French T-shirt label ElevenParis is known for its cheeky jersey tees that use the likenesses of major celebrities. Some of my personal faves are the Notorious B.I.G. and the Karl Is My Father tees. The shirts are sarcastic and honest odes to pop culture, and they’re sold everywhere from Bloomingdales to ElevenParis’ own boutiques. But allegedly, the brand has never had permission to use the names or likenesses of any of the celebrities that have propelled it to prominence.
Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé are now embroiled in a heated lawsuit accusing ElevenParis of intellectual property, trademark, and copyright infringement. In this day and age, how could anyone expect to make a profit off some of the world’s biggest celebrities without permission?
Music sales aren’t what they used to be, and artists in the music industry have to be creative about how they make a buck. Touring and merchandise sales are a HUGE piece of the income puzzle. And anyone attempting to steal even a cent of these away needs to be prepared for the wrath of the A-list celebrity.
Let this serve as a cautionary tale for all you budding t-shirt design entrepreneurs. People love celebrity and it’s often exciting to create new designs incorporating the stars that we love. But if you don’t have a licensing agreement with said celebrity, you aren’t entitled to the money you’re making. Well, at least not all of it.
Many young designers out there are taking the route of screen printed tees and sweatshirts. And that works. Just make sure your designs are original so that all profits are yours for the taking. Sure, you think it’s cool to slap Lady Gaga on a tee and sell it on Etsy because you think you won’t blow up. You’ll make a few small scale sales and move on to the next thing. But what if you are successful? What if your design gains traction and consequently gets the attention of the industry, fans, and the infringed celeb alike? Be prepared to cease and desist and/or hand over your funds. Why go this route when you can just start from scratch with something original?
By all means, jump into the fashion game. There’s enough room for everyone. But do your homework first or you might get sued. If you want to be derivative of someone else’s style or just outright infringe, be prepared to face the consequences. Tell a unique fashion story that’s yours and only yours to tell.