Three independent artists are now suing ultra-cheap online retailer Shein, alleging that the company has been deploying an algorithm to identify trending art—including the artists’ own designs—and recreating it in sweatshops, all under the leadership of a mysterious tech tycoon.
Artists Krista Perry, Larissa Martinez, and Jay Baron filed the lawsuit against Shein in California federal court yesterday. The artists argue that Shein has sold nearly identical copies of work they have created and sold themselves, using an artificial intelligence that can identify and mimic pieces of art.
“The brand has made billions by creating a secretive algorithm that astonishingly determines nascent fashion trends—and by coupling it with a corporate structure, including production and fulfillment schemes, that are perfectly executed to grease the wheels of the algorithm, including its unsavory and illegal aspects,” the artists argue in the suit. Shein did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The plaintiffs say that this algorithm is the brainchild of Chris Xu, the mysterious billionaire behind Shein, who “made Shein the world’s top clothing company through high technology, not high design,” according to the complaint. The AI behind the company is what makes Shein so able to stay on top of up-to-the-minute trends, enticing buyers with a constantly rotating catalogue of cutting-edge pieces of fast fashion, they say.
“Like TikTok, Shein’s business model depends on collecting a shocking amount of data from its customers—which it then reverse-engineers into fashion trends,” the plaintiffs write in their complaint. “Shein is actually a greater societal threat than TikTok—because it contributes mightily to serious problems beyond data security and privacy, such as environmental damage, sweatshop (or worse) labor conditions, tax avoidance, child safety, as well as the subject of this lawsuit, large-scale and systematic intellectual property theft from U.S. designers large and small.”
The artists recognize in their complaint that they face an uphill battle in holding Shein accountable for alleged copyright infringement and intellectual property theft. According to the lawsuit, they argue that Shein uses a “byzantine shell game of corporate structure” that makesit difficult for plaintiffs to figure out which party to sue. As such, the plaintiffs are citing the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, in order to target all of Shein’s corporate parties and subsidiaries in one fell swoop.
The lawsuit comes after a Shein-sponsored influencer trip made waves on the internet last month for all the wrong reasons. In a bid to create good press ahead of an anticipated IPO, the company invited several influencers on a brand trip to one of Shein’s “innovation centers” in China, which featured clean facilities, happy workers, and state-of-the-art technology that got products from the facility to consumers. Backlash quickly brewed, with viewers calling the influencers’ videos propaganda and pointing out that Shein has a history of shady business practices, specifically in regards to labor abuse.
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