- An Insider investigation has uncovered three new allegations of copying against the Instagram mega influencer Danielle Bernstein.
- Two people who worked with Bernstein said she emulated a fabric print from the billion-dollar Italian fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana.
- Interviews with 26 fashion-industry professionals suggest a pattern of behavior that flouts industry norms against imitation and tests the limits of copyright law.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In 2018, a designer for Onia, a small fashion house specializing in swimwear, learned she would be working on a fashion line for Danielle Bernstein, the Instagram mega influencer behind the brand WeWoreWhat.
The designer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions, told Insider she was “super excited” about the collaboration, hoping the experience would be a boon for her career. Bernstein had just landed on the Forbes “30 Under 30” list for commanding five-figure payouts for sponsored Instagram posts and was a paparazzi darling at the Paris and New York fashion weeks. She often posted pictures of herself clubbing, dating handsome men, and traveling the world.
But the designer’s joy wore off months later during work on a swimsuit for the 2019 WeWoreWhat Italy collection. She said Bernstein brought in a piece of fabric from the billion-dollar Italian fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana — a design featuring blue, red, and yellow flowers that she had modeled on her Instagram page. Bernstein instructed the team to create something similar, the designer said.
Another former Onia employee confirmed that Bernstein had brought in the piece of fabric and added that the “mood board” for the swimsuit — a kind of collage meant to inspire fashion designs — included runway photographs of models wearing Dolce & Gabbana.
The designer told Insider she wanted to make Bernstein happy but didn’t want to imitate an existing design.
“I would try to take little details and interpret them with my own handwriting,” she said. But Bernstein rejected print after print, she added. She recalled Bernstein pointing to the Dolce & Gabbana print and saying: “No, I want this.”
“I remember being super nervous,” the designer said. “We went with a very Dolce & Gabbana print because that’s what Danielle wanted.”
The WeWoreWhat Italy collection, including the swimsuit alleged to be a knockoff, achieved $2 million in sales in the first 12 hours, Business of Fashion reported. Dolce & Gabbana declined to comment.
When Insider contacted Bernstein’s team for comment, a spokesperson shared a statement on behalf of Onia.
“The accusations that are being described by Business Insider, detailing ‘interviews’ that former or current Onia employees allegedly gave, are categorically false,” the statement said in part. “This article, designed to paint Onia and Danielle Bernstein in an abhorrent way, is antithetical to what Onia and WeWoreWhat stand for.”
An Insider investigation uncovered three new allegations of copying.
In the past three years, Bernstein, who at 28 has leveraged her millions of followers into a seven-figure income, has been accused of closely emulating products from at least nine designers. Fashion-industry professionals said she copied designs for her Nordstrom jewelry collection, a dress and skirt sold at Macy’s, and two garments — a mask and a pair of shorts — that were met with public backlash and never brought to market. The Great Eros, a Brooklyn lingerie brand, is suing Bernstein in federal court, alleging that she and Onia copied its line-drawing pattern of women’s silhouettes after Bernstein visited the brand’s showroom and requested samples of its products. The lawsuit alleges Bernstein “has a history of copying others’ designs and passing them off as her own.”
Now an Insider investigation, including interviews with 26 fashion-industry professionals, has uncovered three previously unreported allegations of copying — and suggestions of a pattern of behavior that flouts industry norms against imitation and risks running afoul of copyright law.
One current and several former Onia employees say the mega influencer has obtained samples from brands and designers under the expectation that she will promote their products but then pushes workers to mimic designs under her own name. One former Onia designer signed an affidavit obtained by Insider alleging that she saw a fellow employee copy The Great Eros’ design. Several Onia employees also described Bernstein as a capricious and controlling boss, and some industry professionals said her behavior had left them fearful for their businesses.
Copyright law does not cover all aspects of fashion, and violations can be hard to prove in the industry. US law treats apparel as a functional product segment, much like desks or mugs, Susan Scafidi, the founder of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University, said. As a result, fast-fashion brands such as Forever 21 and Zara, which capitalize on fashion trends by quickly making garments that look similar to others, are rarely taken to court over allegations of copyright violations.
“Copyright law protects specific creative expression and not general things, like the shape of a pencil skirt,” said Julie Zerbo, the editor and founder of The Fashion Law, an industry site. But if that pencil skirt featured a specific pattern, embellishment, or other decorative component “substantially similar” to another designer’s existing pattern, that could result in a legal battle, Zerbo said.
Onia described two new allegations of copying as “complete fabrications,” but did not provide evidence for its claim.
