How the Fashion Industry Rips Off Independent Designers

As shoppers make 2018 wardrobe goals and begin perusing the post-holiday sales, keep in mind that some of the trendiest pieces are actually copies of other designers' work

While the environmental costs and human rights abuses of fast fashion are well-documented, another impact now cast to the forefront is the industry’s impact on small designers. Big brands, especially those in fast fashion, have been ripping off designs for years.

As founder of The Fashion Law blog Julie Zerbo explained, there are two traditional types of fast-fashion copying. In the first, “Fast fashion retailers tend to copy... big names, big design houses that we all know… they take designs that people know and so they would otherwise be interested in buying but can’t necessarily afford them.”

But beyond the flow of runway looks to chain store merchandise, there's another type of copying.

“The other one, and this is maybe the more unfortunate one, is when they copy independent designers or small designers, purely because they have less resources to spend on legal counsel than the big design houses that have lawyers on staff,” Zerbo said.

Last month saw yet another example in this latter category. Modcloth (now owned by Walmart) was condemned for selling a T-shirt featuring a feminist design without the permission of the artist, Deva Pardue. She took to Twitter to call them out:

The original print looks like this:

Pardue made merchandise from this, selling it through her company For All Womankind. She told Fast Company that she had given $12,000 from the profits to the Center for Reproductive Rights and Emily’s List thus far.  

Pardue was first alerted to the copying via Instagram messages showing her Modcloth T-shirt. According to a representative from Modcloth, the shirt is no longer for sale.

Zerbo commented on the types of laws (including copyright and trademark laws) that can apply to these cases, saying, “a lot of times what’s copied is not legally protectable in the United States.” However, in some cases, including the Modcloth example, Zerbo said it “seems like a straightforward copyright infringement case.”

The situation Pardue found herself in—gaining momentum on social media for her work, only to be alerted of the theft of her design via those platforms and then using them to raise her concern to the company—is indicative of the new interplay between social media and fast fashion. While the inspiration for copies often comes from the elite side of fashion, Zerbo argues that the increasingly strong relationship between social media and small or independent designers has also recently fueled this copying.

“Other social media independent brands, or smaller brands that otherwise would not have been on terribly many people’s radars, really are—and this has kind of fueled a new market—not only for consumers, but it’s served as a new pool, so to speak, for fast fashion retailers to kind of take their ‘inspiration’ from, aka copy,” Zerbo said.

What’s even more egregious in Pardue’s case is that the proceeds from the original design are being donated to non-profits.

Zerbo said that because of the negative press related to this case, “Walmart is probably just losing their mind.”

This isn’t the first time feminist designs have been copied by fast-fashion retailers. In August 2017, Forever21 sold a T-shirt with the slogan “Wild Feminist”—which Wildfang’s CEO called out via Instagram as being a copy of a Wildfang design:

Hey @forever21  you SUCK please stop ripping us off #trademarkinfringement

A post shared by Emma Mcilroy (@irishem333) on

As Emma Mcilroy told Refinery29, “When you rip off that T-shirt, you’re not just ripping off us, you’re also taking money out of the pocket of Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, because 10% of every product that we make goes directly to them."

Following legal threats, Forever21 stopped selling the shirt.

Of these examples in which the proceeds from feminist designs originally benefited a cause, Zerbo said, “When instances like this come about, it’s just this added layer of PR. Granted there tends to always be bad PR when companies are found copying, but in instances like this, it’s even worse when there’s a social element to it.”

Social media was also used by independent designers to call out Zara in 2015 for copying their pin and patch designs in a highly publicized example.

I've been pretty quiet about this, until now. Over the past year, @zara has been copying my artwork (thanks to all that have tipped me off--it's been a lot of you). I had my lawyer contact Zara and they literally said I have no base because I'm an indie artist and they're a major corporation and that not enough people even know about me for it to matter. I plan to further press charges, but even to have a lawyer get this LETTER has cost me $2k so far. 〰 It sucks and it's super disheartening to have to spend basically all of my money, just to defend what is legally mine.  EDIT: Some of you are asking how you can help. Repost and tag them, on Twitter, on Insta, on Facebook. I don't want to have to burden any of you with the financial strain that comes with lawsuits.

A post shared by Tuesday Bassen (@tuesdaybassen) on

Artists launched a website called to show side-by-side examples of the work of independent designers next to Zara and its subsidiaries' copies.

Though social media can be used to draw attention to the copying, and can result in the products being removed for sale, Zerbo argued that is “only part of the battle and not necessarily a win” because of the lack of artists’ ability to receive financial compensation. 

She said, “Even if you do succeed in getting the brand’s attention and they pull the design down from their website, it usually tends to end there. They very rarely, if ever, are willing to send you a check, so to speak, without you filing a lawsuit.”

While social media can be used to draw attention to the copying, Zerbo was cautious of the culture that is created where legal intricacies are confused or overlooked, arguing that “so much of what fashion is is the adoption of existing elements and putting them forward as something new. And I think that that’s really lost in a lot of these conversations about copying, because they do tend to be watered down so much.”

The fashion world has been through many reckonings: economic, environmental and aesthetic. But the battle over the right to designs, images and prints continues into the new year.

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