In 2009, artist Stephanie Kao started working with a friend and professional ceramicist on a line of porcelain pieces that included vases and mugs. He crafted the pieces, and she hand-painted each of them, ultimately copyrighting some of the designs. They called the pieces the “lace and garland” collection, and sold the items at small stores, art galleries, and craft fairs around Philadelphia, where they lived at the time and where Urban Outfitters is based.
In 2010, Kao and her friend stopped producing the line when she moved to New York and he moved to L.A. But over the weekend, her friend found something that looked suspiciously like her artwork enveloping a mason jar being sold at Free People.
Kao says “it’s blatantly obvious” that she was ripped off by Free People, which is owned by Urban Outfitters, whose headquarters are located across from one of the shops selling the line. “At the time when I was producing these things, we sold a lot on Etsy as well, and I would check out the scene, what was going on, and I didn’t see any designs like this,” she said.
Urban Outfitters has a reputation for borrowing ideas from independent artists without consulting them. In 2010, jewelry maker Lillian Crowe accused Urban of copying her skeleton-inspired designs. The Brooklyn Paper reported her allegations, and quoted a source familiar with the company’s dealings who suggested they ask artists they work with if they’ve taken their idea from someone else because, “They know they have this reputation [of knocking people off], and are trying to [dispel it].” Last year, Urban was also accused of knocking off work by Stevie Koerner, who made a living selling state-shaped pendants with heart-shaped cutouts on Etsy. Just this month Urban Outfitters stopped selling a necklace after a jewelry designer accused the brand on Twitter of borrowing the idea from her line.
A rep for Free People has not responded to BuzzFeed Shift’s request for comment Monday* regarding Kao’s designs. Kao believes there’s nothing legally she can do about it, since the company changed the design enough to be outside the realm of copyright protection. She plans to work on another line of ceramic pieces in the near future.
“Part of me felt sort of defeated when I got sent that picture,” she said. “All I can do is take this as a motivation for my next line and do something completely new and different.”
Kao currently works as a graphic designer in New York and does freelance art projects on the side.
*Update: A spokesperson for Free People said the lanterns are a product from another vendor who sells on Etsy, whose been a member of the site since October of 2011.