Fruit stickers, fashion, “Inspiration” and “Imitation”.
Over a number of years I’ve collected fruit stickers. You know, the flimsy, colourful designs you can find on the sides of fruits and vegetables in local markets all over the world. Their familiarity can make them easily overlooked, but to me at least, they are masterpieces of design hidden in plain sight.
They have no intrinsic value per-se, but like anything, once you own, collect and share it, it gains personal value and worth.
Unlike those collectors who amass things that they know will increase in value with a longterm view of financial gain, I have never had an end goal for cataloguing these little pieces of design ephemera. My collection is emotionally driven and very much part of my personal economy. The collection is precious, not because it has any real material value, but because it’s part of who I am.
Whilst I was unsure if my collection would have any significance to anyone else, as a designer I could clearly see its graphic appeal. So in early 2015 I began curating and sharing my personal collection of stickers one at a time on Instagram. By centralising them on plain backgrounds, they were de-contextualised outside of their usual, expected environment of the fruit bowl or market stall. I presented people with the opportunity to focus on them as pieces of design — rather than functional, branding tools to separate one identical banana from another.
I hoped that people had the same questions as me- who designs these things, when, where and why?
Nearly three years and 600 Instagram posts later, the account gained over 20,000 followers. Looking at the audience demographically, there is a 50/50 gender split, and most are between the ages of 25–35. Some of the most common words found in the bios of the followers are ‘designer’, ‘graphic design’ ‘illustrator’ and ‘artist’. Many respected and influential artists and designers follow along for the ride too. Including, but not limited to: Wolfgang Tillmans, Baron von Fancy, Henry Holland, Andy Rementer, Ashley Williams, Kate Moross and Mr. Bingo.
As a designer myself, I often use things like mood boards, or Pinterest, when working on a project. Inspiration can come from anywhere. Most designers don’t reinvent the wheel- we need input to form our own ideas. And yet, there is a fine line between being inspired by something, and to simply rip it off.
Never did I imagine that my relatively small, yet public, collection would become such a seemingly invaluable design reference in the fashion industry.
In the past week alone, both luxury streetwear brand Off White by Kanye West’s former creative director Virgil Abloh and eponymous Australian women’s clothing label Gorman by Lisa Gorman have released apparel featuring artwork that are direct derivatives of fruit stickers featured in my collection.
As this unfolded, many people have asked if I have ownership of the designs within the collection. I don’t. Just like those who collect stamps, or postcards, I’d be wrong to claim any sort of rights over that.
I’m a realist, I’m very aware that research and documentation simply doesn’t equate to intellectual property. But, would either of these garments have been designed had my account not existed? It feels pretty unlikely.
I live in London, and so was fortunate to be able to see it for myself — the staff in Selfridges are incredibly accommodating when they think you’re on track to buy a £2440 jacket.
Whilst there, I also noticed that the graphics had also been used on a checked two-piece (around £2000 in total) and long, brown Oversize Car Coat (£1762)
In a bid to understand the Virgil’s modus operandi my research led me to this description by 032c‘s Thom Bettridge — “Abloh rejects the who-did-it-first mentality of previous generations in favour of the copy-paste logic of the Internet and its inhabitants.” And according to Virgil himself, talking to the same publication, “You can use typography and wording to completely change the perception of a thing without changing anything about it”.
To further grasp his logic, I explored Virgil’s recent work. In the Off White Nike Collection, ‘The Ten’ I would argue he changes the perception in those pieces, by referencing pieces of the original design such as “laces”, “heel”, “air” and re-contextualises them.
I simply can’t argue that he has done the same thing with his use of my collection, where he has swapped out the brand names of the fruit stickers for his own brand name and the words ‘global warming’ and ‘polar opposite’, which according to luxury clothing retailer, Browns is — “Virgil Abloh’s ironic statement on climate change denial…for all the eco-warriors out there who prefer sits-ins at dinner rather than the wetlands.”
Virgil is lauded by some as a creative genius, and by others as a luxury knock-off merchant. Maybe he’s both?
He’s undoubtedly smart, enthusiastic, curious. Part of me wants to dislike him, but I don’t. There is something about the boldness of his attitude that I have respect for on some level. Despite this, I can’t help but question his personal code of ethics.
Knowing my collection inside-out, I immediately noticed he’d based one of his patches on a sticker from one of the biggest fruit distribution companies in the world: Dole. That sticker was part of a 1997 marketing campaign; you can clearly see the © symbol on the original sticker. As I’m not the owner of the image, I can’t say for sure that it’s still under protection, but typically the duration of a copyright spans the author’s life plus 50–70 years. That’ll be a bridge for Dole to cross, should they wish. That simply isn’t my corner to fight.
The other side of this story is fast-fashion Australian womenswear retailer Gorman Clothing.
Before last week I’d not heard of Lisa Gorman or Gorman Clothing. However, they recently came to my attention as they are releasing a pair of ‘fruity sticker jeans’ this month. No price stated as yet, but their similar products are pitched around AUS$150 (around £88 or $115).
The jeans have an all over surface pattern of around 12 shoddily redesigned stickers drawn from my account. Not only had Gorman elusively chosen to knock-off fruit stickers from my collection, but they even had the gall to “re-design” one of my most loved Instagram posts of a vine of eight, anthropomorphised happy cherry tomatoes into six, sad, apathetic versions of themselves. I couldn’t help but find it quite amusing, if I’m honest.
