The Fight Over ‘The Future Is Female’

CREDIT: OTHERWILD/INSTAGRAM/CARA DELEVINGNE
CREDIT: OTHERWILD/INSTAGRAM/CARA DELEVINGNE

“The Future Is Female.”

Sounds great, right? Catchy as a pop song, declarative to boot. Read it as a mission statement, read it as aspiration, read it as defiance. Read it, if you like, as a promise: Women of the present are still smacking glass ceilings and getting shoved off glass cliffs, underpaid and overworked, catcalled and harassed and blamed for inviting both, on and on and on. But the future could be anything. But the future is up for grabs. Guess who wants to grab it.

Rachel Berks, owner of the design studio Otherwild, liked the look and sound of it, too. She first spotted the slogan on Instagram. The photo was from 1975, taken by Liza Cowan of the musician Alix Dobkin, her then-girlfriend; the original T-shirt design was made for Labyris Books, the first women’s bookstore in New York City. The store was owned by Jane Lurie and Marizel Rios; it opened in 1972. The photo was part of a slideshow Cowan was working on at the time, entitled, “What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear.” Berks took the idea and ran with it, creating her own version of the shirt — with Cowan’s blessing — and selling it through Otherwild in late spring. She introduced sweatshirts in October. She also started donating a portion of the proceeds to Planned Parenthood, something she plans to do for every “The Future Is Female” article of clothing Otherwild sells.

The shirt and slogan went viral. Among Berks’ fans were the musician St. Vincent (Annie Clark) and her girlfriend, model Cara Delevingne, both of whom were photographed wearing Berks’ design.

On Sunday, Delevingne announced that she would be selling her own “The Future Is Female” shirts, with proceeds going to Girl Up, the United Nations Foundation’s campaign for young women. But her original post made no reference to Berks or Otherwild; she only thanked Cowan for the design. Berks, stunned and appalled by what she saw as a blatant rip-off, reposted Delevingne’s photo and called her a “celezbian.” (That post has since been deleted.)

To get the full story behind the T-shirt and the controversy, ThinkProgress spoke with Berks on the phone.

Let’s start from the beginning. Where did you first come across the slogan, “The Future Is Female”?

I discovered it through the Instagram account, @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y. Kelly Rakowski, who runs the account is a mutual friend. I shared the Liza Cowan picture on my account and said, “If everyone’s not following @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, you should be. It’s an awesome place of discovery.” And I got probably more likes on that photo than anything I’d ever posted before, and a lot of comments like, “You should make this shirt, it’s so amazing.” So I ended up making a version of the shirt.

I was definitely inspired by the shirt from the photo, but I’m a graphic designer, so I changed the typeface, the placement, the size. But it referenced it; it was a referential update of the original. And I eventually connected with Liza, who did not design the shirt; she took the photograph of Alix wearing the shirt, and she gave me her blessing to use her photo to promote the shirt, and she and I collaborated on my reinterpretation of her “The Future Is Female” pins. She had a button company in the ’70s. And she gave me permission and she shares in the profits with me of the reissue of the pin. So we’ve collaborated. I don’t actually know who designed the original T-shirt. I knew I was using the photograph with permission, and I know that there’s been some other people kind of copying me, which is always a bummer but nothing as public as what just went down.

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Before we get into the copying controversy, I’m curious as to your thoughts on why this slogan and this T-shirt are resonating with so many people. Why was it so striking to you when you first saw it, and why do you think it has this widespread appeal?

I don’t know that I would have assumed that something that came out of the lesbian separatist movement would have immediately gone so viral and been so popular and resonated for people so much. But there’s sort of two things that happened. One, I think because of the attacks on women’s bodies and women’s agency, people see that slogan and feel that they can really relate to that, because it’s so the opposite of what happens in their lives every day. It means something different for everyone. For me, the past, present, and future are female, and we need to hear that, because we’re told the opposite of that every day of our lives. I think that this message has sort of evolved in a very important way, where mothers buy this for their sons to wear, trans women wear this, people that don’t fit in the gender binary or don’t believe in the gender binary wear this shirt. It’s meaningful to people who aren’t women born women, and it’s meaningful to people who are. I think it really transcends the notions of what its initiation was, and I think it’s really relevant today.

How important is it, to you, that people know the root of the slogan? Or is part of the nature of something like this — that it’s viral and transcendent — that everyone who wears the T-shirt, or uses the slogan, won’t know where it came from, but that’s okay?Tell me more about that. Was that the plan from the beginning? How did you decide to donate a portion of the proceeds from the shirt to Planned Parenthood?

I didn’t make it to do that, but since the attacks on Planned Parenthood started —

Sorry, I can’t believe I have to ask you this, but can you clarify? Which attacks on Planned Parenthood?

I think it’s great when celebrities use their power to do something good, but that doesn’t mean to knock down a feminist queer business owner by ripping off her design.

I’m referring to about three months ago, the government attacks on Planned Parenthood, not the [shooting in Colorado]. When Congress was voting to defund Planned Parenthood, I went on the Planned Parenthood website and said, okay, I’m going to donate $50. And I started to fill out the form and realized: I have an opportunity here to do something much bigger. The shirts were gaining popularity and people were enthusiastic about them. Basically, the first weekend I donated 50 percent of proceeds to Planned Parenthood, and it was so wildly successful. People already felt connected to the slogan and the ideas behind it, but to know that their money was going towards Planned Parenthood at a time when that’s so important and necessary, it really just made people go crazy and repost it. And I raised a lot, a lot, a lot of money. And I’ve continued to raise money for Planned Parenthood. Since then, I’ve decided that 25 percent of all proceeds of this shirt forever go there.

