 minutes!

  4. Jenz says

    I appreciate your followup, and just to give full credit, y’all should know that Amber actually emailed me (I was one of her critics).

    You’re right about Urban Outfitters, they are pretty copycatty. But to be brutally honest, I didn’t think the design in question was particularly original, not enough so that anyone should be able to claim it as solely theirs. Hearts combined with the Texas outline are rampant in Texas, it’s been done to death. To the point that it’s really entirely possible that UO actually did come up with this independently and didn’t imitate anyone. Putting hearts with other shapes isn’t new. To say the least.

    It’s not wrong to do simple designs (that’s my personal preference), but you can’t do that and then legitimately claim to be unique.

  5. Cate says

    Hi Amber. Thanks for the heads up on your follow up blog.

    The theft of intellectual property is not new. (Are there any new ideas left in the world anyway?) I know a buyer for a large bag company in Australia with shops in major malls here and New Zealand. Her job is to buy handbags from designer outlets in New York, Paris, Milan. Then she returns them to the manufacturing center in Shanghai, where the bags are copied (not replicated) and mass produced. I presume that the general style and materials are taken into account so that the ‘clever copies’ will be attractive to those who watch fashion trends but can’t afford designer apparel.

    Is it only handbags that are copied? Surely all the clothing that we buy are copies of design trends. The mass market can’t afford to buy from the catwalks of Milan, so clothing style is copied – and replicated as well. When big pants are on the catwalks, they suddenly appear in all the shops – you know how it goes.

    For independent designers it’s hard because they don’t have the same marketplace as the larger established fashion houses and designers. Like in days of old you had to sell your design to the wealthy to wear in order to make it attractive to all the lesser wealthy. That was the guts of fashion and design. So what to do about Urban Outfitters and the like ripping off Etsy designers? I guess it’s a matter of making your market bigger than UO. Getting on the bike and pedalling your wares wider for sales to offset the rip offs that are a natural part of the design trade. Not saying it’s a good thing, but what can you do?

    • Rachel says

      that is a good point. I had never thought about that before. I would imagine that when fashion knock-offs first started happening, the designers were not happy about it, either. The internet is such a great tool- but there is also much more potential for stealing, borrowing, or copycatting.

      It seems to me like the only thing one can really do if one wants to support artists is to buy from THEM, and not from a manufacturer.

  6. says

    Thanks for linking and continuing the discussion. I’m sorry people came after you for accountability when there are others that need to explain their behavior. Maybe that wasn’t the best single instance of bad behavior on UO’s part, but when you look at the bigger picture, the repeat behavior, you have to wonder what is going on.