Friday, October 7, 2011

inspiration, imitation, and copycats

"imitation is the sincerest form of flattery"
-Charles Caleb Colton

 This quote has been on our minds quite a bit lately... The meaning of this saying does absolutely ring true.

What could possibly be a more complete endorsement of a good idea, than to have it imitated. It's like a seal of approval in some way.

  Throughout history there are countless examples of  imitation, inspiration and flat out intellectual property theft. This is, of course,  especially prevalent in fashion.

 How does a style "catch on"? A designer comes up with a new idea, creates  a look and then others follow suit. But, where does the designer come up with the idea? It could be based on / "inspired" by history, or previous fashions,  or the materials at hand. Sometimes an idea is just right for the times and more than one person arrives at a similar conclusion almost simultaneously.

 We have been dealing with this very issue since we became Etsys featured sellers back in August 2009. It is especially upsetting because it seemed like a dream come true for a while.

 But let's go back further, way  into the past for a little background story...

 In high school I was known for being "artsy" and "crafty".  I was the girl selling the silly handmade jewelry to friends for between $2 and $5, or doing pencil portraits of boyfriends and girlfriends, (or favorite celebrities). It's a good thing I enjoyed it, because it was about as profitable as a lemonade stand. I had no idea how to actually price my work and of course my clientele had very limited funds, (a.k.a.  allowance). Soon, I went to college, my artwork was all for art school and my crafting took various twists and turns. I had kind of given up on the idea that art could make money, except for in a few lucky cases.

  In 1999 I was making intricately beaded bracelets as a hobby, (a blinding, finger crunching hobby), and selling them to friends here and there. A friend of mine was selling in a craft fair and offered to take a bunch and sell them alongside her own work. After the craft show I talked to her and asked how they were received. "Oh, people loved them! But, nobody bought any because they were all too small!" Of course I had been making them all to fit my own wrists, not realizing that they may not fit everyone...


 I went on my merry way, and eventually gave up the beaded jewelry for other pursuits.
 For years, Courtney, (my sister & the other half of White Owl), and I had been collaborating on art, photography and films, while my craftiness consisted of making clothing, refinishing furniture and trying my hand at carpentry. Eventually, we actually both became interested in making jewelry again. Spurred on by our incessant desire to create, and a large collection of jewelry, fabrics and lace from our grandmother, we began the process of making something new from something old.

 Soon enough, our creative friends were encouraging us to participate in craft shows. So, we gave it a try in our spare time. While the multi chain and  metal pieces were invariably met with admiration, the lacy pieces got mixed reviews. Some people were in love with them and some folks just didn't know what to make of them, (and didn't feel shy about saying so). A few interested people asked how to make them and about our processes, and I assume just went home to  experiment on their own. Maybe it was the Detroit area, or maybe it was the "granny" connotations of lace, but folks weren't quite ready for us.

 In late winter of 2007, Courtney, (the ever cheerful, hopeful and enthusiastic one), began talking about starting an Etsy shop and encouraged me to partner with her. I was less than enthusiastic. I was busy, I was concentrating on photography and didn't "have time" to bother with anything more than doing some craft shows here and there. I kept saying I would take some photos, list some things, and then I would put it off. Courtney opened up shop in early 2008, despite my Eeyore-like grumbling.

  A few months later something strangely unexpected happened.

We did a very successful craft show... insanely gorgeous and stylish girls made a fuss over our jewelry.... a creative friend mentioned that she was going to be opening a store and would like to carry our creations... and then a blogger introduced himself to us.
 This blogger wrote about eco friendly products and was very interested in what we were doing. He found the lace pieces fascinating. He talked with us in depth about our designs. And then he said, "Where do you sell your stuff? Do you have an online store?"


By that time, even Courtney had lost interest in the shop and the few pairs of earrings she had there had either sold or expired. I told the blogger the truth, (silly me), that we would start up a shop soon and get back to him.

