Max Cattaneo owns a small clothing label called Wowch that sells shirts and other apparel with whimsically hip images of animals, particularly cats. Cats with third eyes, cats riding in a hearse, cats jumping out of a slice of pizza. It’s all painfully cool and the kind of stuff Urban Outfitters knows would be catnip for its customers — especially one particular item: black leggings with cute little kitten faces on the knees.
Until today, Urban Outfitters was selling a very similar version of the leggings on its site. Cattaneo had been contacting them, trying to get them to remove the item. After BuzzFeed contacted UO for comment, they took down the item from the site. A company spokesperson said:
We take these matters very seriously. Urban Outfitters did not design or produce the cat leggings currently being sold on our website. The leggings were purchased from a third party vendor. Urban Outfitters does not support copying of designs nor do our customers. It is never our intention to offend other designers and small businesses. Because we take these matters so seriously, the cat leggings have been removed from our website, which we have informed the third party vendor and the designer Max Wowch.
The item is no longer available on the UO site as of this afternoon.
Clothing copyright law doesn’t cover the cut or fabric of an item, which makes sense or else Fruit of the Loom could sue Hanes over a plain white tee. The one element of clothing that you can file a copyright claim on is the graphic elements or prints. Forever 21 is notorious for lifting inspiration from designer clothing, but it’s the brand’s copying of print patterns that have earned it numerous lawsuits from designers like Anna Sui and Diane Furstenberg that were settled out of court.
Urban Outfitters has had a spotty record with accusations of ripping off hip indie designers. In 2010, two Brooklyn jewelry designers noticed UO was selling necklaces nearly identical to the ones they designed. In 2011, an Etsy seller accused them of copying her jewelry as well.
Ironically, Wowch and UO have partnered together in the past, and one of those designs was “stolen” by yet a third party. In 2008, James Franco’s character in Pineapple Express wears a shirt that is nearly identical to a Wowch-for-Urban Outfitters design of a kitten in a shark’s mouth. In an interview, Franco said that the director had designed the shirt himself. The image of the shark has been flipped and darkened to make it different from the Wowch shirt, but it’s very obviously similar.
Cattaneo’s demand for restitution in this case? Free tickets to the movie and a large popcorn.
The shirt appears again in this summer’s This Is the End.
Why would Urban Outfitters make an above-board deal to license a shirt in one case but then just go ahead and make their own copy of a pair of leggings a few years later? Cattaneo says, “There’s lots of turnover there. There was a regime there that I worked with five-plus years ago, but they’ve all moved on now.”