Forever 21 is, yet again, under fire for reportedly knocking off an indie designer. This time around, the fast-fashion retailer is being accused of copying activewear brand Alala, which launched in 2012; its signature Captain leggings have been around for years, with their distinctive, swooped mesh paneling, long before the sort-of-risque transparent detailing became ubiquitous in the activewear space. Though Alala’s legging designs seem to be safe (for now) from plagiarism, a handful of the New York-based label’s other items have been all too faithfully duplicated by Forever 21.
In early February, Alala’s founder and CEO, Denise Lee, received an email from a customer pointing out the similarities. “I felt very conflicted, especially since some of the designs were blatant copies being sold at incredibly low prices,” Lee told Refinery29 of her initial reactions to the undeniable aesthetic parallels. “On one hand, you could argue our designs are public domain that anyone can access. On the other, we are a small team working hard on designing product that our customers will love and building our brand, so it was very disheartening.” Lee then posted on Instagram Stories about the knockoffs, and “received an incredible response of support,” from followers, she said.
Alala has seen its pieces more or less duplicated by other brands in the past, but the four items (one jacket, one hoodie, and two different sports bras) were "by far the most obvious” riffs on the luxury activewear label’s look, Lee said. (You can see the Forever 21 versions here, here, and here). “It's definitely frustrating, especially when the end product is a direct copy of your work produced with less quality and care, and maybe by workers that are not working in optimal conditions.”
In the past, Forever 21 has taken conspicuous design cues for hoodies — see: this take on a Sporty & Rich piece — and tees — these Life Of Pablo-esque shirts — plus plenty of high-end designer styles. (Zara, too, has produced items that look far too similar to work by various artists, and contemporary labels, like Brother Vellies; if you need a refresher, here’a thorough rundown of all the egregious copycat moments we saw in 2016). And while we haven’t really seen workout clothing get ripped off, Lee isn’t at all surprised: “As with many verticals within apparel and accessories, [activewear] a crowded market, and I'm not surprised that with the speed [of getting styles] to market that fast fashion demands, their design teams might find it easier to copy what's in the market versus innovating themselves,” she said.
As for why we’ve seen so many knockoffs recently, Lee thinks it has to do with an influx of smaller startup-scale fashion labels in the past couple of years, and how they've been able to succeed: “I think big brands are realizing more and more that they're not as in control of the market as they used to be,” she said. “There’s a lot of innovation and creativity coming from smaller brands,” pointing out that it’s easier than ever for indie names to reach customers — certainly by social media and celebrity sightings, if not via ad budgets. “Bigger brands are trying to figure out how to respond to this new challenge, and copying is unfortunately a result of that.”
Alala won’t be pursuing legal action against the retailer: As a small company, Lee and her team decided to “focus our time, energy, and money to doing what we do best — creating products that our customers are going to love” in addition to bringing attention to the striking similarities.
We’ve reached out to Forever 21 for comment, and will update when we hear back.