DKNY’s Unfashionable Branding Backlash

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Any online marketing guru will surely tell you that hell hath no fury like a social media audience scorned. Once a damaging story about a brand behaving badly has made its way through thousands of furious Facebook forwards, ticked off tweets and blasting blog posts, a company’s image can be positively battered. Businesses busted for shady goings-on will inevitably be called out in the blogosphere, and the clean up won’t be pretty. Just ask the folks over at DKNY.

DKNY, the casual clothing branch of ’90s mega brand Donna Karan, found itself in Internet hot water this week when an unflattering picture of the blog was painted in a series of news stories. According to the Daily Beast, Brandon Stanton, the creator and founder of the popular street photography blog Humans of New York, was woken up on Monday by an unwanted text message. A friend of Stanton’s in Bangkok ecstatically texted the artist to tell him that they had seen Stanton’s photos in DKNY store windows there. Great news — except for the fact Stanton never gave DKNY permission to use the photos. Within hours, the photographer had taken to Facebook to explain how something like this happened and to let folks know he wasn’t happy.

Stanton says he was approached by DKNY three months ago, when brand officials asked to use 300 images from his blog in its windows around the world (including, possibly, some in New York). It offered him $15,000, or $5o per photo.

“A friend in the industry told me that $50 per photo was not nearly enough to receive from a company with hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

He refused DKNY’s offer and assumed the deal was long dead. Stanton went on to encourage his followers to contact DKNY and demand that the company make an $100,000 donation to his local Brooklyn YMCA. By midday on Monday, after the story had spread through social media like wildfire, DKNY admitted they had used the photos without permission and without paying for them. And where else to admit wrongdoing than on Facebook, naturally. DKNY posted, “For the Spring 2013 windows program, we licensed and paid for photos from established photography service providers,” the statement reads. “However, it appears that inadvertently the store in Bangkok used an internal mock-up containing some of Mr. Stanton’s images that was intended to merely show the direction of the spring visual program. We apologize for this error and are working to ensure that only the approved artwork is used.” The brand apologized and said they would make a $25,000 donation to Stanton’s neighborhood YMCA.

The moral of this story? Trying to be shady in the social media age is nearly impossible. Or, as Stanton puts it, “Ten years ago, this could have been done, and no one would have figured out about it. Social media makes work easier to steal — but it also makes the people who take it more accountable.”

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