If you have ever found yourself on the fashion side of the internet, where I constantly find myself, you have probably heard the phrase ‘bootlegging.’ The term bootlegging is used today as a catch-all for creative appropriation or ‘copycatting.’ Bootlegging does not have an inherently negative connotation; its traditional use was to describe fashion that mimicked other brands but had no intention of trying to pose as the original.
In the current fashion industry, bootlegging refers to companies appropriating the creative designs of other brands and cultures, with the intention of passing them off as their own. Examples of bootlegging can be found in all corners of the fashion industry.
Large brands like Zara and H&M appropriating the designs of luxury and small independent brands. While small brands are also copying other small brands. An infamous example of Zara bootlegging is their rendition of the ACNE shearling jacket, which is now one of their most popular seasonal items.
With the rise of fast fashion and microtrends, it seems as if nothing is original or authentic anymore. Bootlegging, or copying other designers’ work, has created a means for brands to roll out more products with less work. Keeping the profit machine churning, while also creating a myriad ethical repercussions for the fashion industry.
The internet has simultaneously aided and policed bootlegging in fashion.
The internet provides an environment where the sheer volume of clothes saturating the market makes it difficult for every copycat design to be called out. On the other hand, the internet has also made it possible to catch and call out more brands than ever before, due to the fact we are able to view designs all at once and directly compare possible bootlegging.
One of the reasons appropriation is coming to light is because of accounts like Diet Prada on Instagram. These accounts have in my opinion, become the unofficial ‘watchdogs’ of the fashion industry. Previous to Diet Prada, and still to this day, the fashion industry has gatekept their community, thriving on exclusivity. Which has created an industry that stays silent rather than calling each other out; for fear of being ousted or blacklisted. People on the outside of the industry, who had no stake in it did not care about the ethics or standards in fashion.
The rise of clothing sales, e-commerce and accessibility to a previously restrictive community, have brought more eyes and more opinions to how fashion operates. Diet Prada was created by two fashion insiders who decided to expose the industry, and call them out for everything no one else wanted to. Diet Prada provides commentary on copycatting, cultural appropriation, sexual harassment/ assault and everything in-between that goes on in fashion. Accounts like these make it hard for brands to appropriate others’ work without fear of retribution.
Despite rising policing and exposure on copycat behaviour, brands continue to appropriate. However, bootlegging happens at different levels; some forms of bootlegging are more accepted than others.
The most covered and talked about bootlegging is luxury brands appropriating small independent brands designs. For example, Tory Burch was recently accused of appropriating sweaters traditionally worn by Portegese fisherman from small Portugese designers. Not only did a luxury brand appropriate designs, but they also appropriated culture and tradition.
Danielle Berstien of WeWoreWhat has been accused of bootlegging multiple times now, stealing both designs and motifs from even smaller brands than her own. She has denied these allegations and claims that her clothes and patterns are 100% original, coming from her own design team. Each instance has brought on an onslaught of criticism and hate from the online fashion community, and has given her a reputation as a disingenuous influencer. The backlash from bootlegging has hurt her brand, business and even affected some of her partnerships.
I point out these instances that are considered to be ‘cancel’ worthy, because on the flip-side, companies like Zara, H&M, Shein, and Wish are copying luxury and indie brands, yet there seems to be no backlash.
The fashion community frowns upon fast fashions’ ethics as a whole, but rarely are there individual call-outs of how they are copying exact designs from other brands. Scrolling through Diet Prada, you will see hundreds of posts calling out luxury bootlegging, while only a few posts feature the bootlegging of Zara or Shein. Despite the fact fast fashion makes up the majority of bootlegging.These fast fashion brands thrive off of the designs of others, especially Shein, who rip off the exact designs of other brands. Zara and H&M remain slightly more tactful in their bootlegging, altering designs slightly.
This acceptance and complacency allows fast fashion brands to rip-off whoever they choose, leading to ethical and sustainability issues in the fashion industry. These brands are able to pump out trends while spending little time and money on design and creative teams. Allowing them to keep up with trend turn-around, which entices customers to buy from them for cheap prices. More sustainable and ethical brands fall behind in this process as they spend more time on design and sourcing materials, creating higher price tags that look astronomical compared to those of Shein and Wish.
Fast fashion also benefits from access to cheap and fast labour in the global market, often found in The Global South, provided by women and children. If these brands were to source ethical labour that is paid fair wages, they would not be able to keep up with trends or demands as they do. This proves that though it is important to keep the luxury fashion industry accountable by calling out their appropriation, we need to extend this treatment to fast fashion brands. In order to make it harder for them to continue their unethical and unsustainable business practices. I do believe that appropriation, copyright and patent infringement are all unethical and wrong acts, but the unethical sourcing of labour, material and unsustainable practises are far worse, and should be a higher priority for the ‘watchdogs’ of fashion.
Not to get too existential here, but whenever I read about this topic or discuss it with others, I always end up at the argument of creativity and how we, as humans, learn to be creative.
In a world where everything is accessible, we skim through hundreds of images a minute and consume information faster than we ever have before. Is it even possible to be authentic and original? Learning how to be creative or learning a new skill starts with copying something else, in my experience. Learning to draw starts with copying other images, learning to sew is copying the clothes you already have. So where do we draw the line? When does something become only one person’s idea that solely belongs to them?
Fashion is said to be cyclical – every twenty years we repeat ourselves in trends, with large variations but the same inspiration. We do not always give credit to the designers of the past, or those who popularised it to begin with, we continue to copy and reuse. The fashion industry has become a corporate machine that values profit over integrity and originality. It remains an industry fueled by creatives and designers at its core, but has become less and less innovative, relying instead on bootlegging and the nostalgic trends of the past.
My hope for the industry is not that we stop taking inspiration from others, as that is how we learn and evolve; instead of taking ownership of appropriated designs, we give credit where credit is due.
Small brands suffer immensely from bootlegging, I cannot count the number of times I thought a small brand had ripped-off a larger luxury design, only to find out it was the opposite. This is how small designers with little recognition and no money fall through the cracks, unable to stand up to larger and more powerful companies. Therefore, the first step to remedy bootlegging is to give credit or own up to having taken inspiration or exact ideas from other creators. Then we can start the process of stopping this or compensating designers for their lost profit and stolen acclaim.