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Greencroft couple furious at Alexander McQueen’s unethical use of their product

Luke and Kate Holt with two of their distinctive crofthouse planters in Quarff this week. Photo: Shetland News/Neil Riddell.

GLOBAL fashion label Alexander McQueen has been accused of ripping off a tiny family-run craft business by prominently displaying an image of one of its products on a catwalk runway without giving them any credit.

Couple Luke and Kate Holt, who run Quarff-based firm Greencroft Shetland Ltd and produce a popular series of replica crofthouse-style planters, said they were “really, really angry” when they found out.

Consultants working for Alexander McQueen were in Shetland last summer for a modelling photoshoot. They came across one of the distinctive, red-doored planters in someone’s garden and took a photo of it.

The image became an integral part of a collage rug design – created by consultants M/M Paris and used on the set of Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 2017 fashion show – which took place on 3 October last year.

Luke and Kate said they only found out by chance when a friend spotted the crofthouse featured in a photo in Promote Shetland’s magazine 60 North.

Kate said she recalls Luke coming home one day and saying “you’ll never guess what…”

An image of the distinctively roofless, red-doored crofthouse was used as an integral part of a rug on a Parisian catwalk for Alexander McQueen's spring/summer 2017 show late last year.

“I went to the museum and bought a copy [of the magazine],” Luke said. “I didn’t know what I was expecting to see. I certainly wasn’t expecting to see prints of one of our planters in a Paris fashion house, that’s for sure.

“I was really, really angry, I think we were both quite angry that they’d done that. We have a big waiting list, we don’t advertise, didn’t want the extra publicity, we don’t have anything to do with Alexander McQueen as a brand, and it just seems really unfair that they could take one of our products and do that with it.

“We wouldn’t use someone else’s product as a background to show off ours.”

Having contacted Alexander McQueen several times by phone and email, he eventually got a response from their legal department conceding that it was an image of Greencroft’s product.

The fashion giant claimed it was unaware of the model crofthouse’s provenance, but nevertheless did not feel it had done anything wrong.

“I said ‘I’m really upset that you’ve used the product, I would like an apology and I would like some reparations so that we can draw a line under this’,” Luke said.

“They said no, they’re not willing to make any reparations or any apology. They’ve used the image, that’s it.”

In addition to featuring on the catwalk, the rug was also used in the lining of a coat featured in Alexander McQueen’s men’s spring/summer 2018 collection, shown in Paris on 25 June this year.

Kate said they have been left feeling somewhat helpless because they don’t have the money to challenge Alexander McQueen.

“It’s so unique,” she said, “the product that we’ve made isn’t made by anyone else, so you can’t mistake that it’s our product on there.

“You feel like you are battling a giant and you’ve got no hope with them, so they can say whatever they like to us and then just hope that we’ll disappear, because they know that we can’t financially do anything.

“It makes me really sad that I work day in, day out just to make a living and they can basically walk all over what we do. It’s sad.”

The couple decided to start the small-scale business – run from two sheds next to their attractive Wester Quarff home – in 2014 after Kate made one for their own use and began getting requests to produce more.

Each crofthouse planter is bespoke with its own door colour, a piece of Shetland stone above the windows, handcut chimneys and locally recycled glass from Cunningsburgh.

She is now producing the crofthouses – in three different sizes – at a rate of around 15-20 a week and reckons she has probably produced over 1,000 in total.

Kate said the business had grown “beyond what we could ever have imagined” and provides a way of generating a second income – Luke works in the operating theatre at Gilbert Bain Hospital – that also enables her to be home when their children get back after school.

“I expected to be making one or two wee planters for a couple of years throughout the summer, and now I work to a waiting list. But it’s incredibly hard work. It’s not just a production line, there’s hours of my time goes into that every day.”

The crofthouse planter design is Greencroft’s registered intellectual property. While Luke accepts that does not protect them from other people creating and using photographs of the product, he feels that by refusing to credit them in any way Alexander McQueen has acted unethically and ought to at least make a goodwill gesture.

“If they’d used a photograph of a Mercedes, of course they’d have paid Mercedes. It’s just because you’re small. They put it out there as if it was an Alexander McQueen design.

“It’s more an ethical thing, it’s big business versus small business, and the history of people coming north to plunder design ideas and then leave again. People should be very, very wary, and should be on the lookout for this kind of thing in the future.

“I don’t expect to get any reparations from them now, but I do want people to know that it’s happened so that other crafts businesses [and] small designers can be wary.”

Luke said he felt there were parallels with Fair Isle knitwear designer Mati Ventrillon’s dispute with fashion giant Chanel. It was forced into making an apology.

In a short statement, an Alexander McQueen spokeswoman said: “We confirm that an image derived from a Greencroft planter appeared as part of a rug which was the backdrop to a fashion show in 2016.

“The reverse of the rug, in effect an abstract design, was used for a coat in the men’s SS2018 show.

“We have listened to Mr Holt’s concerns. However, we do not agree that this use is an infringement of rights in the planter.”

Alexander McQueen opted not to address other questions including whether the company felt it had behaved in an ethical fashion.

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott, who is taking the case up with the fashion house, said: “It just seems wrong. There is no question that if it was the other way round and an international designer had their work plagiarised by, say, a Chinese internet company, they’d be using all the powers at their disposal to demand that the wrong was put right.”

A spokeswoman for Shetland Arts & Crafts said: “Shetland is a powerfully creative place and it is great to see big names in fashion time and again coming here for inspiration.

“We would, however, like to see more credit given to the small independent designers in Shetland whose ideas and designs inspire them.”