Shein, a vast fast fashion company, accused of design theft

Fast fashion describes clothing designs that move from catwalks to clothing stores with a speed to take advantage of pop trends. Not only does fast fashion add to environmental degradation, as discarded yarns become litter cluttering the Earth, but custom also provides a great opportunity for design theft. Shein, based in Nanjing, China, could be the index case for this rapid practice.

Founded in 2008, Shein is now the world’s largest online fashion company by sales of own-brand products, according to market analyst Euromonitor. This incredible success of what was once a small wholesale clothing company unfortunately includes numerous allegations of design fraud. As the online fast-fashion giant encroaches on long-time territory of more established big-box store rivals like Zara and H&M, designers from Levi Strauss and Stüssy to Canadian and British solo artists are accusing Shein of copyright infringement. brand. The online fashion house vehemently denies the charges but is now facing several million lawsuits as well as a declining reputation in the international market. Whether or not that slows down the juggernaut remains to be seen.


For all of his current issues, Shein’s past represents a stellar milestone achievement in the digital age. After starting out selling wedding dresses, founder Chris Xu branched out into womenswear in 2012, changing the company name from ZZKKO to Shein at the same time. The company began its rise to the rare retail firmament after acquiring Chinese e-commerce retailer Romwe in 2014. This allowed Xu to expand Shein’s supply chain reach and entering international markets for the first time. Xu’s ambition was on full display when the company hired 800 new designers to begin manufacturing Shein-branded textiles. Today, the clothing company sells in over 220 countries and is a staple of Gen Z style.

Shein is squarely targeting teenage social influencers on Instagram and TikTok, offering hundreds of new high fashion items at low prices to teen shoppers. The fashion company is able to keep things fresh by adding hundreds of new models to its app every week. This earned the e-tailer second place as the favorite online shopping site for teens in Piper Sandler’s October “Taking Stock With Teens” survey. With clothing stores closing over the past two pandemic years, online fashion has exploded. Shein’s earnings are estimated to have increased by 250%. Last February, Forbes estimated its revenue at “more than $10 billion a year,” a jump of 250% net growth. This lightning-fast expansion, however, seems to have been aided by simply stealing looks.

Although the company refuses to acknowledge this possibility, the eye test certainly suggests something fishy. Check out the Dr. Marten Jadon platform boots side by side against Shein’s lace-up platform sole combat boot and try to argue that the latter wasn’t influenced by the former.

Left, Dr. Marten platform boots.  On the left, Shein's version.
Left, Dr. Marten platform boots. On the right is Shein’s version of an eerily similar shoe. Dr. Martens/Pinterest

In addition to suits from American and British fashion retailers, Shein faces public pressure from media coverage featuring several sole proprietors whose work has obviously been copied, manufactured, and sold as Shein’s own creation.

The question now is how well Shein can bow to public pressure. The brand has made some efforts lately to address this negative press surrounding trademark disputes. This includes honoring intellectual copyright claims by quietly removing and investigating design claims emailed by protesting users. However, this action does not include the reimbursement of the original artists.

Shein means “addiction” in Mandarin Chinese (according to Euromonitor), and the online app continues to proliferate among young Westerners as an easily accessible and consumable brand. Despite its claims to the contrary, the company shows no signs that it might deviate from creating impulse buys, however gray it may be ethically. There is, after all, a lot of money to be made.

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