When you’re a small business trying to make ends meet on the e-commerce streets while designing and making your own products, it can be a slap in the face when larger e-commerce sites blatantly rip off your designs and make a killing by reselling them.
This is exactly what popular jewelry designer Rachel Stewart says is happening to her. Stewart has been selling her handcrafted jewelry online for almost eight years. She decided to go into business for herself after she was laid off from her job. Stewart wanted to take control of her own financial future and not put it into someone else’s hands.
Stewart’s designs can be seen worn by the likes of Kim Coles, Nelly Furtado and Beyoncé’s all-female band the Suga Mamas. When you look at Stewart’s products, you get a sense of pride when it comes to black culture. From her Afro pick-design earrings, appropriately named Soul Glo, to her Nola Darling broach, which pays homage to Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, the products are hand-designed and made by Stewart. But she says because of two larger companies ripping her off and selling products to other boutiques, her livelihood is at stake, her financial future now in the hands of copycats online and those who purchase items from sites like Alibaba and AliExpress.
In an interview with The Root, Stewart discusses how the blatant plagiarism is affecting her business and may force her to close up shop.
The Root: Can you go into a few details about how you found your items on Alibaba and AliExpress?
Rachel Stewart: I was alerted to it by someone else; I know that sites like these are a hotbed for knockoffs of everything you can imagine. They not only copied the exact design but stole the product shots I personally took of the pieces and even the models.
TR: Have you contacted these companies?
RS: Yes, the first time I contacted one particular seller, she said that someone sent her a picture of my earrings and asked her to make them. Of course, they don’t care who it belongs to, so she made it, sold it to the American boutique and also kept it in her own shop overseas. She also apologized and pretended that she was so sorry for everything.
She said if I didn’t take legal action she would remove them from her shop right away and make them for me exclusively. I thought that was funny. I produce my own product—just take down my work. She took them down and one week later changed the name of her shop and put them right back up. It’s not just these companies: Independent boutiques also steal my pictures and work; it’s rampant.
TR: What other actions do you think can be taken?
RS: There are many things you can do, but what I’m most concerned about is prevention. I can copyright, watermark, send cease and desist letters all day long, it doesn’t stop it. For every shop you successfully take down, there are five more still operating. It’s an almost impossible task. Imagine Michael Jordan or Louis Vuitton trying to stop reproductions; they can’t. There’s a demand and millions to be made.
TR: Has any lawyer ever offered to help you pro bono?
RS: Yes, but I’m at a crossroads: my desire to continue with my work in peace, or deal with this issue, which has become more and more stressful as the years go by.
TR: How are the copycats affecting you?
RS: The first five years were great. I made enough profit to remain a stay-at-home mom, but as my popularity increased, so did the the copycats. It went from once or twice a year to every week I’m getting emails about some Instagram boutique or event vendor selling my jewelry. I’m a seller, but also a consumer, so I understand the desire to get a deal on an item you see online; I do it, too. So when someone sees my work for less than half my price, who do you think is gonna get paid? Whether the buyer knows it’s a knockoff or not, the fact is, I make no money.
TR: What would you like to see happen?
RS: I’d like for buyers to be a bit more aware of who they are buying from, and if you own a boutique, reach out to the original designer before you buy a knockoff. They might wholesale to you, and everybody wins. You think you are supporting a black-owned business, but at what cost?
TR: Do you think you’ll have to eventually close your online store?
RS: I think I will. At the end of the day, I need to make money to support my family, and if that’s not happening, I won’t let my pride stop me from doing what I need to do. I’m still an artist, still a creative, still a maker. That won’t change.
TR: How can people help?
RS: I’m not looking for a bailout. I aired my situation out on Facebook, not to get help but to let folks know that this is what’s happening to many small businesses. It may not be the only problem, but it plays a part in the demise of black-owned businesses. China gets richer and richer off us; if it isn’t our hair care, it’s our accessories. Where do we draw the line? We are the most creative people on this planet, but we look to China and Europe for our fashion.
Before we complain about the high prices of our local black business, remember that nobody complains about the high prices of these French labels. Rappers don’t shout out black-owned designers unless it’s their own line. People can help by holding indy designers up as the must-have items instead of already established fashion houses that really don’t want your business in the first place. There are no black designers who are a household name; something is wrong with that.
As Stewart figures out her next move, hopefully her words of supporting black-owned businesses resonate with those looking for cheap imitations of her products from sites like Alibaba and AliExpress. Also, to those smaller boutiques who are selling the ripoffs, think about what you’re doing. Like Stewart said, the only entities you’re making richer are the overseas companies stealing her work. Reach out to these small-business owners. Speak to them directly if you admire their products so much you want to sell them in your boutique. The middle man overseas doesn’t care about supporting black-owned businesses, but you should.