The world of fashion can be a battlefield for small brands as they navigate their way through the industry while being taunted by looming fast fashion giants who can pounce on their designs at any given moment. The truth is this happens all the time, and it's not uncommon for independent designers to get compensation or credit for their stolen work.
There is a troupe in the fashion industry who would have you believe that the sometimes prevalent copycat culture is beneficial, and it would be futile to protect independent design. These individuals argue that it would only stunt the growth of the industry and the economy as a whole - The fashion industry in America contributed $350 billion to GDP in 2019. Economists, Raustiala & Sprigman claim that if every item was protected, large companies would constantly file lawsuits as they have the financial ability to do so, whereas independents lack the funds needed to take on a fast fashion giant like ASOS or Zara. And at the end of the day this would leave the fashion industry feeling like a hostile and tense environment, curtailing innovation or inspiration of any kind and eventually forcing small designers out for good.
For most independent designers this environment is already hostile. Their efforts to protect design overlooked by fast fashion giants with formal cease-and-desist letters usually being disregarded entirely. Emma Warren, a victim of the copycat culture commented “Large companies think artists will either cave in and settle for less or give up and do nothing at all”.
Copycats can devalue the work of independents as they replicate the item cheaply through mass production and with cheaper raw materials. This in turn conditions consumers to undervalue the creative process and the cost of labour put into each item. ASOS has been known to do this and uses social media as their main source of inspiration. The brand uploads up to 4,000 new items to its website each week! It’s no wonder they devalue the work of others so easily.
The real controversy lies with social media. Is it good or evil? Hurtful or helpful? When unprotected designs hit platforms like Instagram, Pinterest or Twitter, the fast fashion machine can’t be stopped. They latch onto popular designs that have been blown up on Instagram by consumers on the app and some designs get recreated so much that the original creator can get lost in the mix.
An example of a designer who had their work blatantly copied, and practically stolen was the sustainable underwear brand FruityBooty. AliExpress recreated their Clementine collection, stitch for stitch - the designs were so identical they even used FruityBooty’s owned images to sell on their website but edited them to remove the recognisable brand name on the material. This could hardly be deemed as “inspiration”. This caused an outrage on social media and FruityBooty’s loyal followers shamed AliExpress for their blatant robbery of the design. This gained traction in the media and the small, sustainable designers gained a following on Instagram however, AliExpress has still not been held accountable.
So what's the solution? As consumers the best thing we can do is remain loyal to our beloved independent designers and try to educate others using all available platforms. Furthermore, we can try to remove fast fashion culture from our lives, and treat it like we treat fast food. There are so many reasons to do so: from its detriment to the livelihoods of small brands, it’s promotion of unethical behaviour in the industry as most companies exploit employees in order to keep the cost of proaction to a minimum, and finally, fast fashion culture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and is slowly killing the planet.
I urge you to always seek out sustainable and ethical brands for your fashion purchases, and to consider slowing down your consumption by asking yourself “do I really need that £5 set of underwear, or that £8 pair of jeans?”. As consumers we have the power to be the change we want to see in the world, so make that change today and stand up for the brands you love.