Guess which is the $15,000,000 work of art and which is the $24 T-shirt? As shown above, Joe Fresh’s new line of graphic “texts Tees” are suspiciously identical to Christopher Wool’s text work, sans the biting commentary. So on the line of shirts, instead of finding stenciled text reading “Terrorist,” as you would in one of Wool’s paintings, you’re more likely to find text reading “Just Sayin’.”
If you’re a clothing manufacturer, there are kosher ways to incorporate art into your brand that involve direct communication with the artist. As early as the 1930’s, Elsa Schiaparelli commissioned work from Salvador Dali. In recent years the Gap has worked in partnership with artists in the Whitney Biennial. Coach worked with artist James Nares. Mark Titchner worked with fashion designer Mary Kantrantzou. And the list goes on. So there is a well established difference between a collaboration and a rip-off.
For those of you saying that it’s no big deal for Joe Fresh to use the style of Wool’s paintings, the Artist Rights Society (ARS) feels differently. According to the ARS, if you have copyright on a work of art, even derivative works based upon the work are subject to copyright laws. Artistic copyright literally goes down to the brushstroke. Take for example Uniqlo’s current MoMA collaboration, called SPRZ NY, in which individual drips of a Jackson Pollock painting can and have been copyrighted.
So although putting a stencil on a T-shirt isn’t illegal, Joe Fresh’s line being blatantly derivative of Wool’s work is problematic.