When customers of Los Angeles-based women’s apparel and accessories brand Valfré started alerting the company in recent months that its designs bore a striking resemblance to those from clothing chains Forever 21 and Rue 21, few employees were surprised. “Fast-fashion companies have become known for this sort of thing,” Valfré spokeswoman Alexandria Welch said.

“In the case of Forever 21, they weren’t so inspired by our design that they decided to create their own version of a rainbow phone case. They completely replicated our design and just removed the Valfré logo,” she alleged.


Fast-fashion companies are increasingly being served lawsuits for copying the designs of small designers, as social media makes it easier to spot and alert the original artist of copies, experts say. In April, Forever 21 was also accused of copying New York indie designer Sorelle’s jewelry, and Puma sued the company for allegedly copying Rihanna’s shoe designs. (Forever 21 did not respond to requests for comment on any of the cases in this story.)

Welch said they were first alerted by their own followers on Instagram and FacebookFB, -0.13%   of the infringement. On Friday, the company served “cease and desist” demands on Forever 21 for allegedly copying the rainbow design of one of its phone cases. “If they are not reasonable in negotiating a settlement, Valfré will file a copyright infringement action in federal court,” the company’s lawyers said in a statement.

Courtesy Valfré
Valfré alleges Forever 21 copied these designs.

Valfré also served a complaint to Rue 21, a separate company — despite the similar names, Rue 21 and Forever 21 are not related — in early April for allegedly copying their Lipstick Case, Shell Phone Case, and Boys Tears Case and using the designs as ear buds. (Rue 21 told MarketWatch it does not comment on active litigation.)

The alleged infringement on Valfré is particularly upsetting to loyal customers because of the company’s background, Welch said. Started by feminist designer Ilse Valfré, who is from Mexico, the brand “works to empower females” and was launched in 2013. She leveraged a large following she had amassed on Tumblr into starting her own company.

Courtesy Valfré
Rue 21 alleges Valfré also copied these designs.

Ensuring products are made ethically from start to finish is becoming increasingly difficult in our globalized market, said Eric Levy, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School. “Strong legal regulation is important for these kinds of things, because it’s impossible for consumers to search the history and know everything about every brand,” he said. “Status-seeking consumers want the style, but don’t want to spend the money, and they don’t care how they get it,” Levy said.

A lot of consumers just don’t care if their clothes are inspired by other independent designers. In fact, one in two consumers admitted to buying look-a-likes, according to a survey by brand consultancy Intangible Business. Those who bought these items agreed with the statement that “copies let me buy designer-style goods at affordable prices.”

Taking inspiration from brands that are too small to fight back can be bad for a company’s PR, experts say. Often these companies rely on the inability or unwillingness of the small designers they allegedly copy to retaliate, Welch, the Valfré spokeswoman said. “If consumers have concerns about these types of issues then they should pay attention to the companies that are constantly violating artists’ copyrights and trademarks and shop elsewhere,” she added.


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