Fast-fashion giants like Shein, Zara and AliExpress have often been accused of misappropriating designs from small businesses and independent fashion designers. With increasing social media usage, this problem is becoming more prevalent. On the other side, social media has also allowed small fashion brands to publicly call out these large companies for misappropriating their designs.
Interestingly, in the U.S., the fashion industry is regarded as “manufacturing” rather than a creative industry such as film or music. Because clothing has a practical function, most garment designs cannot be protected by IP rights ownership. Elements of the garment, such as the print or a graphic, can be copyrighted; however, most small designers cannot afford to register a copyright for their design. What can and cannot be protected by copyright law in the fashion industry is subjective, leaving many designers vulnerable to having their designs copied.
Most small brands cannot afford to go through any legal action when their designs are used without their consent. Social media has proven to be a powerful tool for brand enforcement, as several designers have taken to Instagram to tell their followers about incidents of misappropriation. These have resulted in mass amounts of support and many posts condemning the company that stole the design. Read more about copying incidents.
Intellectual property rights are a valuable asset for all companies, regardless of size. For fashion designers, their intellectual assets are the biggest driver of competitive advantage. Companies should respect the creative work of others. Maintaining this integrity is essential to your brand’s identity and helps create a business environment where small businesses can thrive.
Examples of Intellectual property assets for fashion companies:
Trademarks: logos, brand name, graphics
Patents: the technology involved in creating a particular fabric
Trade secrets: supplier lists, software tools for garment design
Read more about designs, branding, trademarks, patents and trade secrets in the fashion industry from WIPO.
The issue of integrity and respect also comes into question concerning cultural appropriation. This year, Mexico’s ministry of culture accused international fashion brands Zara, Anthropologie and Patowl of cultural appropriation. The incident was with these companies using patterns from indigenous Mexican groups without any permission or compensation to these groups.
The ministry of culture stated that Zara used a pattern belonging to the indigenous Mixteca community of San Juan. Read their complete statement from the government of Mexico translated to English here.
Zara’s owner, Inditex, responded to the Ministry of Culture, stating that the design was not intentionally borrowed or influenced by the Mixtec people of Mexico. Anthropologie and Patowl did not comment.
Cultural appropriation in the fashion industry has been a long-standing issue. This further emphasizes the importance of respecting other’s creative work and the cultural significance behind it.
Read more about cultural appropriation in the fashion industry from WIPO.
Photo by Charlota Blunarova via Unsplash