December 8, 2023
Fast fashion’s ugly secret. Numerous brands in legal trouble over intellectual property theft
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The fast fashion industry has long been infamous for its exploitation of vulnerable labourers, waste production, and environmental degradation.
More recently, however, intellectual property scandals have also mounted against some notable fashion corporations.
One of these brands is SHEIN, a Chinese online store worth over 100 billion USD, which sells mostly clothing, but also decorations, stickers and accessories. Most of their items are extremely cheap, with wardrobe staples such as shirts and pants selling for under 5 USD.
However, such affordability seems to be achieved by intellectual property violations. Multiple designers, including artist Michelle Tam and a small business called That’s So Kitschy, have alleged that the company profited from selling their designs without consent.
In 2021, Michelle Tam discussed how she found her designs on SHEIN’s website via her YouTube channel.
She explained that her followers on Instagram noticed her design was found in a bulk sale sticker pack in SHEIN’s store. Bulk sale sticker packs are large quantities of stickers, sometimes up to 1,000 pieces.
The video displayed a screenshot of a 50-piece pack for $2.50 USD, with Tam’s plastic bag illustration clearly visible in the advertising. This undermines Tam’s business, seeing how she sells a sticker for 3 USD on her Etsy page.
Kit GutterBratz, the artist behind the jewellery brand That’s So Kitschy, also accused SHEIN of stealing her design. She took to X (formerly Twitter), tweeting a series of side by side comparisons of her design, documented on her Instagram page, and a listing on SHEIN.
Both showed a pair of large, pink heart-shaped earrings with ‘Angel’ in cursive writing across them. She pointed out the similarities in font, colour, and shape, and criticised the poor-quality cutting and the use of potentially allergenic materials in SHEIN’s version.
Accusations have not been limited to online stores. URBN, an American-based conglomerate of well-known brands Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, nuuly and Free People has also been cited for intellectual property theft. They have over 700 stores worldwide.
4KINSHIP (previously Orenda Tribe) is a small fashion brand building a skatepark for Indigenous youth in Navajo Nation. They recently launched accusations on their Instagram page against Anthropologie, one of URBN’s brands for copying designs of their Parachute Skirt, and previously their Rainbow Blouse.
URBN was also accused of copying designs by tonlé, a Cambodia-based company focusing on upcycling waste material into wearable fashion which went out of business in June 2022. Last year, founder Rachel Faller recounted her experiences with URBN on Remake, a website campaign advocating for ethical fashion.
According to Faller, she met representatives at a trade show in Las Vegas, Nevada. Following the meeting, she exchanged emails with a buyer who asked for a sample of one of her vests and its colours. After receiving an email from that buyer that they had gotten the samples and were considering them, they did not send any further emails. Months later she found a very similar vest on Free People’s website.
URBN has been sued successfully for intellectual property violations before. In 2017, Unicolors, a fabric design company, took Urban Outfitters to court for printing their design on a dress.
After a two-day trial, the verdict was that these two prints were “so overwhelmingly identical that the possibility of independent creation is precluded”. According to Business Insider, SHEIN has over 50 pending intellectual property lawsuits.
Harbingers’ Magazine reached out to SHEIN and URBN for comments, but did not receive responses.