Multinational clothing retailer Zara is facing backlash after photos comparing the company's products to the work of independent designers circulated online.
More than a dozen designers are claiming the retailer stole their designs, including two Canadian brands.
The controversy began on social media after Los Angeles-based designer Tuesday Bassen shared photos of her pins and patches that appear to be copied by Zara.
CBC reached out to Inditex, Zara's owner, for comment, but the email wasn't immediately returned. However, Inditex told Vogue U.K., "The company immediately opened an investigation into the matter and suspended the relevant items from sale."
The spokesperson also added that "Inditex has the utmost respect for the individual creativity of all artists and designers and takes all claims concerning third party intellectual property rights very seriously."
Stephanie Drabik and Rose Chang are co-owners of Crywolf, a Toronto-based clothing store that specializes in silk-screened shirts and unique accessories.
Drabik alleges Forever 21 was the first company linked to copying a Crywolf design.
"We actually had found it online," Drabik told CBC News. "We had an owl design and we saw they had turned it into a decal, with barely any modifications."
Drabik visited a local Forever 21 to purchase the item so that she had proof, especially given the store's high rate of product turnover.
Forever 21 did not immediately respond to CBC's request for comment.
Social media alerted both Bassen and Crywolf to Zara's apparent copies of their work. While fans were asking Bassen if she was collaborating with the company, Drabik says she and Chang found out through a tweet from New York-based designer Adam J. Kurtz about the copies.
Kurtz put together an image comparing the work of various artists with seemingly identical items on Zara's website. He also set up a page on his website where shoppers can purchase the items by their original designers. One of the items is Crywolf's Happy Cloud lapel pin.
"We were blown away by the support we got," Drabik said. "Other companies, our fans, and even strangers that maybe didn't know of us before."
Olivia Mew is president and creative director of Stay Home Club, a Montreal-based lifestyle brand. Mew says the shop gets messages from customers at least once a week about ripoffs they've spotted online or in their local stores, including Zara.
"When legitimate legal action isn't working, taking to social media is one of very few ways to defend yourself," Mew told CBC News.
Mew says she's spoken to peers who've reached out to the legal departments of companies and managed to get products removed from sale, but with no admission of guilt or compensation.
"My friend and Stay Home Club collaborator Kaye Blegvad had a ring design blatantly ripped off by Topman, and that's exactly what happened," Mew said. "They rejected her claim that it was copied, were totally unapologetic, but begrudgingly pulled it from stores anyway."
Topman also did not respond to CBC's request for comment.
While the community support is there, these Canadian designers say legal services need to be made more accessible to fashion brands.
"There needs to be a stronger, communal, collective lawyer force that can help companies that don't have as much money, don't have as much power," Drabik said. "If there's a way for everyone to combine forces and come together, that could set a precedent."
Branding and fashion lawyer Ashlee Froese says there are services available to those who need it. Froese hosts free mentor sessions every week with startup designers at her office in Toronto, and runs a website called Canada Fashion Law. She educates designers on the fundamentals of intellectual property law, including how to safeguard their products with copyright and trademark protection.
"It may not prevent companies from ripping off designs, but will certainly deter them," Froese told CBC News. "The vast majority of cases settle and you should certainly be dealing with lawyers that will make that happen for you."
Although Mew questions whether a boycott would impact a company of Zara's size, she appreciates the response from customers who value small brands.
"Certainly the traction this story has been getting is a PR nightmare for [Zara], which I'm glad for," Mew said.
"It's encouraging to see that, via our social media following, smaller companies like ourselves and Tuesday can have any effect on the big guys at all."