The Wing markets itself as a women’s only co-working space with free coffee, networking events, and a gift shop complete with the kind of cute feminist tchotchkes that have become part and parcel of the pussy hat era. At The Wing shop, one might buy a key ring that reads “N.Y. Women Doing Whatever the Fuck They Want” or lighters that say “Light Like a Girl.” The vibe is preciously empowered and feels manufactured specifically for Instagram.
Which could be why Instagram influencer and Wing member Rachel Joyce feels so sure the co-working space ripped off her website’s tagline, “For the multidimensional woman” for its new phone cases and headscarves. Joyce says she saw the merchandise via an email from the company and posted her disappointment to Instagram, writing “A quick Google search will show that this phrase is not common” as part of a longer message.
The problem with Joyce’s statement is that the phrase is, in fact, pretty common. A google search for “multidimensional woman,” which is what the phone case and headscarf read, turns up a 2018 Rebecca Minkoff campaign as well as a branded Forbes article sponsored by Glenlivet. Finding Joyce’s page, youmustlovelife.com, at the top of search results requires Googling the phrase “For the multidimensional woman” with quotation marks. Still, Joyce says, The Wing seemed familiar with her work, liking and commenting on her Instagram posts on multiple occasions.
“I do feel like our followings overlap. We cater to similar audiences of feminist women,” Joyce told Jezebel. “What makes me even more suspicious is that they’ve seen my posts because they commented on my page. It seems highly unlikely they wouldn’t be aware if they did a little bit of research.”
And it’s true, Joyce calls herself a “multidimensional woman” right in her Instagram bio and multiple times across her website. She even wrote an essay about the phrase in the summer 2019 editor’s note for her online magazine and has been using the tagline on her blog and social media posts since at least May 2018. These similarities, of course, could be coincidental. The “multidimensional woman” merchandise from The Wing features a galaxy motif along with a reference to the Dungeons and Dragons alignment system, a a popular meme used across social media over the past few years. It could be that Joyce and The Wing’s product team had the same vague idea as Rebecca Minkoff and Glenlivet—women contain multitudes.
Except that this coincidence is part of a pattern of coincidences in which The Wing uses sentiments or ideas popularized by others in the online feminist community on its merchandise, selling it back to other feminists for a profit.
Even if Joyce, who has 25k Instagram followers, flew under The Wing’s notice, it would be hard to argue the same for Shelby Lorman, a popular illustrator with over 300k followers who runs an account called Awards for Good Boys, which gives satirical awards to men for doing the bare minimum; for example “Vaguely knowing where the clit is” or “Fired a Bad Man™ (To Preserve Brand Optics).” In June 2019, just a week before the release of a book based on the account, Lorman says that The Wing coincidentally started selling actual ribbons to give to feminist allies. To promote Awards for Good Boys, Penguin begun printing ribbons featuring the joke awards from Lorman’s book in bright colors, like the participation awards an elementary school student might get for finishing a science project.
The Wing’s ribbons also looked like elementary-school consolation prizes, but their version was completely earnest. “These were really specific looking ribbons that went out to trade fairs, basically just taking things that I wrote and making them into real ribbons,” Lorman told Jezebel. Unlike, Joyce, who sought compensation in emails to The Wing, Lorman says she found The Wing’s tone-deaf sarcasm-free ribbons, hilarious.
“I truly was not angry,” Lorman says. “This is the funniest thing that’s ever happened to me. The were just stripped of all satire. I’m obsessed.” In the weeks following The Wing’s launch of the $6 ribbons, Lorman posted about them repeatedly, though she never received a response. The ribbons are no longer for sale, but Lorman still has screenshots.
Of course one of the problems with constant social sharing is it creates a hivemind, where it’s impossible to pinpoint the original source of the concept, or tell whose ideas belong to whom. Etsy shops abound with phrases swiped from Instagram and slapped onto wine glasses. Pithy slogans birthed on Women’s March signs get turned into memes and plastered onto tee shirts. It can be genuinely difficult to tell who owns what in an online feminist space crowded with clever people saying quotable things.
But The Wing is not some crafty suburbanite just trying to make a few bucks selling phone cases and headscarves. It’s a corporation offering luxurious memberships that cost upwards of $2,000 a year and advertises a community ostensibly fostering feminism. The company has the resources to make sure its ideas are original, and if they aren’t, the company also has the money to partner with the women whose ideas it wants to use.
The Wing seems to have engaged in non-consensual crowdsourcing for its branding ideas almost since its inception, in 2016. Back in 2017, when the company was just over a year old, Harper’s Bazaar launched its November issue with a “patch party” at The Wing, where celebrities like Olivia Wilde got the chance to decorate jean jackets with trendy feminist catchphrases.
The problem is, not all of those logos and designs belonged to The Wing. One patch featured a phrase by Leste Magazine’s editor Sara Sutterlin: “When women speak it is mostly poetry.” Leste has even fewer followers than Joyce, just 15k, and does not pop up in association with giant brands in a cursory Google search. So it becomes much more difficult to label The Wing’s use of her words a coincidence.
After the patch party, others came forward to say that The Wing had used their designs without authorization, including artist and art director Lotte Andersen. In that instance, The Wing maintained that Harper’s was responsible for lifting the artwork from The Wing’s Instagram account, where The Wing had used Andersen’s artwork uncredited though they did credit Leste on Instagram. Another artist, then-22-year-old master’s student Madison Kramer says her work was stolen for the patch party from Tumblr.
Personal branding is a double-edged sword: the more attention one can grab for their free ideas, the more likely it is that labor will turn into opportunity, as it has for Lorman, who got a book deal after posting incredibly sharable and funny content long before The Wing used her idea for its ribbons. But this easily sharable content has endowed companies access to a twenty-four-hour brainstorming session, which can be easily mined for mobilizable ideas. The Wing, which charges a premium for access to a space for some women to work and network, markets itself as a feminist company while also using social media to earn a profit off the free labor of other women, a complicated, twenty-first century problem that Lorman thinks about a lot:
“People are sensitive about this for good reason,” Lorman says. “So many small creators, especially women of color, get their work stolen from huge companies all the time. A lot of people have a hard time remembering that this is a corporate feminist endeavor, and they sell stuff.”
The Wing declined to comment to Jezebel about Joyce or Lorman’s claims. Lorman also says that The Wing has never responded to any of the posts she has tagged them in, nor have they responded to the questions of any of her followers.