Target Pulls New Thread in Bikini Yarn

Would you pay $285 for a skimpy blue bikini with multicolored elastic threaded through multicolored crochet trim?

How about $176?

Or better yet, $38?

These are the options available to crochet-bikini lovers now that Target has jumped into one of the messiest swimsuit tales ever to unravel.

The big-box retailer this spring began to offer its Xhiliration-brand version of a bathing suit first sold on a beach in 1998 by a Brazilian crochet artist. That bikini was later remade and marketed to great success by a New York entrepreneur as the perfect suit for high-end luxury buyers with tiny bodies and huge Instagram followings.

By making the swimsuit available to the mass market — or a look-alike of a copy of the original — Target has reinvigorated one of the bikini industry’s wildest intellectual property disputes in memory; one that involves lawsuits and federal court, and evokes questions about art, commerce, the trickling down of trends and the internet’s role in it all.

In an industry built on creative inspiration, can any one person own a design? Is infringement litigation a waste of time and money that would be better spent on new products and ideas? If one internet-savvy person manages to create a market for a product that would have otherwise existed mostly in obscurity, does the marketer deserve any creative credit?

And that’s before addressing any issues of cultural appropriation.

Accusations of creative theft by big brands against small, unresourced designers have involved all sorts of luxury names, including Chanel, Versace and Michael Kors. (All deny wrongdoing.)

This is the sort of fray in which Target is now ensnarled. But while most such cases tend to be tried solely in the court of public opinion, the crocheted bikini is different.

The lawsuit involves a bikini sold by Kiini, a brand that was brought to market in June 2013 by Ipek Irgit. Her initial $285 bikini is nearly identical to a bikini created and first sold in 1998 by Maria Solange Ferrarini, a beach vendor and artist in Trancoso, in the Brazilian state of Bahia.

Ms. Ferrarini first sold the swimsuit more than 20 years ago for about $2.50. She now charges beach buyers about $75 for a handmade original. (A licensed version made by a San Diego swimwear company sells for $176 in the United States.)

Last year, Ms. Ferrarini, 62, filed suit against Ms. Irgit, who started her own company after visiting Trancoso in 2012, using one of Ms. Ferrarini’s bikinis as a model for a prototype. The lawsuit says Ms. Irgit, 41, has passed off Ms. Ferrarini’s design as her own, even submitting to the United States Copyright Office a photo of the Kiini bathing suit and receiving a copyright.

In an interview with The New York Times last summer, Ms. Irgit denied copying the swimsuit. Her lawyer, Mark A. Berman, did not respond to more recent requests seeking comment.

The case has pulled into its vortex companies including Victoria’s Secret and Neiman Marcus, amid complex issues of intellectual property rights. It got more complicated in January when, in the wake of publicity surrounding the situation, the copyright office also granted Ms. Ferrarini a copyright.

Now, a federal court in the Southern District of New York is digging through those implications.

And the bikinis — all the versions — continue to sell.

Some fans of the Kiini bikini were surprised to learn of the details of its origin, and the controversy it has engendered.

The model Reka Ebergenyi wore a Kiini bikini in a 2014 photo shoot for Condé Nast Traveller. Ms. Ebergenyi knew Ms. Irgit through a mutual friend who was helping with Kiini’s production, and had asked the editor on the shoot if she could wear the bikini.

The resulting photo — Ms. Ebergenyi wearing a Kiini while standing by a pool — appeared on the December cover of the magazine and was a big moment for the swimwear brand.

“I didn’t know I was a part of a fraud,” Ms. Ebergenyi said in an interview this spring.

Some people took to Instagram to register criticism of Kiini after the lawsuit drew attention. Both Ms. Irgit’s personal Instagram account and the Kiini brand account now have restrictions on commenting.

As for the Target version of the bikini, a company spokeswoman declined to make an executive available for an interview on how the bathing suit design was created.

In an emailed statement, the spokeswoman said, “Target offers a wide range of swimwear styles and designs that feature the current trends of the season. This year, one of the trends we saw across the marketplace is crochet trim, which we incorporated into swimwear and other products.”

Ms. Ferrarini’s lawyer, Jack M. Rutherford, shared with The Times a letter he sent to Target on June 25 asking it to “cease and desist” from selling the bikini. “Continuing violation of Ms. Ferrarini’s intellectual property rights, or any known past violation of those rights,” Mr. Rutherford wrote, may subject Target “to heightened liability for willful copyright infringement.”

(The lawyer was part of The Times’s earlier article as well. “While I filed this case under my previous legal name,” he said now, referring to his previous given name, Michelle, “I am a transgender man, and I now go by Jack M. Rutherford and am in the process of a legal name and gender transition.”)

The Target spokeswoman said that “neither Target nor the vendor who designed this swimsuit have received a claim, so we’re unable to comment on it at this time.”

Last summer, Ms. Irgit said she felt compelled to sue companies that she believes have been benefiting from Kiini’s success. “If your rights are being taken, and everything you’ve worked so hard for is, like, being wiped away, wouldn’t you do something about it? Are we all supposed to be afraid and run away?”

Her lawyer didn’t comment on whether Ms. Irgit plans to sue Target.

Katherine Rosman is a features reporter. She covers media, social media and celebrity — and the way in which they intersect and collide. She joined The Times in 2014. @katierosman

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