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H&M is no stranger to copying designs, so why sue Shein?

By Don-Alvin Adegeest


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Fashion |Opinion

H&M x Mugler Credits: H&M, photographed by Lengua and styled by Haley Wollens

In 2013, one prominent high street retailer, H&M, faced allegations of unashamedly replicating the latest catwalk trends with near literal translations for its collections. The copies included a white cropped Balenciaga bustier with identical slits, a black Celine 'Sable' dress featuring a recognizable deep V-neck woven with mesh fabric, and a Kenzo tiger print sweater boasting an uncanny multi-coloured animal motif. Despite the unmistakable resemblance of these designs to their luxury counterparts, none of the luxury brands or their parent companies, all of which are under Kering and LVMH ownership, pursued legal action against H&M for copying.

Although H&M has not been a stranger to translating or copying key catwalk pieces into its own collections throughout the years, the retailer has now filed a lawsuit against Shein for copying its own designs. This irony has not gone unnoticed on social media, where discussions about this farcical situation abound.

Previously, both Zara and H&M reigned as high street leaders and destinations for affordable catwalk trends. Zara, in particular, excelled at offering the best designer interpretations, from Prada coats to Celine shoes, as luxury brand designs filter into more affordable stores. This phenomenon, while boosting the popularity of both high street and luxury brands, also allows fashionistas to discern the qualitative difference between a high street knock-off and a genuine luxury item.

New players on the high street

While Zara's influence on the high street remains strong, its recent ranges, including its menswear Origins line, have displayed better fabric quality and a more timeless allure, extending the lifespan of their products beyond a few wears. However, like H&M, Zara now faces competition from Shein, an extraordinary Chinese company that swiftly delivers trends to market faster than any previous high street retailer. By significantly shortening the time from design to production and availability online to approximately three weeks, Shein's popular TikToks have captured the attention of Generation Z shoppers, driving sales to an impressive 24 billion dollars in 2022, surpassing both H&M (22.25 billion dollars) and Zara (23 billion euros).

In the high street fashion industry, it is uncommon for brands to sue each other for copying, especially when their own designs often originate from questionable sources. While H&M has been known for pioneering collaborations with brands like Moschino, Karl Lagerfeld, and Versace, these collabs in part shielded it from being the target of litigious claims, unlike rivals Zara or PrettyLittleThing.

Where designer brands often have signature designs, at least under one creative director, most high street labels, with Uniqlo being a notable exception, thrive on trend-led styling that channels inspiration from designer catwalks to their shop floors. This one-way funnel approach rarely leads to lateral or upward claims of copying, making H&M's lawsuit against Shein, considering its own past, a surprising move.