Shein, the global online retailer known for its lightning-fast turnover and affordable fashion, has been hit with a federal lawsuit in the United States. Three independent graphic designers, Krista Perry, Larissa Martinez, and Jay Baron, have come forward, alleging that Shein replicated their work without permission, alongside a litany of racketeering charges. The lawsuit, filed on Tuesday in a federal district court in California, has sparked debate about intellectual property theft and the exploitation of independent artists.

The plaintiffs claim that Shein not only copied their designs without consent but also engaged in racketeering, a term typically associated with organised crime activities. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations (RICO) Act, originally aimed at combating the Mafia in the 1970s, is now being directed at the popular retailer.

One of the plaintiffs, Krista Perry, stated in the complaint that Shein reproduced an exact copy of her design and later reached out with an email offering her a mere US$500 as compensation after she voiced her concerns. Perry expressed her dismay, stating, “This email disgusts me. Shein and Romwe [its sister company] have stolen artwork from both myself and many of my hardworking friends and colleagues.”

Among the allegedly copied designs, Shein stands accused of replicating an embroidered patch bearing the words “Hello I’m Trying My Best,” which belongs to Retrograde Supply Co., a company specialising in stickers and patches. Additionally, the CEO of Los Angeles-based clothing company Miracle Eye, Larissa Martinez, claims that Shein copied her design of overalls featuring orange daisies.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Shein, its parent company Shein Distribution Corp, and affiliated entities Roadget and Zoetop. The company’s rapid growth and dominance in the fast fashion industry, earning an estimated US$91 billion, has come under scrutiny due to these allegations of intellectual property infringement and racketeering.

As news of the lawsuit spreads, Shein’s reputation as the go-to destination for budget-conscious shoppers is facing a significant challenge. Known for its ability to quickly identify micro-trends and provide affordable alternatives, the company releases approximately 6,000 new products on its website and app daily. However, these allegations threaten to undermine Shein’s position in the market and raise questions about the brand’s commitment to supporting independent artists.