I was surprised to discover that Gorman have done many collaborations with excellent artists, but at the same time have been accused of dubious creative practices. Lisa stated to ABC news — “It’s without doubt that new concepts feed off old ones, and that within the world of design they will influence each other. I am completely against copying artists’ work and it’s clearly not in the interest of the brand to do so.” It feels like a typically oblique statement to me.
Melbourne based designer Kirra Jamison told The Sydney Morning Herald that Gorman’s “Jigsaw” collection appeared after she declined to collaborate with the label — “When Gorman released their Jigsaw print many people mistook it for my work, specifically a series of paintings made between 2012 and 2014 that had been based on vinyl cut-outs.”
Designer Emily Green and New York artist Amber Ibarreche, have also both claimed products sold by Gorman are derivative of their works. Whilst I’m aware of the idea that it’s possible for two designers to have the same idea at the same time (something that seems to happen more for Lisa Gorman than most…) It feels more like their process is to essentially to trawl social media and make work directly from it so that they can tap into the youth ‘zeitgeist’.
It didn’t take much research to uncover that both a graphic designer and textile designer from the company were following my fruit stickers account. The latter, who wishes to remain nameless, responded to my attempt to contact her via direct message on Instagram —
“I didn’t design or create this artwork. I’m not the only person who creates prints for Gorman…Lisa occasionally purchased prints from freelancers. They decided to start asking other designers within the company to submit print ideas and artwork. The fruit sticker print was not my concept…”
This isn’t an issue with the textile designer, or indeed the graphic designer. They are doing their job within the confines of the expectations of the company they work for. The buck ends with Lisa Gorman. She runs a very successful brand that trades on authenticity and originality, yet relies on a small team to ‘design’ a huge volume of prints every year, without giving them the time to develop their ideas or fight for originality in their work.
The designer also confirmed that Lisa was aware of my Instagram post. Despite my attempts to contact them, Gorman haven’t been in touch and nor have Off White.
News of both Off-White and Gorman’s releases were broken to me by a direct message on Instagram, by followers who’d made assumptions of a collaboration. One even congratulated me on my joint efforts with Off White, an indication of just how familiar their designs were.
A collaboration is defined as the action of working with someone to produce something, and in the case of both Off-White and Gorman that simply isn’t what happened in the development of these garments. Nor do I feel like they simply took inspiration from my efforts, a process described as “being mentally stimulated to do or feel something creative.”
Should I have expected a collaboration? No. Do I have a right to be annoyed? Maybe not. I’ve publicly shared a collection, it’s there for anyone to reference.
Yet, taking inspiration from a reference, and ripping it off are entirely different things.
Is it telling that two designers, from two different continents, and at two very different price points have chosen to derive surface designs from exactly the same source, at the exact same time? It feels a little embarrassing.
Two designers so devoid of intrigue or dedication for their chosen concept that they couldn’t look beyond my Instagram feed as their sole design source. They’ve chosen to stay behind their screens rather than experience the spectrum of the supermarket for themselves.
Reality is that both Off White and Gorman ransacked my collection and ripped off my curatorial efforts, not my designs. It’s simply lazy, hacky, concept-light design.
Technically, both those brands have created one-offs. They’ve made small adjustments to each design. They’ve not done anything awfully illegal, just shady, uninspired and frankly, sad.
Maybe this is just Culture ‘17? Are we that devoid of new ideas?
Maybe it’s just fashion? Perhaps like many designers and curators before me, I should see my efforts exploited and accept that I am powerless to stop it. Maybe this is how a Karl Lagerfeld feels if he ever passes Zara and sees his carefully designed collections reworked to conglomerate scale.
But I am not Karl Lagerfeld. I’m not even a fashion designer. And this isn’t the natural progression of the fashion food chain. Luxury brands should understand that their influences and collections inspire the high street. But a hugely successful brand scraping my relatively humble Instagram account for their own gains without so much as an acknowledgement doesn’t quite feel as just.
I’m not saying that fashion taking inspiration always leaves a bad taste, the ‘fruit sticker’ concept has been handled elegantly by luxury fashion in recent years. Opening Ceremony’s Pre-Fall 2015 collection, ‘Fresh!’ featured a range of produce sticker inspired garments. As put by The Clothes Maiden “Opening Ceremony took the idea of refreshment and regeneration as inspiration, with everyday fruits and vegetables symbolising the exciting renewal that takes place each fashion season. The prism-like displays of fruits and vegetables spotted on every New York street corner — and their daily rituals surrounding them — have cleaved a starring role in Opening Ceremony’s zeitgeist for the new season.”
Their graphics were wholly unique, with hints of familiarity.
As pointed out by one of my accounts followers, and fellow content sharer, @logoarchive “Reality is today, it’s not enough to curate, you have to create a lot in order to dominate the conversation around your topic, in products and media coverage.” Maybe he’s right, but it still feels as though designers should be respectful of the curatorial aspect. It’s disrespectful to the original designers of the fruit stickers to steal their work. It’s simply disrespectful to knock off someone’s curatorial efforts, rather than be inspired to create something new. To me, the line stops when people are knowingly passing off other people’s work as their own.
Many people have been reminding me that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Admittedly, there is an element of pride to having brought this little niche corner of the world to some level of popularity, yet it feels a shame to not be involved somehow.
Virgil, Lisa, is this your way of telling me that I lead creatively?
One perspective is that it’s genuine admiration for my curatorial work, another is that it’s purely the path of least creative resistance.
Either way, there is something more refined about design when it echoes, rather than imitates.