Just a few weeks after people rallied behind artist Tuesday Bassen following allegations that Zara copied her original illustrations on numerous occasions, another fast-fashion staple is being called out for ripping off an indie creator. Forever 21 is the latest alleged offender, currently selling a graphic sweatshirt that bears a strong resemblance to those of Emily Oberg's Sporty & Rich, per Fashionista. The garment in question is a white hoodie with embroidery. Forever 21's version features the words "Smart & Pretty," whereas Oberg's original, which she began selling two years ago, is imprinted with her brand's name, "Sporty & Rich." The designer, who works at Complex by day and runs Sporty & Rich on the side, was first made aware of Forever 21's eerily similar sweatshirt on social media.
She reposted the image to Sporty & Rich's Instagram, with the caption: "When Forever 21 copies you," punctuated by a red-heart emoji. Oberg's reaction is much more nuanced than that, though. It doesn't come as a huge surprise that a mass-market giant like Forever 21 would copy indie designers, not just luxury houses, she explains to us. On one hand, the situation is unexpected "because my brand is still in its infancy...[and] because there are hundreds of other designs they could have copied, but for whatever reason they chose mine," Oberg tells Refinery29. However, the rip-off situation doesn't come as a total shock: "[Forever 21 has] a history of doing this and clearly lacks originality, so they have no other option than to rip off the designs of smaller brands out there." To Oberg's point, Forever 21 is quite familiar with controversy surrounding knockoffs: This summer alone, it's stocked T-shirts both with questionable messaging for young boys and with a very familiar Gothic graphic. Back in 2011, a Change.org petition calling for the retailer to pull a copied print from its shelves garnered over 43,000 signatures. The retailer faced similar accusations from a jewelry designer in 2013, Business Insider reported. Then, there are the times Forever 21 has been "inspired" by Céline, Alexander Wang, Mansur Gavriel, and countless other designers in the past.
Yet this isn't even the first time Oberg's sweatshirt was knocked off. As far as her ideal outcome for this whole ordeal, though, she's thinking in terms of the bigger picture. "At first, I didn't really care because my followers and customers know it's wack and they would never support a lamer version of my brand," Oberg tells Refinery29. "But after talking to people, I realized this is a bigger issue, and I should take some sort of legal action against them. Ideally, I'd sue and they'd settle out of court and take down the design. But the fact that publications are shedding light on this issue is good enough for me. They know what they did, and so does everyone else." Recent copycat concerns about Zara may ultimately help artists protect their work in the future, as a silver lining of sorts: Following the call-out, Bassen and fellow artist Adam J. Kurtz started Shop Art Theft, which documents all the known instances in which the Spanish retailer has reportedly lifted designs from smaller brands. The larger implication of all these recent missteps — from Zara, Forever 21, and probably other big-name retailers' gaffes that haven't yet been caught — is that in an age of social media, these huge corporations are more likely to be held accountable for this behavior.
Oberg isn't surprised that this type of "sourcing" keeps happening, though — and she believes that these instances point to bigger problems in the industry. "I think that we're in a time where people are just so out of ideas and don't feel the need to be inventive or creative anymore," she tells us. "Big-box retailers are so lazy with their designs, and it shows." The problem trickles down to customers, too: "I think they also know that the majority of people who buy their things don't care whether or not it's a copy of something that was once original," Oberg says. "A lot of consumers aren't privy to the fact that they are [buying] a lesser version of someone's great idea or design." That's why brand loyalty matters to Oberg. "At the end of the day, my true followers know what's up and they'll support me no matter what," she says. "They're the ones who make the brand special and in-demand in the first place, so as long as I have them, I'm good." We've reached out to Forever 21 for comment, and will update our story when we hear back.