The fashion industry often plays it fast and loose with the idea of “inspiration versus imitation”. Plagiarism and design theft has been a recurring issue for the clothing retail market for decades and with the explosion fast fashion, the problem has only gotten worse. Massive retailers like SHEIN or Boohoo can manufacture a new product in under two weeks; all they need is a design idea. Producing designs that are completely original however isn’t easy or quick, and it certainly isn’t cheap.
The biggest victims of the fashion industry’s plagiarism habit are often small brands that exist purely on sites like Instagram and Etsy. Fast fashion and high-profile luxury brands find it easier to take the designs of small, independent brands and either include in runways that are seen by millions, therefore staking a public claim to the design that the smaller brand will struggle to refute or putting the stolen design into mass production. Small brands that promote sustainability are most at-risk of this kind of intellectual theft, as customers admire their designs but find them unaffordable due to the higher cost of manufacturing the product to meet environmental and ethical standards. Unhindered by concerns of sustainability and the impact on the planet, fast fashion brands can identify the popularity of expensive sustainable garments and reproduce them cheaply for the market to purchase. This undermines the sustainable nature of the original product and erases the positive political statement the small designer is trying to advocate, re-assigning that design’s image to the face of destructive fast fashion.
The main problem for small designers is that they find their voice and their work being erased by the power of big brands. Many small designers deserve more recognition for their work in fashion but because their design was appropriated by brands like ASOS or Primark, they do not receive the praise they are due because people come to associate that design with the bigger company, unaware of its history and the hard work invested into the piece by the original small designer. It sets new players in the industry back years. This kind of appropriation also seems to happen disproportionately to black or POC designers; one of the most well-known plagiarists, influencer Danielle Bernstein WeWoreWhat, often stole from POC designers, as recently as earlier in 2021 when she was accused of stealing designers from black-owned brand We Are Kin. The concerning issue of white brand owners ripping off the design and work of POC artists has a long and complicated history but unfortunately, small brands struggle to fight these offences.
Small brands do not have the funds that luxury brands do to fight plagiarism cases in court. In the US, the fashion laws offer little to no protection against design theft. What is referred to as the “trade dress protection”, US law protects patterns designs, prints, trademarks, copyrighted font, or logos against intellectual theft but the structure and functionality of a design is effectively up for grabs, even if the design is unique and recognisable enough to be associated with one specific brand. Due to the amount of money fast fashion injects in the US economy, it is unlikely the laws will become any stricter in upcoming years, but it leaves small brands vulnerable.
Social media offers both help and hindrance. The social media power of fashion giants can silence smaller brands who fear speaking out against them because of the risk of public backlash or even legal retribution. Simultaneously, social media platforms give small brands a voice to protest, showcasing proof that they are the original designers, and asking for public support against the bigger brands. The concept that everyone loves an underdog is becoming increasingly true when it comes to the public supporting smaller fashion brands in their crusade against huge retailers. Customer values have changed significantly in recent years and the unethical nature of plagiarism can incite tremendous public backlash. While small brands can’t always address the issues in a legal court, they can often drag offending businesses into the court of public opinion. The hashtag #boycottSHEIN has trended countless time as the company’s public image suffers under accusations of plagiarism, poor quality, unethical manufacturing processes, and lacking customer service.
Fashion’s plagiarism habit will likely never go away but small brands can certainly hope and keep campaigning for more effective laws and protections in order to be given a better chance in the industry. With issues of sustainability becoming more and more prevalent, the landscape of fast fashion will start to change over the next few years, hopefully opening up to allow smaller, indie brands a better platform.