Argh! A missed opportunity!

 It seemed, though, as if the time was finally right to get the shop going. I was going to use my commercial photography skills and make us a fancy shop, (or at least give it a try). But, what to list? What would the world like to see? The romantic stuff? The bohemian stuff? Should the shop have a theme? How would we make the tough metal and the lace work together? Decisions, decisions.

 We took photos, made decisions, wrote listings and waited.

 And then it happened. We started making sales! The metal and multi chain pieces outsold the lace by far, but we were so excited anyway. People in other states, other countries, were buying our creations.

 Soon enough, we were being featured by lovely bloggers who were saying nice things about what were doing. It was all pretty amazing.

 Within a short time we were contacted by Etsy to say that they would like us to be the featured seller for a few days in August. They warned us that this could cause a sharp increase in sales and that we should be ready.

That was an understatement.

We prepared ourselves by pre-packaging several pieces and Courtney went out of town for a little vacation that she had already planned. The understanding was that I would hold down the fort while she was gone, and probably everything would be alright.


 For days I basically did not sleep while the emails and orders rolled in. I literally had to work day and night because we had not made nearly enough pieces and we had no streamlined system for production. I was excited, to be sure, but also freaking out. Being the featured sellers meant that bigger bloggers who checked in to Etsy noticed us and in turn did lovely posts about us. This, in turn made us ever so much busier. Shops contacted us about wholesale, retailers contacted us about bulk orders, and in the meantime, Courtney had gotten very ill while on vacation and had to have surgery immediately upon arriving home.

 Sadly, due to the lack of bulk vintage lace and a workforce of only one,  there were many missed opportunities. We scraped through that crazy busy period,  sleep-deprived, (and less one organ), but very hopeful about our success. We  really just wanted to make a living doing our art, and not necessarily become a "big" company with employees. We would keep it small and handmade.

 Oh, how naive.

Our plan worked for while. Life consisted of  wonderful customers, lovely blog posts, even being featured in magazines. Folks would contact us and tell us how much they loved our stuff and ask about our materials, our processes, our sources. We didn't think much of it at the time. We were working full time, devoted to creating. What could go wrong anyway?

*Now, let the ranting commence...*

We, of course, had noticed after a while that other folks had also been making use of lace in new ways. Some was gothic, some bright and cutesy with colorful beads attached, some as hair pieces, some very modern,  but not really anything that was in direct conflict what we were doing. Occasionally, a shop seemed more similar but we chalked it up to coincidence. After all, we didn't invent lace. Lace necklaces and collars have a long history in fashion. We were just putting our own twist on it.

 But something strange was happening. We began to see almost identical designs to ours, shot on books, or post cards, lace attached identically.  We had fruitless email interactions with sellers. We decided we would just keep our cool, be polite and innovate. If the similarities with other shops were a coincidence, then surely if we kept our designs evolving, it wouldn't matter.

 We began to dye our lace... First, black and then grey. We would keep it all understated and neutral. Well, of course, we began to see our example being followed by these eerily similar shops.

 We moved on to more color. Mustard, pale pink, deep teal, pale grey, deep purple. We would make earrings. We added sequined pieces. We dip dyed, we dangled tiny pieces of lace from long chains. But every week we would see new shops opening or the same old ones just changing to match us. We found a shop actually using our photographs to sell knock offs of our pieces. We posted designs online and saw them taken before they had even been listed. Designs we only sold in shops or to brides would be imitated. And still every couple of weeks we would get emails from people wanting to start up a shop like ours, asking where we get our ideas, materials, etc.

 Some would think that the more that something happens, the more you get used to it. Maybe that is true in some cases. In this case it is not.

 The other day I saw it again. A shop had just listed four designs identical in all but color to ours and it really affected me.

I have been thinking about whether  to contact this seller and just explain that we are real people trying to make a living doing what we love. We are not a faceless corporation. We are not against people being inspired by us and then putting their own twist on what they have seen us do. Inspiration can come from anywhere and everywhere.

