Fast-fashion retailer Forever 21 has been sued by designers from Anna Sui to Threadless to Gwen Stefani to Anthropologie for copyright infringement. Over the years, more than 50 designers claim that their creations have been "repurposed" — without permission of any kind — by the company. Their latest victim is eco-fashion label Feral Childe, which hand designs all its prints, which tend toward the unique and funky.


Designers Alice Wu and Moriah Carlson didn't even know one of their illustrations (which they typically print on sustainable fabrics like organic cotton or silk) had been appropriated until they spotted a girl walking down an NYC street wearing a dress with fabric that looked like theirs — but the dress wasn't. Later at a party, they saw the frock on another woman, and this time ascertained that it had recently been bought at a Forever 21. They tracked it down online and in stores, and picked up one of the dresses to examine it.


Needless to say, the designers were pretty upset at the copy, and they are suing. Forever 21 is known to settle out of court and has done so in the past, moving on to keep copying others' designs. Feral Childe told Ecosalon: “Without any consideration or respect for the origin of the artwork, Forever 21′s mass reproduction of our textile design without our permission is extremely unethical, and in direct violation of the law. It’s frustrating that this enormous company, with over a billion dollars a year in revenues, would dare to poach the artistic creations of a small company such as ours.”


Feral Childe's original Teepee Print (Photo courtesy of EcoSalon). 


As if it's not bad enough that Forever 21 is a 'bizarre knock-off empire' (as they were called by Jezebel, in a piece that explored some of the company's questionable practices) they produce low-quality clothing (aka, fast fashion, aka, throw-away clothes) that get worn a few times before heading to the landfill. Without putting too fine a point on it, the company is a living, profit-making culmination of everything that's wrong with fashion today: low- or underpaid workers, low-quality products that don't last made from polluting fabrics, and disregard for the creative integrity of other designers. And yet, the store just opened its flagship store on 5th Avenue.


Forever 21's print (Image courtesy of Ecosalon). 
According to the in-depth BusinessWeek article on Forever 21, most of the product the company makes is sewn in other countries, but some of it still happens in L.A., too. When the reporter tracked down one such factory, this is what she found (in the U.S.). "Some of the doors to these factories are open, making it possible to walk around unannounced. In one, on the top floor, with no company name on the door, about 30 people are sewing gray cotton vests for Forever 21 in a small, hot room. Many of them have stuffed scraps of fabric into their noses to block the particles of material floating in the air. They're just finishing up a one-week, 10,000-piece order for which the seamstresses earn about 12 cents apiece, according to Guadalupe Hernandez, a longtime garment worker in Los Angeles. If they sew 66 vests an hour, they'll earn minimum wage." The story in its entirety is a fascinating look inside the weird world of this now mega-chain. 


Eco-fashion designer for label Bright Young Things, Eliza Starbuck, sports the "Stop Fashion Pirates" T-shirt. (Image courtesy Ecosalon)

A bill, called the Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevent Act, is working its way through Congress and would expand copyright laws to protect fashion designers. If you want to support independent designers, check out this page, which has links to petitions as well as the option to buy the protest T-shirt by Feral Childe pictured above that says "Stop the Fashion Pirates."

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

Forever 21 sued for ripping off indie and eco-designers
'Stop the Fashion Pirates' campaign takes aim at the retailer with petitions, social media campaigns