Monday, June 3, 2024

That Company Copied My Design - It Happens All The Time

Has Dunitz & Company had designs ripped off? I thought I'd jot this blog post because I'm regularly hearing about and reading about designers having their creations copied. Artists on Etsy complain about it often. And many of my wholesale colleagues have had similar experiences. I know I have. Many many times over the years. The best defense? If you're a good designer you can come up with new designs! I recount some of the more than bothersome stories of being copied below. Believe me. There are others.


When I was first starting out, Dunitz & Company primarily focused on home accessories from Guatemala. I was admitted almost immediately to the New York Gift Show when there supposedly was a long waiting list. This I was told happened when you offered "new to market" items that were otherwise unavailable. I offered beautiful handmade and handwoven pillows from Guatemala. In 1990, there were few wholesalers working in Guatemala because the country was in the midst of civil war and it just wasn't that safe. One of the designs I offered were these lovely rectangular pillows created using handwoven placemats from Comolapa. I placed them in several lifestyle furniture stores. A prestigious catalog company came by my NY Gift Show booth and loved what I was doing and we discussed this specific pillow at length. I might have even sent them a sample, but of that I can't be certain. Back in the day all the larger companies asked for samples before they made decisions. The next season something almost identical was in their catalog. They weren't from me. (Obviously they had found another source to make them. At the time, I was almost sure who that was. But it was never confirmed.)
What a mix of emotions. Not too long after introducing beaded jewelry to the wholesale market, my colleagues and I collaborated on wide cuff bracelets in a host of patterns and colors. The first cuffs we offered were about 2 inches wide. Bracelets of many widths followed. Upscale boutiques discovered them almost immediately and sales were quite good. There was a fancy boutique located in Soho. Everyone drooled over this store and they got a lot of press. If they represented you, you were in the in. So there I was at the New York Gift Show. A very well dressed man and woman came into my booth, provided their card from this tony store and proceeded to took copious notes on our cuff bracelets. They spent a lot of time studying our designs and colors. They asked permission to take photos. And then they ghosted me. Turns out they took all this information and went to Mexico where they had Huichol women bead similar bracelets. The bead stitch was different, but to those who don't know about such specifics, they seemed the same. They gave away their bracelets to celebrities, got tons of press. Their wholesale prices were double ours. Even more people noticed our cuff bracelets then and they all thought I had copied this fancy Soho operation. Gosh I was irritated. You know what happened? Because our wholesale prices were half, we had one of our biggest revenue years. Stores flocked to us because they viewed our prices as being so much more reasonable. I'm sure you can guess what happened next. The cuffs were knocked off  on the low-end. Obviously artisans were paid substandard wages to produce similar looking pieces. You get what you pay for and the quality was terrible. Those cuffs had become such a big part of our business, and it seemed overnight our business died. We had one sales rep who told me we had had a good run and we'd need to reinvent ourselves. Seems we've had to do that many times. (The picture here is of the one cuff I kept for myself!)
I've always joked that I must be so self centered, that I don't always "know" who all the other players are. Customers often ask me if I'm familiar with this other designer or that one. And sadly most of the time my answer is "no." I now recount the time a stylish woman came into my Los Angeles Gift Show booth, spent some good time studying my beaded jewelry designs and placed her $500 order COD. (COD- Cash on Delivery. Pre-Credit Cards, guys. UPS would deliver a box and collect a handwritten check, that was then mailed to us for deposit. That was a common way of doing business in the 90s.) At that time, this designer had a boutique in Palos Verdes. The punchline. She had already studied my line. She refused the COD and ghosted me. Why bother writing an order, having us produce it and then do that? Frankly that's just mean. When you're young in business, cash flow is crucial. I'm sure she did that to lots of small businesses. Over the years this person built a fashion dynasty which still exists today. When I met her, her business hadn't grown to what it has become. The annoying thing is she soon after that offered some trendsetting bracelets that definitely referenced ours. People would say to me that our designs looked like hers. In my gut, I always knew it was the other way around. (Side note: We sold these bracelets and similar to J Jill for a few seasons. At the time, the buyer told us they were the best selling bracelet they had ever offered. I think that was around 2007/8.)

