Urban Outfitters (Nasdaq: URBN ) is engaging in a little urban warfare with Forever 21 -- it's alleging that Forever 21 has infringed on its copyrights related to some garments that it sells through its Anthropologie concept.
This isn't the first time Forever 21 has been accused of such activities -- by Urban Outfitters or by other retailers. The lengthy list of complainants has included bebe Stores (Nasdaq: BEBE ) , Diane Van Furstenberg, Anna Sui, and Gwen Stefani's Harajuku Lovers brand. Women's Wear Daily reported that, at the very least, 18 similar suits have been filed against Forever 21 since the beginning of this year.
Of course, high-end brands and retailers have plenty of reason to be worried about getting their designs knocked off for cheap. Like Charlotte Russe (Nasdaq: CHIC ) and H&M, Forever 21 provides fast fashion at a bargain price, a trend that's been hot in retail here lately. Even though many will always prefer the actual brand, a lot of female shoppers are crazy about the idea of getting high-fashion looks fast and at a good price. Another problem is that in our high-speed culture, copied designs are apparently hitting fast-fashion racks quicker than the original designer apparel does in some cases. Yikes! It's easy to see there's a problem here, for the high-end designers and retailers, anyway.
In an interesting aside, it's a little ironic that even though Forever 21's repeatedly getting into trouble for allegedly copying other designs, it's also a company that features the Bible verse John 3:16 on the bottom of its shopping bags. A little Googling reveals that designer Anna Sui has a T-shirt out that incorporates a picture of Forever 21's founders on a "Wanted"-style poster, with "Thou Shalt Not Steal" printed at the bottom.
Ah, fashion. There's a fine, fine line between tweaking the going trends and outright copying. No retailers are exempt from this issue, even though it gets a lot less attention than, say, copyright tangles in the media realm. Not even Urban Outfitters itself is exempt from scrutiny -- there's a blog called Urban Counterfeiters that purports to keep consumers aware of "reports from small companies and artists who have been taken advantage of by large corporations" in regard to designs. However, it looks as though that blog has been dead since last March, so somebody's missing a lot of the current fireworks in the Forever 21 arena.
As an Urban Outfitters shareholder, I understand that when the company defends its intellectual property, it's engaging in a logical part of its business. Besides, the idea of exact knock-offs is pretty distasteful to anyone who has any respect for creativity at all. However, that doesn't mean these issues aren't muddy -- after all, fashion has always had an element of imitation (it's a form of flattery, I guess), given companies' needs to tap into every season's trends.
Last but not least, though, while this issue may start to become a big risk for fast-fashion companies, maybe some slower retailers need to take some lessons from their swifter rivals. It appears there's room for operations to be achieved faster and more efficiently, and that may simply require some innovation. Blatant knockoffs may not be fair play, but doing things faster and cheaper is a desired competitive angle.