Even if the name Tuesday Bassen doesn’t ring a bell immediately, you’ve probably seen her bubbly-meets-surreal work everywhere from The New Yorker to Urban Outfitters to the trademark patches and pins that have been bringing back ‘70s-style flair in force. (Bassen’s L.A. store, Friend Mart, is a rec room of like-minded artists and makers.)
But early in 2016, Bassen’s art started showing up in an unwelcome place: On the website of fast-fashion mainstay Zara, uncredited. Like too many small artists and designers with cult followings, Bassen had become an unwitting victim of intellectual property theft; when she and fellow artist Adam J. Kurtz dug into Zara’s enamel-pin offerings, for instance, they found clear evidence that the chain had ripped off designs from at least 18 artists, in many cases changing nothing before offering their own versions of the merchandise for sale. Bassen has retained legal counsel and, though Zara’s initial response was an impressive tour de force of gaslighting, she continues to fight for both her own intellectual property and those of her fellow indie designers. We checked in to see how it’s going.
ANDI ZEISLER: How and when did you originally find out that Zara was stealing your designs? And is it just Zara, or have there been others?
TUESDAY BASSEN: I first noticed that they were stealing my designs around, I think, February 2016. A lot of my fans and people that follow me online started to tip me off to this one design that had come out. So it was really hurtful when I saw it, but I didn't know what I could do. I feel like since Zara's theft started, more have popped up. I don't know what the reasoning is for that—maybe other companies are seeing these designs and not even necessarily realizing that they're mine but stealing them from Zara as well, just kind of creating a chain effect. And I was also very aware—and I'm sure Zara is too—of how much it costs to defend yourself in a scenario like that where you're a small business, and you're going against the largest fast-fashion corporation in the world.
I think my silence made them feel like they had permission to keep stealing my designs. So it went from one design to two designs to three designs to four designs to five designs. And finally, I went to go see one particular in person just because I couldn't believe it. It went from being maybe they had changed a few things to changing nothing and it being like a really egregious offense. And I went to the mall to go and see one of them in person, and it was one of my pin designs that had been translated exactly into a patch. They translated it exactly how I would. They didn't change anything, including the color. And it was affixed to a pair of shorts. In that moment, I knew I had to do something.
These companies obviously have plenty of money and resources. If they wanted to hire an artist like you, or other artists they've stolen from, it would be nothing to them. So do you think it's just the difference in size and scale between you as an individual and them as a corporate entity that enables them?
Yeah, exactly. I mean, it's very rare for someone to be able to take the kind of legal action I've been able to because it is so cost-prohibitive. I think companies realize that if they steal from a [better-known] designer who maybe has more capital to fight it, it's a lot harder. But if they can steal from small businesses [or] people who are working from home, it makes it a lot easier to get away with, you know?
I remember a couple of years ago, Lisa Congdon was able to get West Elm and Anthropologie and I think another place, to at least pull designs that had been stolen from her by a larger company. I don't know that there was legal action—I think there was just a massive public shaming. What other non-legal recourse do independent artists have?
I didn't really want to go the route of public shaming because I actually know Lisa, she's a friend of mine, [and] I saw what an emotional toll that took on her. It's really frustrating to have to spend all of your time kind of keeping up this fervor to protect something that was yours in the first place.
But for me, it reached a point where I couldn't not talk about it. It just felt like I was being stepped on. I think oftentimes that's the only powerful [tool] that artists have, to speak up about the theft of their work, because [legal measures] are too cost-prohibitive and draining. Social media is amazing—there's so much more social pressure that you see on businesses who otherwise have kind of been able to get away with whatever they wanted for years.
Big companies have been ripping off independent artists for decades, obviously. But it occurs to me that we live in this time where consumers are getting so much for free, and there's this real culture of expectation that everything is to be shared, that everything is kind of up for grabs. Do you think that that has affected how often this happens?
You know, I'm not sure. It's so hard to say what role a consumer plays in this. I mean, I understand the appeal of a company like Zara, from a consumer perspective—if you don't have a lot of money [for fashion], Zara is a cheaper option: Almost everything that they carry is lifted from the runway or from more popular designers. So in that way, I think consumers are driving [the market by] being like, "Yes, I do want this thing now for cheaper." But on the other hand, I don't know that consumers are to blame for a large company choosing to steal from smaller companies. I think consumers kind of trust larger companies like Zara a little bit to at least use their designers on staff to create something a little bit different.
So you and other artists have shared your experience with having your work stolen, and artists and consumers are aware that it's happening. Is there a strength-in-numbers aspect of this that could potentially make a difference?
Absolutely. I mean I've really kind of pursued this on my own only because initially I didn't realize it was happening to other people [as well]. But this artist named Adam J. Kurtz, who is a good friend of mine, after seeing what had happened to me he did some deeper digging and found that he had been stolen from as well. And not only him, but lots of other people. And he made an amazing resource called ShopArtTheft that catalogued everything, just in 2016, that Zara had stolen directly from independent artists. Adam has made a real effort to champion the artists that [have been] stolen from, and he's done an amazing thing by, yes, creating a power-in-numbers scenario.
It does strike me as interesting that, Adam aside, so many of the artists on ShopArtTheft, and others who are regularly stolen from are female. Is that just a coincidence, or does it have something to do with the fact that women are maybe over-represented as independent artists and makers, or that they're targeted more? Or is this just a gender-free crime that happens to everyone?
Well, I think you're right, most of the artists that have been affected are women. I've really noticed, with Zara's recent theft, it's mostly people who are working on or making pins while we're having this kind of '70s accessories boom. And most of those creators are women. So it's interesting because I think some of the larger companies that are [capitalizing] on this trend tend to be male-led. I think that they're getting a lot more attention and maybe therefore are ignored by companies that are stealing because they see that there's more attention on them.
What ethical steps can consumers take to make sure that the mass-market products they buy aren't stolen from independent artists? Because I would guess that a lot of people who buy from Zara and other fast-fashion don't often think about the independent artists who are stolen from.
It’s hard because unless you're really [immersed] in that world, it's hard to [identify] the original creator of a design. But if you're interested in pursuing small businesses or shopping with small businesses, even just searching hashtags on Instagram is a great way to find people; investing time and finding independent makers that you love [and who] create things that you love would be worth your while. It's also worth mentioning that small businesses are often the ones leading more ethically-made production for clothing as well. So if you're interested in finding more Made in the USA items or items that have been sourced from an audited factory, I think it's important to look toward smaller designers for that.
Before I even pressed this issue with Zara, I was in the middle of opening up a store in L.A.—it’s called Friend Mart, and we only carry independent artists there. So it was kind of funny timing, how I was creating this atmosphere, and then it was kind of getting torn down. There are other places like it, too: Hello Holiday in Omaha is really great—they have a Made in the USA section, and all their women's clothing goes from XS to XXXL. [And] there's companies like Strange Ways in New Haven, which has a focus on independent designers and also champions queer makers. To me, it’s important to get all these artists in one place and really support and champion them.