My mini-scarf necklaces were one of my best sellers of all time. This design supported me for two or three years when the market had nose-dived in general. Lucky us! And none of the hoity toity designers caught on during those important years. They sold so well that every season I had to find new ribbons to keep our customers satiated. Boutiques and museum stores reordered and reordered and reordered. After about three years, most stores were looking for something new. Our sales on our mini scarves were reasonable, but they had slowed. It was at that point, a customer came running into my booth showing me a catalog from a Chinese producer that was offering necklaces that looked identical to ours. They managed to use ribbons in the same colors and didn't even change our beading accent colors. Bead for bead. Color for color. They were wholesaling at half our prices. Oh ugh.  It was the same season I randomly went into a Target and saw necklaces that looked exactly like one I had designed using black lace. You know what that meant? It was time to reinvent ourselves again. Did you sell our mini scarf necklaces back in the day? I have some stock if you'd like to offer them again? By now, they'd be new again because they're long forgotten.
Over the years we've sold tons and tons of (finger) rings. One design that sold particularly well were these big 'ole faux pearl and crystal baubles with a herringbone stitch band. I mention it because as I was writing about the mini scarves above, I was reminded that that same company that had ripped off our mini scarves, also made exact copies of these rings shown here. And again, bead for bead and color for color.
I am so thankful for the "fair trade" community and retailers and customers who believe that artisans should earn living wages and be treated with the respect every human being deserves. Thankfully to this day, there are many who continue to buy products solely from verified Fair Trade Federation members like us. 
It's already several years ago (but well after the refused COD story above,) a young man (well, younger than me) spent significant time in my Los Angeles Gift Show booth. If I recall, his badge indicated he had a store in New Mexico. He came back on three days in a row, which was unusual.  He had picked up all my designs and studied them so carefully. Truthfully this is not how most buyers shop. The behavior is of someone who actually beads themselves. When I asked him if he was ready to place his order his response was not one I was expecting. "Oh no. I'm just looking at your line. You're the queen of beaded jewelry from Guatemala, I know your reputation. (He actually bowed.) I'm now importing jewelry from Guatemala too." #$%@^&#! Seriously.  This man is now responsible for importing bales of beaded jewelry from Guatemala at low low prices. I know well how long it takes to make a necklace or bracelet. Believe me, the people making the jewelry he offers can't be even making $1.00 per day. You can't feed a family on that, even in Guatemala. This man now earns money in both directions. The small Guatemalan vendors who sold Czech glass beads by the ounce were put out of business. This fella now exports Chinese glass beads into Guatemala. They're not the same as Czech beads, but in many cases look quite similar. Obviously they're much cheaper and now easily available for purchase in Guatemala. I believe most of the beaded jewelry coming out of Guatemala now is made with Chinese beads. (We import our own Czech and Japanese beads for the jewelry we offer you.) 

Sadly, copying and stealing designs also happens within the fair trade community. Dunitz & Company has always worked in a clandestine workshop where our newest designs are not easily seen. Once they've been introduced to market, it is tougher to protect those designs. Actually, you can't. There are bead workshops in Guatemala that produce goods from designs they are given or have seen. I am familiar with "fair trade" companies that buy from some of these workshops. These companies select items to sell, but they are not involved with designing the items they choose to sell. I cannot judge these workshops with respect to wages their artisans are paid. But I certainly can vouch for designs they sell that were 'borrowed' from what we originally created. I was particularly upset when I had to retire a very good beaded paisley earring style we sold. We could no longer produce them and compete with lower wholesale prices I discovered in the marketplace for replicas.  A few years back we labored over a new teardrop design and it was fun! I ordered samples so I could photograph them for our website, sales rep books and on models for social media posting. What happened? I was ready to introduce them at the trade shows. Before I could do this, the artisan we collaborated with was so pleased with the design, he took a pair and showed them to other workshops.  They took photos of his work. You guessed it! They were copied (not as beautifully made, I might add) and chosen by another 'fair trade verified' company to offer at wholesale. I caught wind of this and I retired the design before I even introduced it. I sold my initial inventory at cost to one of my retailers. And sadly that artisan we collaborated with got no work for his efforts, except for the initial 24 or 36 pairs I'd ordered. This sadly was not an isolated incident.
Alexx is a lovely musician who has modeled for us several times. The photo shown reminded me of several points. First, she's wearing the paisley earrings we retired from our wholesale lineup that I previously mentioned. She also is wearing a coral necklace that we introduced in the 90s and still sell today. It's one of our best necklaces that has been copied numerous times. If my ego got in the way, I would have retired it. Our customers continue to tell us our quality, the way the beads softly hang and our color combinations are superior to anything they have found elsewhere. At their regular request, we still produce it for wholesale, only because they are willing to pay the price we ethically must charge.

See those little skinny bracelets Alexx has stacked on her wrist? I remember when Dunitz & Company first introduced them. Damian from Aid Through Trade (who has always been seen as our main "beaded jewelry" competitor, even though I think what we offer is quite different) came storming to our trade show booth in New York. He had heard that we had copied their best selling roll on bracelets that are made in Nepal. We could have copied his bracelet easily and offered it, as so many other copycats in Nepal and Guatemala have. I quite frankly told him I didn't need to do that, and although we could, I wouldn't. (And I never have.) I walked him in my booth and showed him bowls filled with these little bracelets. He breathed a sign of relief and felt better once he saw what I was exhibiting. Did you know back in the day, Damian actually wrote a recommendation letter on our behalf for our Fair Trade Federation member application? It shows how respectful we are. Just saying.
Most long time designers could go on and on with stories like the ones I've shared above. They are endless. My mother and grandmother before her always would say 'emulation is the sincerest form of flattery.'  That's not what any of us want to hear when it affects our livelihood. What do I respond when my artistic friends share similar tales of woe? "You are safe because you will always be capable of coming up with new and original designs!" Keep designing my friends. That's what we do at Dunitz & Company. - ND
*note: I have consciously chosen not to call out the culprits described above. But if any of you are reading this post, karma is a beast!