Growing up in Lumby, B.C., Sharona Franklin decorated her bedroom with photos from glossy fashion magazines and dreamed about working in fashion. So when a controversy erupted this month over a dispute with an international design house, her family couldn’t help but note the irony.
“My little sister, she called me and said: ‘It’s so weird because you had Gucci stuff on your walls,’” Franklin recalled this week.
Weird is one word for what has happened. Franklin, who now lives in social housing on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, is a 32-year-old multidisciplinary artist who makes edible art: laborious and intricate Jell-O mould-type creations. She has an Instagram account where she showcases the jelly art. In May, she said, she was contacted by a design firm in London asking if she would be interested in creating work for a “large Italian fashion house" – Gucci, as it turns out. Franklin signed a non-disclosure agreement, and e-mails were sent back and forth. There was a discussion about when she could fly to Italy. She said she told them about the supplies she uses and offered some information about how she makes the pieces.
Then, silence. Following inquiries from Franklin, the London design firm, Simmonds Ltd., told her that due to budget constraints, they were going to go with someone in Europe instead, indicating that they had been speaking to a few people about the jelly concept.
“We didn’t discuss a budget,” Franklin said this week. “I kind of trusted them.”
When the Gucci 2020 Cruise campaign emerged, Franklin started hearing from friends and curators about the similarities between the images the luxury brand was using and her own jelly art.
But Franklin didn’t think there was anything she could do, especially since she had signed the NDA. “I just felt really defeated and confused by it. I just didn’t understand why they didn’t hire me if they wanted that look.”
Other people began posting about it, calling out Gucci. A childhood friend and another Vancouver-based artist started a change.org petition titled “Get GUCCI to make amends with Disabled Creatives and for plagiarizing Sharona!” The petition alleges “targeted theft of a disabled artist.”
As of Wednesday, it had more than 3,300 signatures.
Particularly galling to Franklin is Gucci’s Changemakers campaign, meant to promote diversity in the industry. Franklin says diversity should go beyond skin colour.
Born in Vernon, B.C., Franklin suffers from a number of conditions, including juvenile idiopathic arthritis. When she was about 18, she moved to Vancouver so she could access services at the acclaimed GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre. She now lives on disability payments and says she receives daily antibody injections and a weekly low-grade dose of chemotherapy.
Since the controversy came to light, she said, she has heard from several lawyers who have offered to represent her pro bono. As of Wednesday, she had not heard from Gucci.
In an e-mailed statement to The Globe and Mail, Gucci says it has used brightly coloured jellies by different artists and chefs in the past.
“Each selection process … consists of a series of phases before an artist is chosen for a collaboration. We do not always proceed with every artist we approach for consideration. … We nonetheless have the highest respect and appreciation for the creativity of all of the artists we consider, even if they are not selected for a collaboration.”
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