Fair warning: This isn’t going to be a happy post, because what’s happened has left me very, very sad.
It’s not easy being a designer, and even less easy being a small, independent designer. You’re constantly having to find a balance between paying your bills, and being true to your art. For most designers, being approached by a big retail chain would sound like a dream come true. Right?
I was approached by the buying head of homeware at Woolworths at the beginning of 2013. (For those of you outside SA, Woolworths is the equivalent of Marks & Spencer or Macy’s.)
A meeting was set up to meet the buying head and another homeware buyer, to discuss having some of my Touchee Feelee range form part of Woolworth’s new “artisan” range. I took samples of all my work to the meeting, and was asked if they could hold on to them to show certain samples to their manager. (When I agreed, they reminded me, however, that I would have to collect them later as they had limited space in their office. It’s been more than 7 months, and I’m still trying to get my samples back.)
I was asked my wholesale prices, and as soon as I mentioned the first number, the atmosphere went from friendly chat to hardball in a matter of seconds. I was told very bluntly that “they will never go for that.” OK, we’re negotiating. I can deal with it. After they attempted to butter me up by promising me a feature in Taste Magazine, I left behind a few items printed with my hummingbird painting.
A few days later, I received an email with an offer. They wanted me to provide printed panels of fabric for napkins and cushions, (which they would then make up themselves), both printed with my hummingbird, as they had a blue and green colourway coming up. The offer was…let’s just say that to call it ridiculous would be an insult to ridiculous things. The quantities weren’t even enough to justify wholesale pricing, and my profit per item would have been in the single digits. In a phone call shortly thereafter, the buyer tried to convince me that I was in fact making money if I looked at the figures a certain way. I may not be a mathematician, but I know how to work out my profits. This felt like another strong-arm tactic to me.
Ultimately, I decided to go through with it because of the exposure. We had one meeting after the other to decide on fabric samples (as if I made the items in pure linen like I usually do, I would basically be paying out of my own pocket); and about 5 meetings in the buyer very casually says “I’d prefer to drop the napkins.” Fine, just the cushions it is. I’m not really losing money, since I wasn’t really making any either.
At this point, the buyer became increasingly insistent on finding out my cost price. Anyone in any kind of business knows that that’s the kind of information you never, ever share. After I spent some time dancing around the question, the buyer was getting irritated at which point I was treated to a selection of horror stories about how other local designers had refused to share their cost price and had consequently had their ranges or designs cut.
The design community is small. I don’t know all of you personally, but I know enough of you by name; and yes, she mentioned you. I know now that I’m not the only person to have gone through this, and it makes me wonder why none of you ever shared your stories before. That’s why I’m doing this now. I’m not the first to be treated this way, and unless someone says something, I certainly won’t be the last.
Eventually, we agreed on two different fabrics and I was asked to provide six sample panels three of each fabric). I provided these panels within two weeks. And then?
Then, I was given the silent treatment for two months. None of my emails were answered and phone calls were denied. Then, out of the blue, an email that said they had made the cushions up. Two out of the six samples were returned to me. As for the other four cushions? Woolworths had “…retained the samples for consideration for input later in the year.”
A few days later, another email arrived: “I am afraid very unlikely we will be going ahead with any new designs.”
This was already upsetting news, after the amount of time and energy I’d poured into the project. It was, however, about to get worse.
Just over a week later, I was browsing through Woolworths in Cavendish Square, when I found this:
After doing a rather violent double take, I had a closer look. Same size cushion (60cm x 40cm)? Check. Near identical hummingbird design (with what looks like the Wikipedia entry on hummingbirds pasted into the background)? Check. Same fabric? Check.
And, conveniently, it was now part of the W Collection.
(Fun fact: If that text is in fact from Wikipedia, Wiki requires attribution on all commercial use of their text. You’d be correct in assuming Woolies did no such thing.)
I have since asked, repeatedly, for the last of my samples to be returned, but have as yet not received them back. That is the least of my worries, however. I’m more concerned over what I see as a case of thinly veiled plagiarism.
If I were to play devil’s advocate, I could say that yes, they’ve changed the design slightly. I could concede that pictures of hummingbirds tend to largely look alike. I might even agree that under some very loose definitions of art or design, they had done their own painting. But, the facts stack up too much on the opposite side for me to allow it.
Given what you know about my meetings, about the time frame, and about what’s happened since, can you look at these two pictures and honestly say that Woolworths came up with this exact cushion design on their own?
It’s my belief that my designs were sent to a another manufacturer and adapted. This is common in all areas of retail. What I didn’t realise was that it’s also now apparently common practice to treat independent designers in this way. It seems the only thing that Woolworths learnt from the recent Frankie’s debacle, was how to disguise their plagiarism.
I saw samples from several other designers in the buyer’s office, and have reached out to them personally. Fellow designers, I know that it’s all too tempting to sit back and take this sort of treatment either out of fear that a big chain will shut you out, or out of hope that it’ll pay off in the long run.
But, I’m asking I’m – begging for you to stop. We have to stand up for ourselves, and our community, or things like this will keep happening.
I’m well aware of the risk I’m taking by publishing this, but I’ve decided to go ahead with it regardless. My claims aren’t unfounded.
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See my own Hummingbird cushion here: http://www.toucheefeelee.co.za/collections/nautical-collection/products/hummingbird-pillow-cover