BEHIND THE LABEL: ANTHROPOLOGIE’S ‘MADE IN KIND’

Originally published on EcoSalon.

Are Anthropologie and sister company Urban Outfitters supporting independent designers or ripping them off?

Earlier this month, indie fashion lovers went wild when Anthropologie debuted Made In Kind, its new “project in collaborative design.” With an initial offering of 11 exclusive, limited-edition capsule collections, Made In Kind shines a spotlight on independent designers and small brands, including sustainable favorites like Samantha Pleet and Organic by John Patrick.

But as excited as we want to get about Made In Kind, we can’t ignore accusations that both Anthropologie and its sister store, Urban Outfitters, have previously ripped off independent designers. In the world of independent fashion, there can often be a fine line between finding inspiration in another product and downright copying it. In this week’s Behind the Label, we explore the difference.

Anthropologie’s first store was opened by current president Richard Hayne in Glendale, Pennsylvania, in 1992. Under Urban Outfitters Inc., which also owns Urban Outfitters, Free People, Terrain, and BHLDN, the chain has since expanded to more than 135 retail locations that offer, according to its website, “a one-of-a-kind and compelling shopping experience that makes women feel beautiful, hopeful and connected.”

It’s this kind of aspirational marketing that has created thousands of loyal customers and dozens of fan blogs with titles like You, Me & Anthropologie and Breakfast at Anthropologie, dedicated to proclaiming the gospel of the clothing chain (for a good laugh, also check out the satirical blog Anthroparodie).

Anthropologie’s “secret sauce” is in careful curation and inspired retailing. “Part of our business is this idea of the found one-of-a-kind object, antique or craft,” said Aaron Hoey, Anthropologie’s general merchandising manager, in an interview with The Toronto Star published in February. “It has to be this authentic for it to feel authentic in the store. Otherwise it would just be the same thing as everywhere else.”

The Good

Anthropologie has a history of seeking out unique items from independent designers around the world. In fact, an entire Sundance Channel reality television show, Man Shops Globe, was dedicated to buyer-at-large Keith Johnson‘s round-the-world hunt for global treasures. In a separate article in the Toronto Standard, also published in February, merchandising manager Hoey said that the chain is particularly fond of supporting local designers in their various markets.

We love to localize. So if you have a great ceramicist in Toronto and he or she can only make a couple hundred units – because a lot of people aren’t set up to manufacture – well, that’s great, because we’ll send them to five stores. We’ll see them in Toronto, of course, and we’ll also shoot some to California, where this artisan wouldn’t have naturally been exposed.

Anthropologie also has a great record of working with not-for-profit and fair trade organizations in the developing world. Recent examples include the Thousand Hills Cowl, made in Rwanda with women’s co-ops through Indego Africa, and the Perfect Skippers Necklace, handcrafted by artisans in the mountains of Ecuador through The Andean Collection.

As for the Made In Kind project, a big plus is that it gives small designers great exposure to Anthropologie’s large and loyal online community. Each brand is highlighted with a special landing page, and many of the designers are written up in the online Anthropologie magazine. Plus, with a new crop of designers launching each month, Anthropologie is able to satisfy online shopper cravings for new, fresh merchandise.

The Bad

While Anthropologie’s indie aesthetic is a big reason for the store’s popularity, sometimes it hits a bit too close to home for people in the fashion and handmade communities. Though no major scandals have arose (yet) Anthropologie is consistently scrutinized for releasing items that look remarkably similar to items found on Etsy – so much so that an online game called “Etsy or Anthropologie?” has developed on the Regretsy blog, asking readers to guess which item comes from which source.

More evident are the accusations levied against Anthropologie’s sister store Urban Outfitters, which has come under fire for everything from anti-Semitic t-shirts to politically incorrect Navajo-inspired undies. One of the biggest controversies came last spring, when Etsy seller Stephanie Koerner claimed that Urban Outfitters had stolen the designs for its line of I Heart Destination necklaces from her United States of Love collection.

Her story swept through the social media world, forcing Urban Outfitters to issue a formal response denying the claims:

In her recent blog post and on Twitter Koerner claims that Urban Outfitters stole her designs or was inspired in some way by the items in her Etsy shop for our I Heart Destination necklaces. In fact, a quick search on Etsy for ‘state necklace’ reveals several other sellers with similar products (as seen here on Regretsy) who offered their wares as much as a year earlier than Ms. Koerner. We are not implying that Koerner stole her necklace idea from one of these other designers, we are simply stating the obvious—that the idea is not unique to Koerner and she can in no way claim to be its originator.

The Questionable

Urban Outfitters’ response raises an important point: in the world of independent fashion, which is inspired and informed by many different sources, how is it possible to claim a design as original? While Koerner’s accusations against Urban Outfitters were great at galvanizing attention, the validity of her claims was later questioned by Regretsy and larger blogs like Fashionista, which pointed out that the idea of stamping a heart on a metal outline of a state had been done long before Koerner’s Etsy line.

Still, it’s undeniable that both the design of Urban Outfitters’ destination jewelry line and its marketing bore a striking resemblance to Koerner’s. And hers isn’t the only accusation against the chain; similar claims were levied by jewelry designers at the Brooklyn Flea in 2010 and by t-shirt designers in2006 and 2007.

One thing is for sure: if Urban Outfitters Inc. wants to continue highlighting its collaborations with independent designers, it needs to beextra careful about any claims – against any of its brands – that the company is knocking off the very designers it purports to celebrate. Where Anthropologie is concerned, Hoey has denied association with Urban Outfitters:

We operate like a mom-and-pop at Anthropologie. We actually know nothing about Urban Outfitters. I don’t know a single person that works there. While it is a sister company because it’s owned by the same parent company, we don’t know what goes on there. I would encourage them, if they’ve done any of these things, to clean up their act. I don’t want our reputation damaged by anything that’s happened in the past at Urban; it’s not what the CEO wants, either. For me, it’s a lesson: I’ll never let that happen at Anthropologie.

But as much as Anthropologie wants to distance itself from Urban Outfitter’s alleged sins, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that both stores are owned by the same parent company. To ease these kinds of consumer conflicts, Urban Outfitters Inc. needs to do a better job at enacting policies across all of its brands to prevent knock-offs and preserve its support of independent designers.

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