The Dolce & Gabbana print wasn’t the only lookalike in the 2019 Italy collection. The two former Onia employees told Insider Bernstein brought in a cotton top from Are You Am I, a fashion line from the influencer and designer Rumi Neely, and asked the company to emulate it as a swim top. Bernstein had posted photos of herself wearing the white and black versions of the Are You Am I top in 2018, showcasing puffy short sleeves, a bandeau neckline, and a bare midriff. Onia’s swim top was ultimately sold for $120 in stores such as Shopbop and Bloomingdale’s.
“Neither Are You Am I nor Dolce & Gabbana made any allegations of copying,” Onia said in its statement to Insider. The company described both accusations as “complete fabrications seemingly provided by a disgruntled former employee.”
When asked for evidence that the allegations were fabricated, Onia said, “Given the confidential nature of these matters, we do not share internal design materials with third-parties but can confirm that following an internal review of such materials (e.g., the related mood boards), we have not found any information that would support these allegations.” Are You Am I, Shopbop, and Bloomingdale’s did not respond to requests for comment.
Bernstein’s swim line has since expanded into activewear, denim, face masks, and even wallpaper. In 2019, Onia became the official production partner for the WeWoreWhat brand — a deal that’s placed Bernstein’s products in Saks Fifth Avenue, Revolve, Urban Outfitters, and other leading retailers. None of these retailers responded to emails from Insider.
The retail giant Macy’s said it has “no future collaborations planned with Danielle Bernstein.”
At least five independent designers have previously accused Bernstein of copying sample designs that they sent her — including one that became a part of one of Bernstein’s most profitable ventures, her recent partnership with Macy’s.
In 2017, Khala Whitney, the designer behind the fashion brand Grayscale, received a message from Bernstein asking for more details on her corset-shaped patent-leather skirts, she told Insider in November. Bernstein wore the Grayscale skirt to Paris Fashion Week that year and posted photos and videos of her in Whitney’s design.
In 2019, Macy’s and Bernstein signed a high-six-figure contract for a four-season collaboration under the influencer’s name, Bernstein wrote in her 2020 memoir, “This Is Not a Fashion Story.” The pieces, unlike her higher-end Onia collection, are mostly under $100 and feature inclusive sizing.
Then in 2020, Whitney’s followers sent her promotional materials about Bernstein’s upcoming winter Macy’s collection. They previewed a patent-leather skirt that struck Whitney as a dead ringer for her own design. “I was very shocked,” Whitney said. She added that she contacted both Macy’s and Bernstein, but Bernstein never responded.
In the end, the skirt was not sold in stores or online. A spokesperson for Macy’s told Insider, “For limited-time collections, we partner closely with collaborators who lead the end-to-end design process. There are no future collaborations planned with Danielle Bernstein.” After Insider first reported the allegation, Whitney said, Macy’s reached out to her and took an interest in her designs.
The founders of Live The Process, a small activewear brand, told a similar story. In 2020, they said they received a message from Bernstein that praised their designs and requested samples: “Send me all cozies!!” They sent her a set of their knitwear — a long-sleeved collared ribbed knit top with snap buttons and matching shorts. Bernstein wore the set in several Instagram posts.
Months later, Live The Process cofounder Jared Vere received messages from his friends saying that Bernstein’s line with Macy’s was selling a similar shirt. Vere told Insider Bernstein appeared to have imitated not only his company’s shirt but also the brand’s minimalist photography style.
Vere said he was shocked “that you could literally get a gift from someone in good faith, just turn around, turn it to your team of people, and just forget about it.” He said he posted an Instagram story about the incident but did not contact Bernstein or Macy’s.
‘As a small minority-owned business, what could I possibly say?’
While Bernstein likes to describe her upbringing as modest, public records show that she grew up in a million-dollar home on Long Island, New York. She wrote in her memoir that after her parents divorced, she was allowed to make only four shopping trips per year — one per season — which she described as “belt-tightening.” During her teenage years, she wrote, those shopping trips helped prepare her for a job at a local boutique, where she gained a reputation as fashion-savvy.
“I had regulars who would call and ask me to pull selections before they arrived,” Bernstein wrote. “At one point I started to realize … I was pretty freaking great at this.”
Bernstein launched her blog WeWoreWhat in 2010 to document New York City street style while she was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Within a year, she was drawing in thousands of new readers per week, and she soon dropped out of school to make her way as a fashion blogger.
Eventually she transitioned to Instagram, where she became one of the first fashion influencers. In 2017, she told Forbes she made seven figures the year prior from sponsored Instagram posts and clothing collections. Retailers paid Bernstein up to $20,000 for a single post, she added, and some let her create small collections with their teams. After all, Bernstein could help them connect with her hundreds of thousands of followers — young women who seemed willing to buy anything associated with the mega influencer.
