My brother, who runs a t-shirt company out of my parents’ garage, recently told me an interesting story about a $680 t-shirt designed by American fashion designer Marc Jacobs. Yes, you heard me. A $680 t-shirt. Singular.
While some may call it sybaritism, T-Shirt Magazine advises: “[i]f you’re ballin’ you probably have a few expensive t-shirts in your collection.” And “[a] super expensive shirt is a must have for any collection.” (Far be it for us to question the wisdom and expertise of T-Shirt Magazine on such matters.) So who can you turn to, to fill that voluptuary void in your wardrobe?
Enter Marc Jacobs.
Marc Jacobs is the head designer for the eponymous Marc Jacobs fashion line (not to be confused with his diffusion line — i.e., way to squeeze more money from people with less of it — Marc by Marc Jacobs). In addition to being the creative director of Louis Vuitton since 1997, Marc Jacobs made Time Magazine’s 2010 Time 100 list of the 100 most influential people in the world and ranked 12th on Out Magazine’s 2011 list of “50 Most Powerful Gay Men and Women in America.” (And you thought Hansel was so hot right now.)
While my wife would probably sell our firstborn child to have a shopping spree in Marc Jacobs’ boutique, I have absolutely no interest in fashion, design, or hedonistic clothing. But when a graffiti vandal artist named “Kidult” tagged Marc Jacobs’ SoHo boutique with the word “ART” in hot pink spray-paint, tweeted about it “I did some ART?”, and drew Jacobs and at least one other designer into a surreal t-shirt-battle, I discovered a story that even the most fashion-backward among us can find amusing.
At the outset, we responsible grownups might wonder why Kidult would do such a thing as vandalize a fancy storefront and then gloat about it on Twitter, until either (a) learning that Kidult does this to fancy storefronts on a regular basis (he has vandalized Supreme, Hermes, and Louis Vuitton, among others) or (b) realizing that his name is Kidult.
Sporting a secret identity and never seen without his facemask and hoodie, Kidult aka KID describes himself as the “enfant terrible…who attacks in a legitimate simple way, without limits, with a spraypaint extinguisher.” He has been quoted as saying, “We gotta stop these brands from dictating a culture that belongs to us.”
The picture (right) says it all.
The day after Kidult’s “I did some ART?” tweet, Marc Jacobs struck back. Now — of course — we lawyers expect some sort of legal proceeding (or at least a demand letter) to ensue. But Marc Jacobs’ retaliation teaches us that (at least sometimes) artists have better answers than lawyers.
Tweeting from “@MarcJacobsIntl,” Marc Jacobs informed Kidult and the fashion-savvy world that a new t-shirt was available for sale (below, left) for $689 — or signed by the artist for $680. The outrageously priced t-shirt sports a photograph of Kidult’s vandalism with the phrase, “Art by Art Jacobs,” just below the photograph. A clever retort to the masked vandal’s shenanigans.
Naturally, this response seemed to bother Kidult a great deal who reply-tweeted: “??? LET’S PLAY, but we don’t play the same rules!”
Kidult then later re-tweeted: “SHAME on you, YOU COPY @therealkidult to make money with it, capitalist thieve [sic] RT @MarcJacobsIntl Art by Art Jacobs.”
But before Kidult could think of something cleverer than more twitter-taunting, a graphic t-shirt designer named “FRY” jumped into the mix and created his own “super limited run” of meta t-shirts. FRY’s strategy? Make a $35 t-shirt of Marc Jacobs’ Art by Art Jacobs t-shirt (right). I guess this would be a meta-meta-shirt? (Like a feint within a feint within a feint?)
Finally, not wanting to be outdone, Kidult responded by releasing his own t-shirt — a photograph of himself, in the act of vandalizing the Marc Jacobs storefront, with the phrase “Not Art By Kidult” just beneath the photograph (left). Sold at a symbolic price of €6.89 (1% of the price of the Art by Art Jacobs shirt), Kidult’s shirt seems to be the final effort in the mano-a-mano competition.
Of course, the whole thing raises all sorts of potentially interesting questions about art, design, copyright, and fair use. Can Kidult profit from his (obviously illegal) acts of vandalism by claiming an exclusive copyright interest in his “work” and merchandising the hell out of it? Has Jacobs — ostensibly the victim of a criminal act — infringed on Kidult’s copyright by turning the tables? How could Kidult protect his exclusive copyright rights while preserving his much-needed anonymity? Is everyone’s copying of everyone else’s work a form of artistic commentary which is protected by the fair use doctrine in any event? And can I hire this “FRY” person to come up with brilliantly opportunistic get-rich-quick business plans for me?
But it’s also a fascinating test case for creative, entrepreneurial types who work and live within the legal context that frames all of the above questions, but choose to do battle in the marketplace and in the hearts and minds of art- and fashion-lovers elsewhere, rather than in the courtroom. In the end, it’s easy to make the case that everyone (Jacobs, Kidult, FRY, and we bemused spectators) has been enriched — economically and culturally — by this story playing out as it has, rather than with a boring old demand letter and complaint.
Perhaps the only thing left for Marc Jacobs to do would be to put Kidult’s shirt within one of his own shirts and sell that at an even higher price.