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Shein may have cornered the fast-paced fashion market, but a growing number of her clients demand increased corporate responsibility as freelance designers continue to accuse them of stealing their work.
As America’s most installed shopping app, Shein has grown into an e-commerce giant, especially popular with Gen Z.
But its growth has not been without controversy. In addition to the high environmental cost associated with fast fashion, Shein is also regularly criticized for copying designs from independent designers.
The creator of Elexiay, a fashion brand owned by blacks, mentionned on Twitter last week that Shein copied the design of their Amelia top, a handmade crochet sweater in Nigeria that costs $ 330. Shein’s offer, mass-produced in the nearly identical color scheme, sold for $ 17 until it was removed from the website.
“I spent hours designing and thinking about this design and it takes days to crochet each sweater. It’s pretty disheartening to see my hard work reduced to a machine-made copy,” the designer wrote on Twitter.
Tonight I feel crushed, @SHEIN_official stole my Amelia sweater design.
I spent hours designing and thinking about this design and it takes days to crochet every sweater. It’s pretty disheartening to see my hard work reduced to a machine copy. 💔 pic.twitter.com/vLagM3WiKq
– _ (@TheElleyy) July 16, 2021
It’s a feeling that has been picked up by other creators. Reclamare PH, another crochet creator, said on Instagram that Shein copied one of their pieces and asked his followers to boycott the company. The creator of Sincerely RIA, a brand inspired by Fulani culture, mentionned on Twitter last month that Shein had copied the design of a dress and even had “[stolen] the aesthetics of the brand. “
Shein did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A marketing agency that works with the brand also did not respond to requests for comment.
Copies are often legal in the fashion world
When it comes to fashion, copyright law can leave little protection for designers.
For starters, the law does not allow companies to protect “useful things, at least not in their entirety,” Julie Zerbo, lawyer and reporter for The Fashion Law blog, told NPR.
Generally speaking, this means that a designer cannot claim broad protections for clothing that performs a basic function. For example, a designer could not claim protection for all sweaters just because they make sweaters. But they can protect the creative aspects of their work that make them different from the norm, such as a unique model. If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is, even for professionals.
“And so, [with] a dress, a shoe, a bag, copyright law requires a brand that wants to claim protection to show the creative elements of that larger garment and separate them, ”Zerbo explained. “It creates a rather messy and not simple reality. The reality is, in most cases, it’s perfectly legal to drop a dress design. “
It is in this gray area that fast fashion brands often thrive. Zerbo said they often copy “just enough” that the end result is recognizable without copying anything trademarked or otherwise protected by law.
“They are doing a pretty good job of walking that line,” Zerbo said. “And it allows them to operate in that space doing exactly what they’re supposed to do, which is to take other trends that are on the track or elsewhere and replicate them inexpensively.”
Independent brands still have options
Still, independent brands aren’t completely without options. Sending a cease and desist letter is an inescapable decision and brands may also try to reach an agreement out of court; those settlements may involve the offending companies agreeing to remove the parts from their store and pay the original designer a monetary settlement, Zerbo said.
It’s a polarizing topic: Some commentators are strong supporters of Shein, arguing that the average shopper can’t be expected to spend hundreds on a single garment when a much cheaper option is available .
In the meantime, independent designers still have Twitter, Instagram and other platforms to raise awareness, which Shein’s critics say can lead to more clients for the original creators, as well as increased demand for change.
It may already be working: On TikTok, the hashtag “boycottShein” has been viewed over three million times. Since big brands rely on popularity online to stay relevant, independent designers and their supporters are hoping hashtags might in fact be an outsider’s most powerful weapon.