Victoria's Secret accused of stealthy copying of designs

Imitation might be said to be the highest form of flattery but that will be small comfort to creatives who believe that their designs have been ripped off.

In part thanks to the Instagram account Diet Prada, self-appointed watchdog of the fashion industry whose 2 million followers include Naomi Campbell, Paris Hilton and the model Alek Wek, allegations of copying in fashion seem to be increasingly coming to the fore. The latest is a post in which the lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret is accused of selling designs with “distinct signature elements from black-owned lingerie brand” Edge O’ Beyond.

“The pieces are so similar,” says Naomi De Haan, founder of the London-based Edge O’ Beyond. She notes that “two orders direct from our website stood out to us as very suspicious. One was from someone who works in the creative team at Victoria’s Secret in the US.”

The Diet Prada post also highlights that Destiney Bleu, founder and designer of LA-based d.bleu.dazzled, a brand worn by Beyoncé in Black is King, has said she also found orders for her lingerie by a customer with the same name as Victoria’s Secret VP of design and a billing address that matched the company’s headquarters.

“I think it is terrible that huge corporations like Victoria’s Secret are stealing from small independent businesses like mine,” says De Haan, “especially during the era of BLM, preying on an independent black business when they have a huge team of designers to hand; they have acted so unethically and immorally.” Victoria’s Secret had not responded to the Guardian’s request for comment at the time of writing.

The accusations come as another big name in the fashion industry, the Louis Vuitton menswear designer Virgil Abloh, has been accused on Instagram by the Dutch designer Walter Van Beirendonck of cribbing his designs.

In a statement provided by his personal publicist, Abloh called the claims “completely false” and “a hate-filled attempt to discredit my work”, saying the inspiration came from designs from previous Louis Vuitton collections. Abloh’s mentor, Kanye West, came to his defence in a way that the New York Times has pointed out as suggesting that the Dutch designer “is using plagiarism claims as a way of gatekeeping the fashion industry”. When Abloh took up his position at the French heritage house, he became the first designer of colour to hold such a high-profile position in the industry.

Many designers have faced accusations of plagiarism in recent years, including Zara, Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters. This week Diet Prada also called out the fast fashion brand Shein, alleging that it had copied a design by French sustainable mother-and-daughter brand Maison Cléo. Shein did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.

According to Julie Zerbo, the founder and editor-in-chief of The Fashion Law, these recent allegations involving Victoria’s Secret and Virgil Abloh would, in the US, fall under copyright infringement, which can be hard to prove. “The intricacies and complexities of protection and showing infringement can be quite significant,” she says. “There’s a bit of a disconnect between looking at something as a lay person, or on its face, and then considering what the legal aspects are … It’s frustrating. But unfortunately it’s the reality of it.”

The relatively few cases that result in lawsuits in contrast to the number of times companies have been called out, is, she thinks, testament to how difficult and expensive it is to go up against these big companies. Even if a brand has an “open-and-shut winning case”, “it’s really difficult to initiate litigation,” says Zerbo. Plus, “A lot of times these big companies don’t just have big budgets for litigation. A lot have in-house lawyers.”

That said, cases have been brought. While few make it all the way through trial, she points to relatively small bikini brand Kiini which in 2017 settled a case of copyright infringement, trade dress infringement, and unfair competition with Victoria’s Secret.

The nature of the fashion industry can muddy the waters. In the case of Abloh, he makes no secret of riffing on designs that are not his own. In a 2019 interview with The New York Times, he admitted to believing that his talent lies in altering existing items by approximately 3%. Van Beirendonck concurs that copying is “part of fashion”, but said in an interview with the Belgian magazine Knack Weekend: “Not like this. Not on that level, with their budgets, their teams, their possibilities. That’s what’s shocking to me.”


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