Is SHEIN’s Indie Designer Program an Ethical Alternative to Copying?

SHEIN
(Source: SHEIN)

26-year-old Chris is a marketing specialist at SHEIN, a lucrative fast-fashion company that has recently blown up on TikTok because of its formidable ability to churn out tens of thousands of cheap new products every day. In the morning, Chris would log onto his computer, open up a special internal software and start flagging negative comments about SHEIN that people have posted across social media. These comments would then go to someone on the social media team, who would make the decision to either delete the comments or just leave them there, hoping that they will be forgotten over time. Chris has to repeat the process several times a day, and if he misses a comment or flags it a few hours too late (which happens quite a lot because “people seem to have a lot of hate for the brand”), his boss will not be very pleased.

“A lot of these comments are from designers accusing SHEIN of ripping off their work,” Chris told me, “and I know for a fact that SHEIN does not compensate them properly. Indie designers don’t have a lot of presence on the internet, nor can they afford to sue, so SHEIN simply doesn’t bother to deal with them.”

As the world’s fastest-growing clothing brand, loved and venerated, especially by Gen Zs, for its affordability and creativity, SHEIN has been embroiled in ongoing criticism for stealing ideas from indie designers. One of the most recent scandals involves a Nigerian woman, who tweeted that the company had copied the design of one of her handmade crochet sweaters that was priced at $330. “Spent hours designing and brainstorming this design and it takes days to crochet each sweater. It’s quite disheartening to see my hard work reduced to a machine made copy,” she wrote. SHEIN’s knock-off only cost $17, and was later removed from the website.

While the tweet generated debates around the affordability of indie designer clothes, whether they were priced somewhat arbitrarily, and whether SHEIN was sabotaging or actually democratizing fashion, it is undeniable that copying off existing products is viewed within the company as an acceptable practice, if not a tried-and-true formula for business success. What makes SHEIN impervious to accusations of copying, according to Chris (and this is yet to be proved), is the company’s ability to make and sell clothes really fast (design to production can take as little as three days), and then remove them from the internet as soon as the owners of the originals find out. “The idea is to take advantage of the time difference [between making and selling new products, and being called out for copying], so that the designers can’t even gather enough evidence if they want to sue.”

SHEIN X – An Ethical Alternative to Copying?

SHEIN launched a collaborative program with indie designers called SHEIN X in January this year amidst rising trademark disputes and accusations of copyright infringement. The program is positioned as aiming to help up-and-coming fashion designers showcase their talent and launch their careers, “[allowing] designers to do what they do best – create – while we handle manufacturing, marketing, and selling. Plus, they share in the profits and keep ownership of their creations,” writes SHEIN’s official website.

To prove its dedication, SHEIN even awarded $100,000 to a size-inclusive designer called Flaws of Couture, winner of the SHEIN X 100K Challenge, which called upon designers from all over the world to submit their works under the theme “Be Bold, Be You!” However, critics are far from appeased. Some YouTubers jeer the program as an expensive PR stunt, while on TikTok, the hashtag “#boycottshein” has gathered over 4.1 million views, and the number continues to grow.

While a healthy dose of cynicism can sometimes lead to sound judgement, in SHEIN’s case, however, it is also worth taking into account the perspectives of the indie designers themselves and figuring out whether they have indeed benefited from the program.

Natella Klycheva is a New York-based indie fashion designer with over seven years of experience in the industry. Having worked for a variety of brands and involved in different aspects of the fashion design process, she is now hired as a contract designer via SHEIN X. She landed the gig by submitting a portfolio online, and was told to design a capsule collection of five to eight pieces for one season. SHEIN helped to manufacture and sell her clothes on its website, and retained the rights to her capsule until the end of the contract. Every month, Natella is paid a commission of 10% of the total sales (the items in her capsule cost around $22 each), and if future sales are good, she might get to renew her contract.

Natella in her NYC home office. (Source: Natella Klycheva)

“The SHEIN X team was extremely easy to work with,” Natella told me. “We communicated constantly, and everyone was very professional, friendly and helpful.” She was rarely asked to make revisions, unless it was something technical. When she needed to decide what kind of prints to use for her designs, the product development team would research their library and send her options, helping her with scale and recoloring. Aside from getting help, Natella was mostly working on her own during the design process, from conducting research and creating sketches to designing tech packs. “I did not have any creative constraints, which was great.”

To Natella, SHEIN X was an incredible opportunity for her to gain exposure and showcase her abilities. Her favorite part of the experience was seeing people in other countries post pictures of themselves wearing her English period drama Bridgerton-inspired dresses, and reading all the reviews in languages she did not understand.

Natella’s SHEIN X dresses are being reviewed in different languages. (Source: Natella Klycheva)

Natella was grateful for the program because, like many fashion professionals, she was furloughed during the pandemic. While she has another full-time job now, taking an extra job at SHEIN gave her a sense of security. This sentiment was echoed by Sheridan O’Hea, a young designer who graduated from fashion school in 2020. “It was very hard to find work in the industry due to COVID. I was able to work remotely for SHEIN X as a designer, and it makes me feel accomplished being able to have a line come out with them as someone who just graduated.”

When asked if she was worried that SHEIN might set the price too low (her capsule has not been launched yet), Sheridan said that as much as she enjoyed producing original garments, she could not handle all the costs associated with it, and that it would be difficult to find a large audience willing to pay for a handmade piece. “Manufacturing through SHEIN will be more affordable and more people can buy and wear my product.”

SEE ALSO: China’s Fashion Unicorn Shein Accused of Copyright Infringement

It is uplifting to see indie designers gain exposure via SHEIN X while retaining their creative agency. However, it remains to be seen how much they can benefit financially from the program, and whether this mode of collaboration is sustainable or truly democratic. Nevertheless, SHEIN X is a good starting point for large brands to learn to coexist with indie designers, making them a part of their creative ecosystem without being exploitative. “I have to say, SHEIN is getting more careful with copyrights stuff now,” Chris told me. “Word on the street is that it’s planning to go public, so I guess it kinda has to.”

*Note that some names in the article have been altered to protect the privacy of the interview subjects.