Vanessa Bowman paints the world around her: the 19th century village church, her back garden, the leaves of the trees in the fields where she walks her dog.
Once she has chosen a scene from her rural Dorset idyll, she puts the brush to the canvas, sometimes poring over the details for days in her studio.
For three decades she has perfected a unique style and gained a loyal fanbase, with 20,000 Instagram followers and commissions from Home & GardenPrince Charles’ Highgrove Shop and Farrow & Ball.
But when she received an email from a fan in Canada, asking if she was collaborating with online fashion company Shein, she was left baffled.
The £17 jumper in the image attached to the email had a photo printed on it that was unmistakably hers. But Bowman had not partnered with the multibillion-dollar Chinese clothing giant. Instead, she alleges he stuck her picture on his product without ever making contact.
“They didn’t bother trying to change anything,” she said. “The things I paint are my garden and my little village: it’s my life. And they just took my world to China and banged it on an acrylic sweater.
While copyright infringement is far from new, Bowman’s experience is part of a larger trend.
The oil painter, 51, is the latest member of a growing club of artists and designers who claim their work was stolen by Shein.
Launched in Nanjing in 2008 and based in Singapore, the world’s largest online fashion company has a murky ethical record, especially when it comes to the environment and workers’ rights.
But despite its reputation, it thrived, gaining near-cult status among teenage fans drawn to its constantly updated product lineup and ultra-low prices.
On TikTok alone, videos showing customers unpacking orders with dozens of items, tagged with the hashtag #SheinHaul, have racked up more than 4.5 billion views.
As its customer base grew, so did the list of alleged copyright infringements.
Dozens of people posted about their creations being stolen online, sometimes using the tagline #ShameOnShein. An illustrator, who claimed to have his skeleton lifted, tweeted: “Shein stole my art and slapped it on a phone case, I don’t know if I should be flattered or angry.”
Another UK-based artist said she spent “hours creating new and fresh designs” and felt “a bit uneasy” when a fan told her that his frog design had been used on stickers sold on Shein. “I really don’t want to be associated with them at all,” she wrote.
Some companies that claim to have had their creations copied filed a lawsuit, including Dr Martens and Levi Strauss. But, for many freelance designers and artists, the time and energy it takes to pursue a complaint is too much to deal with.
Besides posting on social media, Bowman thought his chances of success were so slim that it wasn’t worth spending any more time agonizing over. “I was really angry that someone could just take something that I worked so hard to produce. They obviously don’t care,” she said. want to do is paint in my studio; I don’t want to get involved with lawyers and I might feel really stressed. It was a bit David and Goliath and I was completely overwhelmed.
For those choosing to take over the business, it can often be a losing battle.
Edinburgh-based illustrator and digital artist Elora Pautrat, 26, sent a stern email to Shein after a fan messaged her on Instagram saying one of her ethereal purple cityscapes was being used on a mouse pad. “They didn’t have my permission and never asked me for anything,” she said.
At first, she received no response. But when she posted her complaint on social media, Shein – a rival of Asos, Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing – responded and apologized. After an exchange, Pautrat received a sum of money from the sales of the product and promised that it would never happen again. But since that first incident, in 2020, she says the company has picked up her work about 10 more times and used it on products such as stickers and prints.
Each time, she patiently writes to the copyright infringement team and calls them out on social media. But a few months later, it happens again.
“It’s frustrating because they have the power and the resources to do proper collaborations with artists and still make a lot of money out of it,” said Pautrat, who claims the last alleged breach dates back to January. “But they keep flying for some reason, which just isn’t fair.”
William Miles, intellectual property lawyer and partner at Briffa, an art law firm, said the problem of lifting designs was becoming “increasingly prevalent” in the fast fashion industry.
His company sees two or three breaches a month. “The fundamental problem, I think, is that fashion companies are under pressure to produce large volumes of new and trendy products, so their designers often go for the quick fix,” he said.
“One change that has happened is that these things are often not dealt with by the court: they are dealt with by the court of public opinion,” he added. “The person puts side-by-side photos on social media, everyone gets really mad, and it looks bad for the fast fashion brand. But some seem to have slightly thicker skin than others .
The Artists’ Union, which represents more than 500 members in England, has called for regulatory action to hold repeat offenders accountable.
Zita Holbourne, national president of the organization, said that she “constantly represents artists in these kinds of cases. These are companies that attempt to exploit art for their own gain and profit without regard to the rights of those artists. They need to be exposed, challenged, named and humiliated,” she said.
Shein said he “respects designers and artists, and the intellectual property rights of others”, and takes “all claims of infringement seriously”.
“When legitimate complaints are raised by valid intellectual property rights holders, Shein quickly resolves the situation,” he said.
He added that suppliers were required to certify that their products did not infringe the intellectual property of third parties, with “appropriate measures” being taken in the event of “non-compliance found”.