Urban Outfitters is no stranger to controversial T-shirts. You might remember the ’04 election, when the store’s VOTING IS FOR OLD PEOPLE logo had get-out-the-vote groups in high dudgeon. Or its EVERYONE LOVES A JEWISH GIRL design (speckled with dollar signs, natch) which drew the ire of the Anti-Defamation League. Or its TAKE PILLS AND CHILL shirt, which enraged anti-drug groups. Or its NEW MEXICO, CLEANER THAN REGULAR MEXICO slogan, which angered folks south of the border.
Now it’s pissed off Johnny Cupcakes. The local clothing and accessories designer claims that Urban Outfitters has brazenly cribbed one of his T-shirt designs. Although the chain was shamed into yanking the aforementioned shirts from shelves, Cupcakes is not holding out hope that he’ll be vindicated. He says he’s learned the hard way that, for small, independent designers, corporate appropriation like this is par for the course.
John Earle, who’s 23 and lives in Hull, started making T-shirts as a lark a few years back. When co-workers at Newbury Comics nicknamed him Johnny Cupcakes for no particular reason, he responded by silk-screening a T-shirt, emblazoned with a cupcake-and-crossbones logo. It was a hit. So he started selling them out of his trunk. After his hardcore band, On Broken Wings, got signed and started touring, he designed more and more shirts with the cupcake motif, dropping them in boutiques and hipster haunts across the country. They’ve since been worn by Britney Spears and Steve-O from Jackass, and Earle has quit the band to design full-time. “There’s really no meaning behind it,” he says of his icing-covered icon. “Guys think it’s funny, girls think it’s cute. It’s just a symbol that everybody likes.”
Including, apparently, Urban Outfitters. As his shirts’ popularity snowballed, Earle started thinking about greater exposure. “I didn’t know too much about the whole fashion industry. I didn’t know where I wanted to target my products. So I sent a few packages out to different stores all over the place.” Urban Outfitters was the biggest of the retailers he queried. (His aim was to have them sell his shirts, not to contract with them for design work.) But then he had some second thoughts. “Maybe it’s not the best idea to get in a store that big, that’s gonna water down my product.”
Too late. Earle says that he sent the chain his designs in 2004, and they were in touch with him right away, keenly interested. “They were asking me if it would be okay to change the color and the ink, and they wanted to see if they could change my design around if I were to agree and sell it to them. But I said no. And I decided that Urban Outfitters wouldn’t be the best store for me to put my stuff in, because I wanted to be a little more exclusive.”