Did Lane Bryant Just Make the Most Brazen Theft of an Artist’s Work Yet?

Retailer's T-shirt designs cause an uproar

New York artist Shantell Martin is accusing retailer Lane Bryant of stealing her work in the latest online flap over a fashion brand lifting designs from creatives without asking permission—or paying them. 

New white T-shirts from the plus-size marketer, currently being sold on its website, and first promoted on Instagram earlier this week, feature the words "You Are You" on the front in hand-drawn, black-ink lettering. Additional drawings adorn the background of the shirt—pairs of stick figures dance around faces, and mountains, and trees. 

It's all very charming, except for the fact that it's nearly identical to Martin's own, well-known aesthetic. "The stick figures and the face and stuff … they've actually taken a drawing [of] mine, and cut that up and used that as the background,'" she tells AdFreak. 

And that alone isn't the issue. The text itself seems lifted from her work, which for years has included variations on the question "Who Are You?" including the answer "You Are You." In fact, her 2014 solo museum debut, at the MoCADA in Brooklyn, was titled "Are You You."

In other words, it looks an awful lot like Lane Bryant copied her not once, but twice, mashing up two key elements of her style. " 'You Are You' is not something I own—it's not a copyright, or whatever," says Martin. "But the positioning and the way it's [written] out is something that's very unique to something I've been doing for a long time." 

"So it's obvious they've taken that from my work," she adds.

The damning similarities first came to Martin's attention on Wednesday, when a fan flagged Lane Bryant's post to her. She responded with a Facebook post that morning.

"Stolen!" read a caption over an image from Lane Bryant's campaign. "I did not give my permission to this brand to take/use my stuff… Please call them out if you have a moment." 

Social media sympathizers began excoriating the brand, including on Twitter, and in the comments section of two original Instagram posts for the product in question—which is selling for $24.90 on the retailer's website.

This page on the Lane Bryant website appears to credit a designer named Tess Giberson for the T-shirt design. Lane Bryant's official response thus far has been limited to an identical comment posted to each of those Instagrams. "Thank you to everyone for bringing this to our attention," it reads. "The information has been shared with our legal team for review."

The posts haven't been removed, though, pending that review. AdFreak has contacted Lane Bryant's parent company, Ascena Retail Group, and will update this article with any response received.

Martin says the marketer never made any attempt to collaborate with her. "I actually never knew of the brand until today," she says.

The apparently well-intentioned spirit of the product in question in some ways makes the whole scenario worse. "It seems to be a brand that has a good reputation, and you know, the 'You Are You' is quite a positive message," Martin continues. "So, it's quite contradictory to take a positive message and then use it with someone else's work without their permission."

As of Wednesday night, Martin still hadn't heard from the brand directly.

"I wanted to give it at least 24 hours for someone to reach out for me. It doesn't look like that's going to happen," she says. "The next step is that I talk to a legal representative and we write up a cease-and-desist letter and get that sent over."

The T-shirt "needs to come down from online. They need to stop selling it, and we need to look into possible damages," she adds. As for the potential cost, "they've profited basically—if it's with new followers on Instagram, with regards to people seeing this and reposting it on their part, and if they've been selling these T-shirts and I'm not receiving any licensing fee or royalties from it—so there's a loss there as well."

That's not to mention the emotional stake. "This isn't new, and it feels like it's happening more and more and more" says Martin. "Bigger brands, because they're so big, they feel like they don't have to ask. They take artist's work and they use it. Whenever they're called out, they blame it on the intern. They don't really take responsibility [for] it."

It's all the more upsetting for the fact that it's unnecessary.

"It's so easy for these big companies to reach out to artists and say, 'Do you want to collaborate? We have a budget.' Or 'Would you want to donate some work?' Or something. It's so easy for brands to email or call artists, so it gets really frustrating when they don't do that and they take someone's work and use it without credit and use it without compensation."

Indeed, plenty of retailers have found themselves similarly entangled in cries of theft in recent years.

In 2012, H&M landed itself in hot water for apparently copying independent artist Tori LaConsay's upbeat text-and-heart design, and then bungling its response, just ahead of the Super Bowl. In 2013, DKYNY donated $25,000 to the Bed-Stuy YMCA in the name of Humans of New York creator Brandon Stanton, after using his photos without permission in a Bangkok store display.

Just this summer, Zara came under fire for allegedly stealing some 40 designs from independent illustrators, designers and smaller brands. That instance was so severe that artist Adam J. Kurtz, among the alleged victims, created a website, shoparttheft.com, dedicated to promoting the sale of the originals.

Kurtz's was among the voices to come to Martin's defense Wednesday.

Martin, for her part, wonders why everyone can't come out ahead.

There are "a lot of artists like myself who are willing to collaborate with brands, and we enjoy collaborating with brands," she says. "Brands enjoy working with artists, and they really should be supporting artists. It's not the easiest profession to undertake, and there can potentially be a win-win situation. … It just doesn't have to be this way."

UPDATE: As of Thursday afternoon, a representative for Lane Bryant had called Martin. "We are in contact," she says. The marketer had also removed the offending T-shirt and promotional imagery from its website and social channels, according to the artist."

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@GabrielBeltrone gabriel.beltrone@gmail.com Gabriel Beltrone is a frequent contributor to Adweek.