Popular Chinese ecommerce platform Shein, whose big data-driven designs have propelled it to the top of app download charts, is facing complaints from apparel brands that claim it has infringed their intellectual property.
Since being founded in 2008, according to its website, Shein has cemented itself as a global Gen Z staple, selling cheap, on-trend clothing online.
In May of this year, according to data from AppAnnie, the company reached the top of the app download charts for shopping on both Apple and Google’s stores, while it was valued at $15bn in its most recent known funding round in August 2020, according to data from PitchBook.
But a number of brands, big and small, say Shein’s success has been helped by “deliberate and calculated” trademark infringement.
AirWair International, the makers of the iconic Dr Martens boot, is suing Shein over what it described in court filings as a “clear intent to sell counterfeits”, pointing to a “Martin boot” listed on the site, as well as more than 20 other styles, sold at a fraction of the cost of a genuine Dr Martens shoe.
In a complaint filed in California, AirWair accused Shein, and a sister site, Romwe, of “not only creating direct copies” of its distinctive designs, but also using “photographs of genuine Dr Martens footwear to entice customers to its website to buy fake copy footwear”.
In a follow-up filing, Shein issued a blanket denial of the claims. A hearing is scheduled for later this year.
On social media, meanwhile, several western artists and designers have pointed to what they allege is a pattern of intellectual property theft involving smaller brands.
Kikay, an LA-based direct-to-consumer earring brand, said it was alerted to its designs being sold on Shein by one of its customers earlier this month.
“They’re infamous for what they do,” said Quinn Jones, Kikay’s co-founder, who posted on Instagram a message showing the product on Shein alongside one of its original designs. The post garnered more than 1,000 comments, some of which were from other small fashion retailers experiencing similar issues, Jones said.
Like many online retailers, Shein experienced a surge in popularity during the pandemic, leading to speculation it could soon seek to go public.
A widely shared analysis of Shein’s business model, co-written by China tech trends expert Matthew Brennan, noted that SimilarWeb ranks Shein as the most-visited fashion site in the world.
Earlier this year, it was among the companies said to be vying to buy British brand Topshop.
Shein’s popularity stems from its use of data analytics to quickly turn emerging fashion trends into extremely cheap products, sometimes in just a matter of days — a feat that has drawn concern over labour standards, though the company insists it keeps a close watch on its suppliers.
The goods are manufactured by a large network of China-based vendors but sold only to the rest of the world, where it offers shipping to more than 200 countries.
The AirWair lawsuit follows a similar case from 2018, when Shein was sued by Levi Strauss over allegations it had copied the jeans company’s “Arcuate”, the stitching pattern usually seen on the back pockets of its trademarked Levi’s jeans. The case ended with an undisclosed settlement.
“It happens again and again,” Jones said. “It’s on Shein to do the due diligence, because until they stop running their business this way, they’re just continually hurting small businesses, people trying to support themselves.”
Jones said Shein eventually sent him a direct message, promising to remove the product, apologising for the “inconvenience”, and pledging to no longer work with the supplier that produced the copied item.
In a statement, Shein said it had “deep respect” for artists and designers.
“We take every complaint on intellectual property right infringements seriously, conduct in-depth investigations on such complaints, and take swift actions on suppliers who violate our intellectual property policies.
“We also continue to invest in and improve our product review process to spot and prevent infringements.”
But such disputes have become synonymous with fast fashion, said Web Smith, industry analyst and author of 2PM, a leading ecommerce business newsletter.
“Given their growth, [Shein] is probably factoring in that they’re going to likely run into these issues,” he said.
“As long as they have the audience that they do, they’re going to determine that it’s worth their time and energy to move products as quickly as possible — even if some of those products violate intellectual property norms.”