On May 21, news broke via TikTok that Converse reportedly stole designs from an internship applicant. Cecilia Monge applied for a design internship with the footwear brand back in November 2019 and included a portfolio in her application with a design that bears a striking resemblance to Converse’s new National Parks-themed shoe. In a statement to FN, Converse wrote, “In November 2019, the candidate did apply to a Converse internship for 2020 summer program — a highly competitive program, which receives thousands of applications each year. She was not hired or screened for any roles. The application did not include a request for, nor did Converse solicit design portfolios/samples to be submitted. As a matter of standard legal policy, we do not share unsolicited portfolios of job applicants across the business.”
While the lines are blurry, it seems a bit too much of a coincidence that Cecilia’s design bears such resemblance. When she first saw the new design, she reached out to the brand about the similarities. “I had originally emailed Converse when I realized in hopes of making this a positive situation, they hadn’t emailed back after 2 weeks so that’s when I decided to make a TikTok,” Cecilia tells Her Campus. “They finally responded to me once that video went viral.”
In their email to Cecilia, Converse explained that they had been working on a shoe design inspired by map patterns of Nor’easter storms since November 2018 and that it was reimagined for the 2021 season as “Hybrid World,” a collection that takes inspiration from the National Parks among other things. While I’m sure there’s at least partial legitimacy to their claims, it didn’t make reparations for the situation, but rather explained it away. Cecilia says, “I would like Converse to be honest about what happened and provide me and their customers some transparency.”
It’s important to note that Cecilia’s story isn’t an isolated incident, but part of a much larger issue in the fashion industry of brands stealing designs from small designers.
It’s important to note that Cecilia’s story isn’t an isolated incident, but part of a much larger issue in the fashion industry of brands stealing designs from small designers. Because copyright laws in fashion don’t really exist, it is all too easy for brands to get away with this injustice. Take one look at the knockoff bag industry, which sells almost exact replicas of designer handbags, and it’s clear how difficult it can be for a small brand (or single designer like Cecilia) to prove that their design was stolen.
This is a huge issue for small designers. Under The Copyright Act, designs for useful objects are not protected. This extends to many common fashion items, such as clothing and accessories. However, “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features that can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article” can be protected under copyright laws, so logos and specific design elements should be protected — in theory. In reality, something must be proven to be original in order to be copyrighted, which can be extremely difficult.
Gary Wolf, a fashion business management professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, explains to Her Campus, “You can’t take an item and totally Xerox it. You have to make some changes but it doesn’t have to be something major.” This is how so many companies get away with stolen designs, by changing one or two small elements and insisting that their item isn’t an exact copy.
Under the Copyright Act, so many companies get away with stolen designs by changing one or two small elements and insisting that their item isn’t an exact copy.
In a TED Talk titled “Lessons From Fashion’s Free Culture,” Johanna Blakely, the deputy director of the Norman Lear Center, explains, “In the fashion industry, there’s very little intellectual property protection.They have trademark protection, but no copyright protection and no patent protection to speak of … It means that anybody could copy any garment on any person in this room and sell it as their own design.” While this may seem unfair, she continues, “The reason that the fashion industry doesn’t have any copyright protection is because the courts decided long ago that apparel is too utilitarian to qualify for copyright protection. They didn’t want a handful of designers owning the seminal building blocks of our clothing.” While in theory this idea makes some sense, it also opens the floodgates for countless stolen designs with no way for smaller designers to protect themselves.
We see the impact of this legal loophole all the time. Blogger and designer Danielle Bernstein of blog and big-name brand WeWoreWhat is notorious for copying others’ designs. One incident in particular occured in July 2020, when Bernstein announced she was going to remake a pair of “vintage gym shorts from the 90s” for her upcoming collection. Diet Prada, an Instagram account started by Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler that calls out copycat designs, later called out that the shorts in question were actually from an Australian Etsy shop called Art Garments. Grace Corby, the shop owner, told Diet Prada that she noticed that Bernstein had previously bought two pairs of the shorts in November 2019 after fans started tagging her in the comments of Bernstein’s post. Since then, Bernstein has edited the caption of her post and stated that she “sincerely thought that they were vintage as the shop I got them from primarily sells vintage items.”
Within that same month, Bernstein also was accused of stealing a mask design from a Latina-owned business called Second Wind. According to Diet Prada, Bernstein reached out to the brand for samples on June 29 and again on July 2 to say she was also in the process of creating masks with removable chains on them. However, when her masks launched, fans immediately noticed the uncanny similarities between the two designs. Second Wind owner Karen Perez told Refinery29, “How many times do we see high-end designers get knocked off by fast fashion brands? I was just never aware that it would happen to me so quickly.” Bernstein has since donated her masks to healthcare workers and deleted their pictures from her social media.
This issue is especially harmful for interns and applicants who are just starting out in the industry and don’t necessarily have the means to defend themselves.
Sadly, Perez is not the only one who has fallen victim to this copycat phenomenon. In 2018, Carrie Anne Roberts, the designer behind the clothing brand Mère Soeur, found out that Old Navy had ripped off one of her graphic t-shirt designs and was selling it for half the price. After facing backlash, Old Navy removed the t-shirts from stores but stated that since Roberts didn’t trademark the phrases “Raising the Future” or “The Future,” she has no legal rights to them.
This issue is especially harmful for interns and applicants who are just starting out in the industry and don’t necessarily have the means to defend themselves. In 2017, Parsons student Terrence Zhou had a similar experience to that of Cecilia. After applying and being rejected by an internship at Viktor & Rolf, Zhou was surprised when he saw the brand’s “haute couture action dolls” that looked eerily similar to those on his portfolio that he had submitted with the application. While a spokeswoman for the brand dismissed his claim, saying, “For all seasons, all the Viktor & Rolf development and designs are entirely done by the Viktor & Rolf [designers] and the Maison,” Zhou consulted with his former professors at Central Saint Martins about the issue, who essentially told him that that’s the way the fashion industry is. Zhou decided to err on the side of caution out of concerns for damaging his future career but he told Insider, “I just think wherever their inspiration comes from they should give the credit. I want to protect our rights. I think it’s time for a change.”
So many creators share this same struggle of bigger brands passing off their designs as their own. Cecilia tells me, “This undeniably happens all the time. After my video started getting traction, many designers came forward to me and explained that this same thing had happened to them with other companies. It’s unfortunate because this happens so often but small designers are scared of speaking up because of the ridiculous power imbalance there is between them and large companies.”
“After my video started getting traction, many designers came forward to me and explained that this same thing had happened to them with other companies,” Cecilia says.
It really does come down to a power struggle. Larger companies have the resources to sweep a stolen design under the rug without repercussions, while smaller brands depend on each and every sale. With that much power, you would think these larger corporations could come up with their own original ideas.
So where does this leave small designers? Honestly, there’s no black and white answer to that question. If you notice a big brand copying a small business, say something. While there’s a lot of gray area here and it can be difficult or nearly impossible to come up with actionable steps for individuals to combat this issue, the most important thing you can do is bring public awareness to big brands taking advantage of small designers. Social media is a powerful tool — without Cecilia’s TikTok, her own struggle may not have been given the attention it deserves. When you see a copycat design from a big brand, blow up their comment section, amplify the voice of the original designer, and boycott any stolen products. Follow accounts like Diet Prada to stay up-to-date on these conversations. Hold brands accountable for their actions and hopefully we can get one step closer to a fairer and better fashion industry. We have some work to do.
Gary Wolf, Fashion Business Management Professor, Fashion Institute of Technology