The recent Amazon series LuLaRich documents the rise and fall of the infamous multilevel marketing company LuLaRoe, which was known for its quirky, colorful printed leggings that “felt like butter” and had a cult-like following. One of the interviews is with a former designer for the company named Iliana Estarellas. Iliana was bartending before she started at LuLaRoe and saw the job as an opportunity to jump start her career as an artist. However, she describes the process of designing prints for LuLaRoe as “making art with a gun against my head.” At its height, she says, the company produced 100 new prints a day.
This high production made it impossible for designers to come up with original ideas, so some of them resorted to googling words like “owl” and copying the resulting images without paying any mind to the original artist who made them. This led, predictably, to a flurry of designer knockoffs and lawsuits. Young designers like Iliana were not paid for fresh ideas; rather, they were paid to churn out designs as fast as possible so more product could be sold. Also predictable was the poor quality that resulted from this lightning-fast production process: customers complained of ripped leggings, moldy leggings, and prints that were cut in unfortunate (and hilarious) ways.
When the behemoths of fast fashion like Zara and Forever 21 changed the traditional fashion calendar from four seasons a year to 52, it was inevitable that they were going to have to cut corners and copy the hottest trends from the runway to keep up the pace. Enter an even bigger force like Shein and those 52 seasons a year become 365 — along with a lot more copying from an ever-growing pool of sources.
Shein produces an average of 10,000 new items a month. In order to keep up with social media microtrends, Shein resorts to copying independent designers. There are many cases of independent designers posting about their designs unceremoniously showing up for sale on Shein for fractions of what they can afford to sell them for.
In one instance, Shein copied a design from Black-owned business Elexiay that sells crochet sweaters handmade in Nigeria. The original design cost upward of $300 due to the hours of labor required to make it, but Shein was able to sell a cheap knockoff for $17. In another, an Etsy slow fashion designer named Tracy Garcia discovered that her silk cami design had been stolen. Her piece is handmade, made out of silk, and naturally dyed. Shein was able to copy her design using polyester and sell it for $10. These are only two of dozens of stories of small designers, often women of color, who discover their designs have been stolen and don’t have much recourse.
What Can Fashion Designers Do When Their Designs Are Stolen?
Here is where many are probably thinking, “Why don’t the designers just sue?” Unfortunately, copyright law does very little to help with the copying of designs for items that are considered “useful,” such as clothing. Designers can threaten with a cease-and-desist letter and hope that leads to the knockoff being pulled from the company’s site. However, companies like Shein and LuLaRoe are hoping that the designers don’t notice or, if they do notice, that they don’t have the resources to pursue legal action.
Often the best thing an independent designer can do is post on social media, just like Elexiay and Tracy Garcia did, to raise awareness on the issue and hope that the post goes viral. The irony in this, however, is that these independent designers are competing with influencers using the same platforms to promote companies like Shein; for every post showing how a design was stolen there is a post of a Shein unboxing video where an influencer brags about their massive haul.
This is not to say that social media cannot be a tool for activism. In 2017, Gucci included a jacket on the runway that looked eerily familiar to a 1990s design by Dapper Dan, a Harlem-based designer known for dressing some of the biggest names in Hip Hop, such as Jay-Z, LL Cool J, and Salt-N-Pepa. Dapper Dan had noticed his customers’ interest in wearing accessories with luxury brand logos on them, so he started creating clothing that incorporated these logos —something the brands themselves had never considered. Dapper Dan was forced to close his store when he was sued by Fendi in 1992 for copyright infringement. This ultimately led to Gucci “reappropriating the appropriation” decades later, according to The New York Times. As a result of the social media outcry over the stolen design, Gucci made amends by partnering with Dapper Dan to reopen his store in Harlem — a rare happy ending in a sea of drowning designers.
What Can I Do?
As long as companies continue to make a profit by pushing production speeds to new heights, there will never be an incentive for them to create their own designs. Good design takes time — the very resource they do not have. By supporting and spreading the word about small designers and opting out of fast fashion, consumers can keep these designers in business as examples of an alternative and slower way of making clothing.