January 29, 2024
Aspiring lawyers (whether solicitors or barristers) interested in practice areas such as intellectual property and fashion law are likely to follow this story with interest.

Why Is UNIQLO Suing Shein?

Over the past few weeks, UNIQLO’s cross-body/shoulder bag has been impossible to ignore. The product has been especially prevalent across Instagram Reels and TikTok, where millions have been admiring its large capacity (being dubbed the ‘Mary Poppins’ bag by some), stylish appearance, range of colours, and relatively affordable price tag (£14.99 in the UK). As a consequence, the bag has reportedly become UNIQLO’s best-selling bag of all time.

However, the price is not quite low enough for some social-media savvy consumers, who have instead turned to sourcing ‘dupes’ online. This appears to have become almost a rite of passage for young fashion consumers influenced by social media – hear about a product first through known retailers like UNIQLO, then begin scouring e-commerce sites like Shein or Alibaba to find visually similar products.

These sites, often based in developing manufacturing countries like China, deliberately track social media trending products and produce deliberately similar versions, which are (and this is the important part) sold at a fraction of the price.

This is possible for a variety of reasons – quality is sometimes poorer, delivery is often much slower, you’re usually buying direct from factories (thus cutting out a few middlemen), and there is no name brand on the product (so no outgoings for the producer on marketing, physical stores in the UK, etc). Many young consumers are increasingly happy to pursue this route.

What Is UNIQLO’s Issue?

While competition is always a natural and healthy part of business, UNIQLO are suggesting that Shein has infringed upon its intellectual property (IP) rights through this ‘dupe’ of one of its most successful products, and is therefore taking a huge cut of the profits which UNIQLO rightfully deserve.

This has culminated in a lawsuit starting in Japan (filed in Tokyo here) in the past few weeks. UNIQLO are looking for two essential remedies – one, an injunction (stopping Shein from continuing to sell these products), and two, damages (monetary compensation) for the profits Shein have made from these specific sales. 

Shein have been participating in these kinds of social media-fuelled production processes for some time – while founded in 2008, the company really took off during the Covid pandemic, where it leveraged the growth of online shopping to expand its customer base amidst growing demand for these social media-driven markets.

In many ways, its business model could be seen as a fashion equivalent to what Aldi and Lidl regularly do in the supermarket space, producing products which are deliberately visually similar to well-known household name brands – but at a fraction of the price (see the infamous Colin the Caterpillar case of 2022 between M&S and Aldi).


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UNIQLO v. Shein: IP Concerns

The potential for IP infringement here is often relatively high, and so companies running such business models need to be very careful. Copyright (a particular subdivision of intellectual property law) often imposes penalties on the idea of ‘riding on the coat tails’ of other businesses – the principle of ‘passing off’ in this space is a very real problem for lawyers at businesses like Aldi or Shein. Design rights are another point of concern (trademark and patents are less likely to apply in these areas).

While IP is not routinely covered as part of undergraduate study in England and Wales (it is considered a more niche area of law), these technical issues come up fairly often in practice and businesses are often very keen to understand these problems.

What Should Law Students Know About This Case?

Many applicants applying to opportunities in order to start their legal career worry about how they can shine throughout the application process – whether that be as a future barrister going for mini pupillages or pupillages, or a future solicitor looking for vacation schemes or training contracts. These are often difficult processes with low acceptance rates following numerous rounds of application forms, critical thinking tests/SJTs, and interviews.

One sure-fire way to demonstrate your potential as a lawyer (especially in the corporate/commercial space) is to come prepared to an interview with up-to-date knowledge of business news which might be relevant to a law firm/chambers (or, even better, the specific law firm or chambers you are applying for).

You will routinely be quizzed on this throughout an interview – some firms, especially at the Magic Circle/elite US end of the spectrum, will host assessment centres lasting an entire day where one whole interview is dedicated solely to testing your commercial awareness.

There are a number of ways to improve your commercial awareness – this could be anything from learning the basic concepts through books like Christopher Stoakes’ ‘All You Need To Know About The City’, or keeping up to date with stories like this one through news sources like the Financial Times, The Economist, or even right here on our blog at The Lawyer Portal!

Think about how you could apply this story in the context of an interview or application form. Naturally, if your target firm or chambers has a particular niche in IP, such as Brandsmiths (a boutique firm in this space), or a larger City firm which is nevertheless still known for being very IP-focused (like Bird & Bird, for instance), this will be a story well worth exploring.

Even if you are applying to a more general-service or corporate firm, however, you will often find that they maintain respectable IP teams (for example the IP team at Allen & Overy – very well respected for patents work) which will be interested to hear how you analyse these kinds of stories.

Key Takeaways

This story highlights a number of points which aspiring lawyers can use to their advantage during application processes for legal opportunities. Think about the intersections between IP, fashion law, the impact of social media on businesses (your potential clients), the complexities of cross-border, international jurisdictional issues where your client may be based in the US but the ‘dupe’ producer is based in China, etc – the list is almost endless.

The most promising candidates will draw links between these issues and apply them to the particular organisation in question to demonstrate the relevancy of these stories and increase their odds of success.

Commercial Awareness Questions

Test your critical analysis skills with these commercial awareness questions to challenge you to look deeper into the topic:

  • What specific intellectual property rights is UNIQLO asserting in its lawsuit against Shein? How might copyright and design rights play a role in this case?
  • Given that the lawsuit was filed in Japan, analyse the potential challenges in cross-border litigation. How might international jurisdictional issues arise, especially when the ‘dupe’ producer Shein is based in a different country, possibly China?
  • : The article briefly mentions the Aldi and Lidl case involving Colin the Caterpillar. Investigate how similar legal challenges in intellectual property have been handled in other industries and discuss the broader implications for companies that adopt similar business models.
  • Given the increasing influence of social media on consumer behavior, what trends can be anticipated in the realm of intellectual property law, especially concerning the protection of brands and designs in the age of fast-paced online trends?


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