HomeGeneral NewsDolls Kill, A San Francisco Fashion Startup, Is Charged With Stealing Original...

Dolls Kill, A San Francisco Fashion Startup, Is Charged With Stealing Original Ideas

The week before Halloween in 2015, lingerie designer and upbeat young mother Jamie Hollis checked her Etsy alerts and felt “the most thrilled sensation in the world.” That’s because Shoddy Lynn, the “avant-punk” DJ and Bay Area “it girl” who created Dolls Kill, contacted her.

Hollis, a budding entrepreneur herself, had good cause to look up to Lynn: Since 2011, her company has created a fast fashion empire based on frill and fantasy, producing everything from lace and mesh bodysuits to thigh-high pleather boots for its cult following of “misfits and miss legits.” Since then, the online business, which sells a variety of over-the-top accessories and festival apparel, has opened physical locations in Los Angeles and on Haight Street (the latter of which appears to have permanently closed).

The business, which had previously been a “viral” brand that existed on social media and only offered fox tail keychains, quickly grew in popularity after Lynn mentioned it to her fans while performing as a DJ. As Dolls Kill gained popularity, the company became known for more than just its designs, including controversy over the sale of a “Prehistoric Princess Costume” that fetishized Native American culture, a “Goth is White” T-shirt, and a tone-deaf social media post by Lynn during the summer of 2020’s racial unrest.

Despite these issues, the San Francisco fashion firm has attracted more than three million Instagram followers and more than $60 million in Series B funding. And all of a sudden, Hollis, an Arizona-based seamstress with only an Etsy shop to her name, caught the attention of the startup’s boss.

Dolls Kill, A San Francisco Fashion Startup, Is Charged With Stealing Original Ideas

When Lynn saw Hollis’s “Max” costume from “Where the Wild Things Are” in 2015, the two started talking online. With Halloween quickly approaching, Lynn asked Hollis if she could overnight her a bespoke design. In exchange, Lynn would give Hollis $350 and publicity on her personal social media profile (Hollis shared correspondence with SFGATE substantiating this).

She received the costume after working through the night to get it to Lynn quickly. But shortly after she gave birth to her second kid in the hospital, around a year later, a friend sent her a worried message. It said, “I saw this on Dolls Kill and they totally ripped off your design,” and it included a link to a product that resembled her “Max” costume almost exactly. Later, according to Hollis, they utilized the same basic pattern to create costumes for a forest green lizard and a pastel pink flamingo. She had a start.

When everything got too complicated, she says, she just stepped back since it was more essential to spend time with her baby girl. “People were like, you should sue and seek out to lawyers, and I did,” she recalls. She complained about it on the Dolls Kill website, which pledges to go into every claim of a plagiarized design, but all she got was an automated response. She claims they soon after prohibited her from using social media.

Hollis’ tale is one that many independent designers have heard before. Dolls Kill responded to SFGATE’s inquiry by referencing their review procedure for design theft, but artists have long accused the business of plagiarizing their work. Because of the volume of complaints, Instagram accounts like DollsKillSucks archive images of allegedly stolen designs from the business. Nicole Orchard, a Los Angeles-based artist who was profiled on the page, was shocked to see that Dolls Kill’s house brand, Current Mood, was offering a product that was an exact replica of her DIY T-shirt. “[The material] was exactly as written. Because I cut those letters by hand, it’s even stranger, she explains.

Orchard was a small-timer at the time; she had only a few hundred Instagram followers. She struggled to come up with a way that the business could have spotted her shirt. Then she understood she no longer even had it.

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About two months ago, Orchard decluttered her wardrobe and offered a selection of clothing to Squaresville, a nearby thrift shop in Los Angeles. She learned that the T-shirt was taken off the rack by Dolls Kill’s creative director after it mistakenly got lost in the mix. In order to compete, Orchard had to produce and sell her shirts for less money than Dolls Kill was charging in order to “put food on my table that month.”

Dolls Kill, A San Francisco Fashion Startup, Is Charged With Stealing Original Ideas

Keeley Higgins, Orchard’s friend, commented on Dolls Kill’s Instagram but was blocked. As a buyer, she knew Orchard wouldn’t find out why her clothing was copied until she used her resources. Higgins says small vendors and artists rarely get a narrative or explanation.

She shared discussion snapshots with a Dolls Kill employee. The employee said their design director thought Orchard’s shirt looked old. Orchard says, “Either way, they ripped someone off.” “At the time, I lacked $1,000 for a lawyer. That’s gone. I know a few rip-off victims. We little guys never have enough money, so nothing occurs. Frustrating.”

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Dolls Kill removed the garment after complaints, but neither Orchard nor Hollis were alerted. Dolls Kill must hold themselves accountable, argues Orchard. “They never admitted to stealing my design or anyone else’s publicly or to anyone who contacted them about it.”

Dolls Kill issued the following statement in response to design theft allegations: “With such strong roots in design, Dolls Kill takes claims of design theft extremely seriously and has placed severe internal and external controls in place to ensure that our designs are not duplicated.” Dolls Kill has made great gains in improving these controls as the company has grown. We’ve also given our community a tool to report infringing products. Dolls Kill analyzes every claim and takes action when warranted. Design theft is a threat to everyone in our sector, and we’ll continue to defend up-and-coming designers.

Dolls Kill, A San Francisco Fashion Startup, Is Charged With Stealing Original Ideas

Higgins, a Nasty Gal buyer in 2014, says fast fashion companies often copy “inspired” products. Despite being common, she disapproves. We’d screenshot Celine or Zara outfits or order stuff from other labels to imitate them cheaply, she explains. “Small sellers have experienced the same thing.”

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Now, workers are resisting.

In 2019, more than 50 employees sued the company for an unconfirmed amount above $25,000. Dolls Kill allegedly pressured employees to labor through lunch and rest breaks and didn’t pay overtime or repay business expenses. Plaintiffs claim Dolls Kill and others failed to compensate them “willfully, knowingly, and purposefully” to boost defendants’ profits.

Dolls Kill rejects the claims made in the lawsuit, even though they’ve settled.

Higgins is hopeful about plagiarism. She argues Diet Prada has increased fashion’s transparency and accountability. Orchard also appreciates the internet support.

The episodes hurt these designers. Orchard wishes she could sue for her shirt’s sales. “I’m still touched by that after five years,” she says. Single mom Hollis feels betrayed, too. She claims they would have had more if they collaborated. “They take without realizing it hurts them”

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