Fast fashion brands and independent designers — why Boohoo ripping MIA off is bigger than us

Last week, I observed social media with disdain as somehow yet another independent creative had to resort to a public forum to call out a far bigger brand for ‘creating’ something that seemed almost identical to a pre-existing creation made by that creative. In that case, it was Leomie Anderson’s clothing business ‘Lapp the Brandtaking on the behemoth that is Pretty Little Thing.

I retweeted the tweet in the hope that something would be done about it. As a designer myself (a title that I took a while to claim), I felt I could relate to the feeling of spending many months investing your time, money and energy into a creation. I knew that I too would be aggrieved if a far bigger brand with a far bigger platform released a lower quality version of the same product at a fraction of the cost with little or no acknowledgement of such a design pre-existing or credit to the designer(s) that may have inspired the bigger brand’s version. As an ‘up and coming’ brand, the value of one’s creations can stem largely from quality and originality, so the very appearance of something so similar but of poor quality can lower the value of the original creations. Fortunately in that case, the SKU was removed by Pretty Little Thing and an apology was issued.

Fast forward a week later, and somehow I too find myself in the same position with my own brand, MIA London. MIA London is a fashion brand centered around tailored formalwear and tailored streetwear that I created in 2016 as a way of collaborating with and empowering African based designers to bring my own designs to life. ‘Made in Africa, Established in London’ is our motto and feeds into our ethos and approach. Now in our third year, we have now started to expand into other areas — I now run and co-design with my business partner Ruth Mukete. We have showcased at Africa Fashion Week London and have been featured in Viper Magazine, Guap Magazine, Metal Magazine and on the BBC and have another major feature on the way shortly. MIA London also has a sister company which is involved in the African music space.

Sample First Draft Digital Template Blazer Sketch
Sketch to Design

This year, we were fortunate enough to have been invited by fashion house Oxford Fashion Studio to showcase with them at New York Fashion Week in September, and have spent much of 2019 working on our collection and doing everything that we can to bring that collection to life. We intend for the collection to have a strong ‘occasion-wear’ angle and to be centred around sustainable luxury — ‘sustainable’ not necessarily by means of working solely with recyclable materials, but rather through the use of high quality materials and creative designs to represent our anti-fast fashion stance and to encourage people to value their clothes again. With this collection, we will be branching out into dresses, sneakers, trenchcoats and other accessories so that we can offer full looks. We have already released a mini mesh-bag range from that collection made from repurposed laundry bags and non-disposable vinyl which we had a launch for at The Ministry Members Club.

One look that we were incredibly proud of and were planning to get onto the NYFW catwalk was a silk two piece; a striped white floral design. We used this design at the bag launch as a way of also first introducing people to the silk two piece concept.

Having explored and dismissed printing here in the UK for this particular piece, our Johannesburg-based connect and tailor, Tshepo ‘Gvllvnt’ Rakale, visited several different suppliers across South Africa in order to source suitable silk to allow us to bring this particular design to life. Those who have ever sourced anything will know how difficult and time-consuming this is. The silk two piece and the general silk co-ord concept was our best kept secret and ultimately has become our best seller. Seeing that Boohoo had put out a ‘design’ so similar using materials of far lower quality and at a 10th of the price (£14 to our £150 for a bespoke piece) several months after the fact was annoying to say the least. Whether we can prove that the design was copied or not, it certainly devalues our creation by association.

It is important to acknowledge that this is not new. Brands like Fashion Nova have been caught in the act on a number of occasions. It is a phenomenon that has swept the industry since its creation, but has been fuelled by the growing popularity of fast fashion. Where before, an innovation or design may have had time to fully infiltrate the industry before others started to imitate it, the ability of fast fashion brands like Boohoo to produce new lines so quickly has allowed them to undercut independent designers far more efficiently than before. Fast fashion itself has been heavily criticised on a number of occasions for the part it is playing in destroying the planet. Only a few days ago, Fashion Nova admitted to certain of its swimwear items containing toxic chemicals that can contribute to birth defects. Relatively less is said about fast fashion’s impact on independent designers, but it is certainly emblematic of the persistent struggles that creatives face when trying to compete with larger corporates. It may be the reason that the number of employed jobs within the UK creative industries is growing at a slightly quickly rate than the number of freelancers within the UK.

Unfortunately, according to The Fashion Law, the legal position with respect to copied or imitated designs isn’t too favourable to independent designers. Both in the UK and US, copyright law generally does not seem to extend to clothing or other items which are considered inherently ‘useful’. Coming from a legal background, this is particular frustrating. However, there do appear to be loopholes for completely original prints — it is for this reason that we are trying to create our own prints and trying to print our own textiles for the remainder of our collection. Taking inspiration from the late Nipsey Hussle — greater ownership, greater protection.

We are extremely passionate about what we do — I personally have sacrificed a lot. They say that your ‘why’ is more important than anything; our reasons for persisting with MIA are bigger than us. A lot has gone and is continuing to go into creating this collection. Hopefully this gets picked up and starts to change things. Hopefully the undercutting stops and this practice of imitation without acknowledgement stops with it. Hopefully fast fashion in its current form dies too, before our planet or our industry does.