Anthropologie Apologises For Copying Sydney Ceramicist's Work, But That Doesn't Mean They Won't Do It Again

by: Lucy Jones | 3 weeks ago | News

Tara Burke’s vases. Image source.

Tara Burke's is a sadly familiar story. The Sydney ceramicist was contacted in 2016 by American clothing and homewares retailer Anthropologie. Representatives from the company visited her studio in February of that year to discuss a possible collaboration.

"During the visit, they photographed my ceramics and we chatted about how I work," Burke recalls. "They proposed the idea of me designing and prototyping some vases for Anthropologie, which they would then produce on a larger scale to sell. I declined (it just wasn’t the direction I wanted to take my business) and we went our separate ways."

In 2018, Anthropologie started selling a range of products that are almost identical to Burke's. The ceramicist has called the company out in an Instagram post that compares pictures of vases that she uploaded between 2015 and 2016 with pictures of vases from Anthropologie's 2018 collection. There are some striking similarities between the two ranges of vases like the lumpy textures, the not-quite-symmetrical shapes and the distinctive oversized handles.

"Anthropologie is scum," Burke writes in the image caption. 

"After debating whether or not to post publicly about this for the better part of the year (I know this is not the first nor will it be the last time something like this happens), I decided staying quiet felt too much like letting them get away with it and I didn’t feel like doing Anthropologie any favours," she continues. "With gift-giving season approaching, please consider carefully who you’ll be supporting with your precious money. Buy local!"

After this post went viral, Anthropologie actually admitted that they had copied Burke's designs. The company said that it will be removing the products from its stores and apologised to Burke in a statement.

"The welfare of our artist community is a priority for Anthropologie. We take intellectual property very seriously, both in protecting what has been developed by our own artists and designers and also respecting the intellectual property and designs of others, and we have systems in place for protecting creators' rights," the retailer said. 

"We deeply regret that in this instance, our safeguards did not hold up to our standards. We have tremendous respect for the artist community and are exploring how we can further strengthen our protocols. The product in question is no longer available and we are reaching out directly to Tara Burke."

This swift response to Burke's Instagram post suggests that Anthropologie is more concerned with social media backlash than it is with creator's rights. Burke told the BBC that she'd sent a letter to Anthropologie's legal team back in August but she never got a reply.

"I guess because I hadn't commenced legal proceedings, they didn't feel the need to respond," she said. "It's kind of a David-and-Goliath scenario."

The company may have apologised to Burke but they have not offered her any compensation. So, in essence, Anthropologie got off scot-free. If there are no real consequences for big brands that steal independent designers’ work, then what's to stop them from doing it again? In a recent Vogue feature about how emerging designers can protect their work, writer Sarah Mower said it’s time for top-down change in the fashion industry. 

"The thing that really needs to happen is not for clueless young designers to learn more about how to conduct themselves in front of potential employers, that would be the equivalent of people cajoling women not to dress a certain way because it might “provoke” a sexual assault," she writes "The change needs to be the other way around. Isn’t it high time for more honour and respect in the system, from HR, creative directors, CEOs, and board members alike?" 

While intellectual property laws are designed to protect the interests of artists, independent artists usually can't afford to enforce these rights.

“Practically speaking, the odds are against them at the outset because legal action is expensive. Simply hiring a lawyer to draft a cease and desist letter (though that is not required, as anyone can legally draft such a letter) can be costly and that is only the beginning, usually the very first step,” The Fashion Law founder Julie Zerbo told Vogue. “Big brands, many of which have legal teams in-house, will always have more resources to devote, including fighting back against a lawsuit (or threat of a lawsuit), and, should they choose to, taking the case all the way to trial. Even when young designers can file suit, it’s not uncommon to hear (in and out of the fashion industry) of the larger party’s counsel strategically litigating in a way to make it more expensive for the other party, thereby ‘litigating (the other brand) to death,’ so to speak.” 

Unable to pursue legal action, many designers take to social media to call out copycats. Instagram posts like Tara Burke's might force companies to take responsibility for their actions after the fact, but they don't do much to deter them from stealing work in the first place. We've heard Burke's story before and, if the creative industry doesn't introduce proper protections for artists, we'll hear it again.

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