Instagram has become the primary platform where young creatives share their work, with NFTs slowly becoming a new option to sell digital art for many. Vulnerable to the ever-changing algorithm, creatives now have to juggle having a definitive social media personality, keeping their followers entertained, and of course, producing the actual art they post and hope to sell. While this has been wonderful because social media users like me get to interact with a wide variety of art from the not-so-big brands, it also means another hierarchy is created in the art world: ‘influencer’ creatives vs everyone else.
For Lauryn Brown, owner of cowboy hat brand LAMONTWEAR, this hierarchy meant her designs were allegedly stolen by Design Director of Yeezy x GAP and the eponymous owner of the brand Mowalola.
Lauryn Brown is many things: a DJ, model, designer, Londoner, working class, creative, Caribbean. Over a Zoom interview, she tells me that she started her cowboy hat brand LAMONTWEAR after her and a friend needed outfits for a queer ballroom event while visiting Leeds. After going viral, she decided to start taking custom orders. For Lauryn, LAMONTWEAR is about individuality, fun and youth: she wants everyone to see their personality reflected on a hat. Personally, I first heard of Lauryn’s work when she tweeted about her experience as a small creative getting her designs stolen.
Mowalola is firmly in the ‘influencer’ creative category. With an ‘it girl’ personality reminiscent of Paris Hilton and a squad of equally as beautiful friends, Mowalola has managed to turn her brand into a cult-like following since her graduation from Central Saint Martins in 2017, opting for Instagram as her main platform of marketing.
When Lauryn Brown got a coveted follow from Mowalola on Instagram, they were buzzed – their casual conversations in the DMs turned into musings for a collaboration in August 2020. Lauryn describes being excited at the prospect of a sick collab – juggling two jobs, a collaboration with a brand like Mowalola would mean Lauryn would be able to invest hugely into her creative endeavors. Having pitched the idea to Mowalola, Lauryn was invited to send more samples and come to Mowalola’s Shoreditch studio when Mowalola arrived in the UK. Excited, Lauryn dipped into their savings in order to buy samples – it was during this stage that they started to draw up contracts (a fact a lot of haters on the Internet didn’t know, according to Lauryn).
Contracts prepared and samples ready, Lauryn eagerly waited for the go-ahead from Mowalola’s team. However, Mowalola never replied with a specific date for Lauryn to come to her studio. With the impression that Mowalola was busy, Lauryn decided to stay patient, until months later, she saw hats very similar to hers being promoted on Mowalola’s story. Initially, Lauryn did not say anything for 8-9 months. They recount becoming increasingly distressed as they saw their designs being promoted as Mowalola’s, and when they saw the hats about to go on sale, they finally took action.
Lauryn describes being so nervous to talk about this publicly – she had ‘no leg to stand on’ compared to Mowalola’s large following. She describes typing out the thread as word vomit – everything that had been going on in her head spilled out onto Twitter. To her surprise, the backlash on social media wasn’t as bad as they thought: lots more people came out to support her, some who had never heard of either of their brands. This led me to think, what does accountability look like in the age of social media? How would Lauryn, and the other small creatives who shared their story, seek justice?
The notes app apology is a popular ‘quick-fix’ way to take accountability in the age of ‘cancel culture’ (if it even exists). In Mowalola’s (now archived) apology on Instagram, she stated that she never intended to cause harm to Lauryn, and apologises for the fact she never got back to her. The most interesting part of her apology, to me, was when she claimed to be from a “working class background”, suggesting some relatability between her and the multiple small creatives she has stolen from. Mentioning this to Lauryn, a Caribbean Londoner who describes themselves as working class, the comment was insulting.
“When you’re born into privilege, you’re never going to see the true struggles of someone who had to start from the bottom” – Lauryn
While all creatives will have some form of struggle trying to produce their art and get it sold, creatives from a middle class background will always have a safety net. Perhaps Mowalola could have worked for either of her parents’ fashion lines, if her attempt to strike out on her own didn’t work. For Lauryn, who doesn’t have a studio and makes her cowboy hats out of her bedroom, this isn’t the case.
According to Create London and Arts Emergency report Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industry, just 18.2% of people in the art world are from working class backgrounds, revealing how classism and access to resources are major issues in the art world, with many working for free in return for ‘exposure’.
Asking Lauryn about what accountability might look like, it’s clear that Mowalola has missed the mark. In an attempt to downplay the severity of the situation, Mowalola and spectators alike chose the “nothing in fashion is original” argument, citing other brands which had fur hats for sale.
“I never ever once claimed they (the fur hats) were my (idea). It’s the principle of intellectual property being stolen, because she would’ve never had that idea if it weren’t for me.” – Lauryn
Lauryn and I discuss the toxicity of social media, and how people are so quick to call you a ‘clout chaser’ without looking at the facts of the case. Social media is where Mowalola has her stronghold; she remains relatively unscathed. As always, this is a powerful reminder that ‘cancel culture’ truly doesn’t exist. People will always find a way to deflect from the situation at hand in order to protect their idols (who don’t know them, and never will). Mowalola’s popularity and ‘it girl’ persona rely on two key factors: exclusion and mystery, elevating her to an almost invincible status, buttressed by her social media following. Only those in her circle are deemed worthy of attention – everyone outside of that (i.e. the small designers she stole concepts from) are treated without respect – her archiving of a ‘sincere’ apology implies that she looks at this ‘scandal’ as something that can be fixed and swept under the rug. Mowalola’s team reached out to Lauryn after to talk about the possibility of a collaboration and to offer her some shares, which Lauryn turned down because the damage had already been done, and Mowalola’s actions on social media showed no remorse.
So, how do other small creatives get their justice in such situations? Lauryn tells me that “It’s all about solidarity, at this point. All you have is each other”. After their Twitter thread went viral, they received several messages from other small creators with the same story, who were scared to speak publicly. Obviously, this is a pattern of behaviour on Mowalola’s part that wasn’t talked about outside of the creative community until now.
“With smaller creatives, we have more of a tight knit community […] people just need to use their voice” – Lauryn
There’s always power in numbers – if multiple people have the same experience, it’s much harder to downplay the severity of the situation at hand. Lauryn feels that after their speaking out and using their voice, several more people will feel empowered to speak out.
Already noticing an upsurge in people reselling Mowalola items and much conversation being had on social media, there seems to be lots of quiet acts of resistance. However, if we want to call ourselves supporters of the creative community, we must stand with smaller creatives first. If we are to democratise the art world and ensure art is truly accessible for all, we have to start at the ‘bottom’ first.
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