Designer Drama: Urban Outfitters Accused of Stealing Artist's Designs

(**This story has been updated to include a comment from Urban Outfitters.**)

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but independent artist Stevie Koerner, who quit her job to be a full time jeweler, is not flattered at all. The Chicago artist took to the Web to express her displeasure with the fact that retailer Urban Outfitters had copied her line of necklaces.


“One of my lovely customers sent me a message today…My heart sank a little bit. The World/United States of Love line that I created is one of the reasons that I was able to quit my full-time job... I understand that they are a business, but it’s not cool to completely rip off an independent designer’s work,” Koerner wrote.

Koerner’s post has gained a sympathetic ear nationwide with supporters criticizing the retailer on both Facebook and Twitter. The hash tag #Urban Outfitters was a trending topic on Twitter Friday.

“I think it’s time to boycott Urban Outfitters. They have done this to so many independent artists. NOT OK” one user tweeted.

Even teen queen Miley Cyrusspoke out about the incident. “Love that everybody is hating on Urban Outfitters,” she posted on her Twitter account Thursday.

The item of dispute is one of the artist's most popular necklaces called the World/United States of Love line which is a silver cutout of the shape of the various states with a heart cutout in the center.

Koerner said she received an email last week from the company saying they were working on taking the item down. By Friday, the item had been pulled by The Chicago artist said she is not pursuing legal action at this time.

Oscar Michelen, an intellectual property and copyright attorney at Cuomo LLC in New York who is not involved in this case, but has represented several similar cases, said design infringement claims are very popular.

“Normally these cases are only enforceable if the artist has a patent or trademark on their design,” he said. However, Michelen doesn’t think this would be a strong case should Koerner decide to pursue legal action. “There is nothing unique about using a shape of Florida and a heart,” he said.

Photo by: Stevie Koerner

In fact, two years ago, Koerner looked into protecting her designs, but lawyers told her that the shape of a state cannot be legally protected, she said.

While the lawsuit might be inconsequential to a company the size of Urban Outfitters, the bad publicity could be potentially harmful, said Michelen. He said, often times the company receiving the negative publicity will approach the claimant with a financial settlement in exchange for a confidentiality agreement that bars them from voicing their complaints publicly.

CNBC has reached out to Urban Outfitters for comment but calls and emails were not immediately returned. (**For Urban Outfitters' comment see below**)

It has not been a good year for the Philadelphia-based apparel maker. Urban’s stock price is down more than 15 percent year-to-date period as the company struggles to pass along rising costs for cotton and other materials to their consumers.

“Over the past six-months they have not delivered fashion well, they aren’t buying inventory very deep and the CEO is working pretty hard with the design team to change this,” said Wall Street Strategies analyst Brian Sozzi, who covers the company.

Urban risks losing street credibility among its very opinionated customer base, Sozzi said. However, it could be a positive for the company in an odd way. "Sentiment is so low that getting interesting stuff that more people want could be what they need right now," he said.

Koerner’s not the only one with claims of having her work stolen. Lillian Crowe, a 27-year-old jewelry designer claimed in a Brooklyn, NY, paper that she found one of her designs in the retailer's catalog. However, when reached for comment she backtracked and said she completely regretted the interview she did. “It was for a friend and not to serve my own interests in any way.”

Koerner said she’s not in this for the money or the fame. She just wants to be able to pay her bills and do what she loves, she added.

However, there’s a silver lining—the jewelry maker has seen increased traffic and new people have been exposed to her work.

“I have been overwhelmed by the love and support that has resulted from this incident,” she said.

**UPDATE: Urban Outfitters late Tuesday issued a statement "unequivocally" denying Koerner's allegation. The retailer said a quick search of "state necklace" on the craft retail site Etsy reveals several other sellers with similar products who offered their jewelry as much as a year earlier than 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 orginator," the company's statement said.

Urban Outfitters said they have been supporting Etsy artists for yearsby buying wholesale from numerous indepdent designers.

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