  I wonder though, if folks who do this are beyond reason already. After all, they have already made a decision to not put in the effort to come up with an idea or to empathize with the people they are copying. If I contact this person, will the outcome be any more positive than past encounters? (one particularly shameless person actually had a friend harass us as copycats). Even if she takes down the imitation designs, won't another seller just pop up to take her place?

 Unfortunately, since we have seen so  many of our favorite artists and designer friends imitated, I can't say this is an unusual problem at all. We have been contacted by so many wonderful people, asking if we are aware that so-and-so is copying us and some of them even telling their similar stories of woe. We have seen it addressed countless times on handmade blogs and comments that range from outrage to condoning it as valid. It's endemic of fashion. Target is accused of copying Pottery Barn, Forever 21 is accused of imitating Anthropologie,  Anthro/Urban Outfitters are in turn accused of copying small designers and of course, China is accused of ripping off everyone.

 If anything, maybe it can be said that is human nature. Ideas are spread via inspiration, imitation and sometimes, outright copying. While in areas like academia, it's not considered acceptable, in fashion it's almost constant and expected. How else do you know if you have a really good idea? Isn't imitation really the sincerest form of flattery?


I know you can try to stop copycats and imitators through legal or other means sometimes.
I know you can't stop the flow of ideas that spread and inspire others.
And, I know that being copied feels like someone has stolen something dear to us.


  1. Hi guys, this was such an interesting post to read, I love hearing about how you both started your business! I totally get why it frustrates you, I've seen some of the very shops you talk about on Etsy and although it's probably not much consolation, your work always stands out as being truely authentic and way more beautiful than anyone trying to imitate...although I can imagine it must still be pretty annoying! I absolutely love your lace jewellery, I have a pair of your white lace earrings and always get comments on them when I wear them, they are my faves! I'd just say keep doing what you're doing, the copycats will eventually be seen for what they are and they will never be as good as the real thing! xx

  2. Thank you so much, Emily! That means a lot to us <3


  3. This is a great post - honest and revealing. I've seen people deal with a similar type of plagiarism in my field (academia) where ideas for papers/articles are stolen and claimed as one's own. It is incredibly frustrating and unfair, but I remind myself of something a professor once said to me. He said that this happens and you can't necessarily stop it everytime, but you do need to remind yourself that you are the creative forces who is capable of coming up with new ideas whereas that other person has none and so has to steal and eventually this fact will catch up with that person - in one way or another. Anyway, that fact doesn't change much, but it does, in my opinion, give a little comfort.
    By the way, have you ever thought about contacting the etsy people and proposing to them that they start some sort of dialog on their forum about intellectual/creative property? I'm sure they hear it when one shop accuses another of stealing ideas, but proposing that they monitor a discussion about this topic (and maybe even a place/board that resolves these types of copyright issues) might be something that they may be willing to do especially if it shows them to be aware of the situation as well as sensitive to it. Just a thought.
    Anyway, love your things and glad I own the original and not any knockoffs. :)

  4. It's so interesting to read how you and your sister started your business. I've been admiring your jewelry for a year now and I just ordered a necklace for my sister through your etsy shop. (Btw, I'm so relieved to read that Courtney is the other half of White Owl as I got confused after paying through Paypal. You'll be receiving a dorky did-I-do-this-right? message from me via etsy).

    As for copycats...Copying is a form of flattery and I guess I would be a little forgiving if it was one person copying a piece for herself/himself BUT it's just plain wrong when someone creates a business by copying your designs. I can understand why you would feel as though someone has stolen from you, particularly after all the work you and your sister have done to create your business.

    I've looked at several other lace design shops on etsy and in my opinion, your jewelry is better. There's something elegant and feminine about your designs that I didn't see elsewhere. My sister is going to LOVE the necklace I bought from you two.