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BRAINY CRAIN-Y: Zach Crain, founder of Freaker USA, will take on Urban Outfitters for ripping off his patented Freaker product. Photo by Justin Mitchener

Freaker USA has, in common parlance, “been ripped off”—and by a giant conglomerate nonetheless who macks on the appeal of hipsters, selling “cool” clothes and tchotchke items worldwide. Perhaps a better name for today’s Urban Outfitters (UO) is “ripster,” seeing as their design aesthetics and products are merely fraudulent.

This is apparently business practices as usual over at URBN Inc., which also runs Anthropologie, Free People, BHLDN and Terrain. A quick Google search of “Urban Outfitters Infringement” or “Urban Outfitter rip-offs” turns up hundreds of results—my favorite being the cease and desist order by the Navajo Tribe, who surprisingly own the copyright to the term “Navajo.” They felt Urban Outfitters did not have the right to brand a clothing line with their name attached to it.

“The Village Voice” ran a piece in 2010, exposing Urban Outfitter’s repeated thievery, showcasing invariable designs they lifted from artists at the Brooklyn Flea Market. Several of the people profiled were never even approached by Urban Outfitters—they just found their work pirated with no please or thank you.

It just sticks in the craw, doesn’t it? Here in one corner, we have honest, hard-working, creative types trying to keep a roof over their heads. In the other corner, we have a soul-less international company that would rather fund shoddy factory work in China than pay a fair price to the creator. Which one would you rather support?

A Wilmington-based company and success story, the Freaker—an ultimate knitted bottle koozie—is now the victim of the UO racket. Developed locally by Zach Crain, who is really Zonker Harris from Doonesbury come to life, Crain started making bottle koozies out of old sweaters (presumably the remnants from the sweaters he was tailoring for his dog, Pete) at a local Stitch ‘n’ Bitch meeting years ago. After finding initial success with the product at the Castle Street Mission, he began working with Robinwood, a small hosiery mill in Troy, NC, to make larger orders created from local demand.

Made only three hours away from Wilmington, the koozie became the Bottle Freaker and in 2011 evolved into simply Freaker. Their tagline, “Made in the Freaking USA,” isn’t only boasted with pride but fundamental in their belief system and business model. The bottom of each Freaker needs to be sewn as a finishing detail, and it’s done not only in our country but state.

“A technician at the mill [said] his wife needed a job,” Crain says. “So she started sewing the bottoms for us—which means he is so much more interested in helping us and making sure we do well.”

After a successful Kickstarter fund-raiser ended in the spring, which paid out over $60k, the local business was able to turn larger orders and expand. Since, the Freakers have gained momentum, as they held a grassroots campaign across the entire U.S., going from state to state in their Freaker box car, throwing grilled cheese parties and spreading their love and product. They single-handedly have built a brand out of exciting, guerrilla-style marketing, meeting face-to-face with customers and followers.

Crain was smart enough at the beginning of his Freaker journey to apply for a patent on the knit koozie. He also began exclusively selling them at local artisan boutique Edge of Urge. In July of 2010, Crain sent a package to Urban Outfitters to see if they might be interested in carrying Freakers as well. “And they called,” he says with his signature grin and shrug. “They called! But they wanted it for dirt cheap.”

Crain decided to offer them an introductory rate which was less than what a normal wholesale price would be, “just so they could test it,” he clarifies. By November of 2010, Freakers were in Urban Outfitters across the nation. Yet, they ended up not doing so well in the stores; however, the Internet was a different story.

“They started to sell really well online because it was demonstrated,” Crain explains. “It had a picture with a bottle and showed how it worked.”

Urban Outfitters called to order more for their online catalog. After the re-order, Crain made it clear that if they were going to continue to do business, the introductory rate would need to be replaced by the regular wholesale pricing. That’s when things started getting strange. Urban Outfitters didn’t want to pay the wholesale price for the Freaker.

“They wanted us to develop this ‘new product’ that was basically a Freaker but just made for a wine bottle,” Crain discloses. Yet, the beauty of the Freaker is that it fits on anything: cans, water bottles, wine bottles and even jugs!

By February 2011 Zac had pinned down the buyer from Urban Outfitters. “It was more yarn, more everything and at a cheaper price than she had gotten the Freaker for.” He sighs. “I knew I wasn’t going to do it, but I wanted to keep e-mailing to have a better idea of what they wanted. The last e-mail I sent said I wasn’t going to do it, but that the product they were developing would most definitely be infringing upon the patent I had filed for.”

The Freaker crew has not heard from Urban Outfitters since, but the direct steal is a wine bottle koozie made in various designs, just as Freakers have created, pandas and owls included. Once word hit the street the Wednesday before Thanksgiving that UO had ripped off Freaker, the corporation’s Facebook page blew up with Freaker supporters responding in dismay. The love spread across America seems to be catching up with the Freaker crew. Thankfully, Crain has documented all of the unfoldings carefully and has a cease and desist order in the works with their lawyer. Right now, they need help from us: Get the word out about Urban Outfitters, but more importantly keep spreading the word about Freaker USA!

Will our hometown David hold their own against the mighty mega corporation, Goliath? I know where I’m putting my money—how about you?

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, 910tix.com. Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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