Is that a formal arrangement you made with Planned Parenthood? Or do you just manually go to their site and donate it yourself?

I manually pay Planned Parenthood. I’ve never gotten, like, a formal communication from them. I actually talked to someone from the New York chapter; I was doing a pop-up in New York, and they came by and bought a bunch of shirts for Planned Parenthood people to wear at an event coming up.

So let’s get into this Cara Delevingne situation. When and how did you first become aware of this sweatshirt she’d made?

Well, I think, first of all, Cara Delevingne actually owns the shirt from Otherwild, because Annie Clark, St. Vincent, actually purchased two from me directly. And she was photographed wearing it, and she made an exact replica. The type is exactly the same as mine. There’s no distinction whatsoever.

So there’s two things about that. One, she could have contacted me, and we could have teamed up to do something really amazing. I was already gaining a ton of traction with this project, and it would have been really powerful to have someone like her, with so many followers and fans, to team up and do something together. That would have been a very ethical and noble thing to do. Alternately, she could have used the slogan and done her own design. It wouldn’t have been as great for me, obviously, but I don’t own the slogan, and I’m not trying to claim that I do. That also would have been the possibility. It’s the way that she went about it. The fact that I know that she has one of the shirts that I made, it was purchased from me, and she copied that exactly, that I really have a problem with.

So what happened next, after you saw her sweatshirt?

A few people who know me and know what I’m doing pretty quickly tagged me in the image on her Instagram. Her Instagram post now, I’m tagged, actually, in it. It just says thank you to us, but that was an edit that was made later. There was no mention of me, Liza or @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y anywhere. It was just, “here’s the link for sale.” I was really, really upset. I wrote a really angry response that I kind of hastily posted on Instagram. I think the feelings were coming from a genuine place but my way of handling it was just kind of reactionary. And then I had a lot, just so many hateful violent comments all day long, to the point where I decided to take it down because it was just too upsetting to keep it up, and to be critiqued for things that were not actually about the issue. So then I, this morning, put up a more thoughtful post about why I took it down, why it’s a problem for me specifically, and an alternative for Cara to have handled it in the right way. And that’s pretty much it. I’ve released the same statement to every media outlet that’s asked me for one.

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Has Cara tried to contact you at all? Have you reached out to her directly?

I actually did receive a phone call from the clothing distribution company she’s using; it’s called Represent. I’d never heard of them before. Someone from that company called me yesterday and wanted to talk to me, and I got voicemail, I haven’t had time. I will call him back.

Part of what complicates this issue — not the ethics of her stealing the design, but the ethics of her sale of the sweatshirt — is that she’s donating money, too. Her post says “proceeds going to Girl Up,” the United Nations Foundation’s campaign for young girls.

But she doesn’t actually say what percentage of proceeds are going to Girl Up. I would assume that it could be a very small amount. And yeah, it does complicate it, because people are reading it as “all proceeds.” And to me, if it were all proceeds, it would say so. And I think it’s great when celebrities use their power to do something good, but that doesn’t mean to knock down a feminist queer business owner by ripping off her design when she is trying to help an organization that really needs support.

And there’s no ambiguity about the source of the design, since you know she’s worn the Otherwild shirt.

It was in the New York Times a couple weeks ago. So it’s not like it just existed on social media. And she’s been photographed wearing it, and so many articles talking about the shirt gaining popularity, mention the fact that her and Annie Clark have been photographed wearing it. So I think she knew what she was doing.

What’s your game plan from here? Are you sticking to this strategy of communicating through media? Are you going to take legal action?

I hope that she does the right thing. I don’t have high hopes that she will.

I don’t know. I have to kind of feel things out. It’s been a crazy 24 hours. I’m also very, very busy. I run a very, very small business by myself and I have a few employees. So I don’t have the time or the means or the luxury to put everything on the back burner and fight this fight. It’s already distracting me from really important things I have to do to continue running and growing my business. I’m not trying to launch a crazy battle with Cara Delevingne. I hope that she does the right thing. I don’t have high hopes that she will. I kind of need to go on, you know?

How has the introduction of this direct competitor, her version, but also the attention from the controversy, affected sales of your shirt?

Sales have been consistent for my shirt for a while, so I don’t know if it’s connected to this or not. I know that an hour ago, over 1,000 of her sweatshirts have sold on this Represent website. And nowhere near 1,000 sweatshirts sold in the last 24 hours for me.

Is there anything else you think people should know about the slogan, your design, or what Cara’s done here?

A lot of people have pointed this out on social media who are defending Otherwild and @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, it’s very important as queer women — I don’t know how Cara identifies in language, but certainly in action, she’s a queer woman — it’s important for us to look out for each other and help each other and lift each other up. So to do something like this, it’s in direct contrast to what we should be doing as women. We face enough every day trying to exist in the world without trying to push each other down. my whole business practice is about raising people up and not pushing people down. That’s just what I would hope for.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.