Small designers are falling victim to fast-fashion copycats

“You’re not a good designer if your main source of inspiration is the Instagram discover page … you’re not a good company if you continuously rip off small designers.”

A busy shopping centre in Melbourne. Photo: Nikki La Ruffa

These were the words penned by Swedish print designer Katherine Plumb, who took to Instagram in March to call out Chinese fast fashion retailer Shein for allegedly stealing her signature floral print.

It’s the battlecry of independent — and more often than not, largely sustainable —designers with brash, copycat admirers and very little resources to pursue any legal action. Instead they rely on a band of loyal followers to send through images of these poorly copied designs, which is then shared on their social media alongside an overarching message to boycott the unethical companies in question.

This phenomenon certainly isn’t new, as Instagram account and fashion watchdog Diet Prada has been proving for years, even before the term “cancel culture” slid into our lexicon. The account, which first surfaced in 2014, similarly calls out brands for replicating the work of small creators, posting side-by-side comparisons of the original and copied designs for its 2.7 million followers to dissect. The amount of designers who have been copied, it seems, is too vast to publish.

Designer and founder of Rosa Rosa The Label Christina Hewawissa. Photo: Rosa Rosa The Label.

Christina Hewawissa, designer and founder of Rosa Rosa The Label — a quirky vegan clothing brand based in Melbourne — is doubtful that much will change within an industry riddled with cheap, knock-off designs.

“Fast fashion brands and copying, that’s always going to be there,” she says. “It’s a battle that I don’t have the energy to fight. It’s never going to stop … and that’s just the way the world is.”

Hewawissa may have given up hope, but there are some significant ways consumers can avoid falling into traps created by fast-fashion brands and their suspiciously inexpensive merchandise. In a 2019 YouTube video fittingly titled, ‘Buying a Knockoff of My Own Dress: An Educated Roast (Actual Fire Used for Scientific Purposes)’, historian and fashion designer Bernadette Banner purchases a replica of her own 15th century-style dress, which had been copied by a mass production clothing site.

A screenshot from Bernadette Banner’s YouTube video on purchasing a knock-off of her own dress.

As viewers might have already foreseen, the copycat dress arrived in less than favourable quality, and is displayed in mockery next to the original design that took Bernadette more than 250 hours to make by hand.

Still, while much of the spotlight is shone on fast fashion giants replicating pieces from sustainable labels, or large-scale fashion houses stealing designs from smaller creators, very little is said about the copycat mentality that some student designers have sadly taken on board.

Dinara Jurat, a third-year fashion design student at RMIT, was stunned to find her designs copied by a fellow classmate, who borrowed unique elements from Jurat’s work and reimagined them as her own. In a competitive design course, Jurat says that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

“I just tell myself that the original will always be better,” she says. “But also, it hurts, it really does.”

It’s a university experience that designer Aggie Harris – the creative brain behind Adelaide-based label Mifufu – knows all too well.

“I had my designs ripped off by another designer who graduated a few years after me. I was really taken back by it, and I was surprised that the lecturers didn’t say anything because it was so obvious,” she says.

On closer inspection, it seems that the deeper problem lies not only within the nature of a competitive clothing market, but the nature of fast fashion as a whole.

In recent years, the fast fashion industry has come under fire for its unethical labour practices, and its hefty contribution to environmental pollution and waste. According to Clean Up Australia, 6000 kilograms of textiles are dumped in landfill every 10 minutes, and that’s just in this country alone.

The Baptist World Aid Australia’s 2019 Ethical Fashion Report — which assessed 130 companies on their demonstrations of labour rights and environmental management — revealed that many Australian brands still had a long way to go until they could be considered truly ethical. While 61 per cent of the companies assessed said they were investing in sustainable fibres, only 5 per cent could prove they were paying a liveable wage to all of their workers.

Retailers such as Ofxord — which details its commitment to social responsibility and sustainability on its website — were graded a solemn ‘D’, a mark that was brought down by the brand’s failure to support and empower its workers. Fast-fashion brands such as Showpo and Wish were mentioned alongside a prominent red-coloured ‘F’, flunked for reasons that consumers would probably expect: a lack of transparency, alleged worker exploitation and environmental damages.

When luxury retailer Camilla And Marc popped up under the ‘F’ list, it sparked another thought entirely: how many designers are hiding under of the guise of being “luxe” while failing to tick all the ethical boxes?

To cancel these brands, and fast fashion in its entirety, is tricky, especially when we factor in the economic circumstances that often hinder the average consumer. Sustainable fashion, by its very design, comes at a cost, and fast fashion is often the affordable, widely accessible alternative.

What is the answer to this fashion conundrum, then?

University of Technology Sydney researcher, lecturer and costume designer Emily Brayshaw believes that the answer is mindful consumption.

“There is a place for lower cost garments, but really we should be doing the best that we can … to try and break this fast fashion cycle,” Dr Brayshaw says. “People should start to rethink their relationship with their clothes, and rethink their relationship with their wardrobes.

“Ultimately, consumers can — and will — drive change, but we need to think more as a movement.”

Rosa Rosa The Label’s designs are made in limited quantities, and manufactured in Melbourne Photo: Supplied by Rosa Rosa The Label.

With more sustainable players entering the industry, and second-hand marketplace apps like Depop rising to internet popularity, it seems that fast fashion may be on its way out, albeit, rather slowly. In an ideal world, the future of fashion is sustainable, ethical and purely original. Until then, the burden falls on designers with the moral high-ground, and talent, to rise above the rest.

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