The influencer-marketing platform Klear estimated that in the past two years, Bernstein generated $20 million for the brands that partnered with her. Joe Gagliese, the CEO of the digital-marketing firm Viral Nation, said Bernstein was in the “unicorn” class of influencers — the top 5%. Many of her 2.5 million followers are willing to spend money to emulate her lifestyle, and brands expect a partnership with Bernstein to make them richer.
“She brings this level of soul and life to a brand in a way that delivers on them selling millions and millions of products,” Gagliese told Insider. “She’s golden in that sense.”
In a signed affidavit obtained by Insider, a former Onia designer says she saw a colleague copy a print design.
Diet Prada, an Instagram account run by the fashion professionals Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler that functions as one of the industry’s leading watchdogs, seems to have set its sights on Bernstein. In 2020 alone, the account called her out over allegations of copying seven times. The account first went after her in 2018, when it accused Bernstein of copying three indie jewelry brands, as well as Tiffany & Co., in her jewelry partnership with a small design studio called Lulu DK. Nordstrom, which carried Bernstein’s collaboration, dropped the line. Lulu DK, Nordstrom, and Tiffany & Co. did not respond to requests for comment.
That’s essentially what The Great Eros has argued in U.S. District Court in California. After the lingerie company contacted Bernstein and threatened to take legal action, Bernstein preemptively sued first, Insider reported in October. The Great Eros responded with its own lawsuit, alleging a copyright violation. In January, WeWoreWhat and Onia’s legal team asked The Great Eros to end its legal efforts, sign a nondisparagement agreement, and pay for legal fees and the costs of lost business, according to an email shared with Insider. The Great Eros has rejected the offer, its legal team said.
Insider also obtained an affidavit signed by a former Onia designer, which is part of The Great Eros’ litigation efforts. The designer alleges that she saw an Onia print designer creating line drawings of nude women by copying from another pattern, which she believes came from The Great Eros. She did not respond to emails from Insider.
The former Onia employee who spoke to Insider, and who separately alleged that Bernstein imitated Are You Am I and Dolce & Gabbana designs, said independently that she witnessed an Onia designer copying The Great Eros’ design.
Asked about the affidavit, Onia and WeWoreWhat declined to comment on the record and directed Insider to an earlier statement, which denied all the allegations described in this story.
Khala Whitney, the designer who says that Bernstein copied her patent leather skirt, connected her experience to other allegations against Bernstein that she had read about online, and began to suspect a pattern of behavior. “She has the nerve,” Whitney remembered thinking. “I’ve seen you on Diet Prada a million times already. What are you doing?”
Whitney is one of at least two women of color whom Bernstein is accused of copying in 2020. In June, Bernstein asked Karen Perez of the indie fashion brand By Second Wind for a free sample of her linen face masks, which have a distinctive shape around the nose and a loop for a safety chain that Perez considers “proprietary,” Refinery29 reported. (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been spotted wearing one.)
One month later, Bernstein direct-messaged Perez on Instagram to tell her that her Onia brand would be making face masks with a chain, according to a screenshot Diet Prada posted. Bernstein’s struck Perez as nearly identical to her own, down to the fabric, color scheme, and loop design, Perez said.
“When I saw that she posted about the masks being released … I was shocked,” Perez told Refinery29 in July. “But again, as a small minority-owned business, what could I possibly say?”
After the Diet Prada post sparked backlash, Bernstein denied in an Instagram story that her masks were copies but pledged to donate them to healthcare workers.
‘When push comes to shove, she gets what she wants.’
Insider spoke with nine production and design professionals who have worked at Bernstein’s partner company Onia. Five worked directly with Bernstein. All disclosed their identities to Insider but spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions.
Five of the sources said they felt the WeWoreWhat collection did not value design integrity. Several said Bernstein’s tendency to closely imitate contemporary clothes from her own wardrobe — including pieces she had already modeled on Instagram — was highly unusual in the fashion industry.
The pressure they felt to remake clothing to Bernstein’s specifications alienated some of Onia’s designers, one former employee said. “The designers who care enough about their design philosophy can’t work with her because they can’t do anything on their own,” they said.
“We always try to never directly copy,” a current designer at Onia who has worked with Bernstein said. “Unfortunately, when push comes to shove, she gets what she wants.”
A former employee shared a similar sentiment: “It wasn’t really a top priority for people to double-check to make sure prints were not being ripped off,” they said.
In response to these allegations, Onia said, “The design process is vigorous and includes various review processes and market analysis to ensure the originality of each design and its appeal to the WeWoreWhat community. We will continue to design with integrity and originality, promote ingenuity and positivity in the workplace, and vigorously support and defend the hard work of our designers who work tirelessly to bring the WeWoreWhat vision to life.”
Bernstein dropped out of the Fashion Institute of Technology to work on her blog.
Bernstein is closely involved in the design and production process, Onia employees said. But because she has limited training in traditional design, she was encouraged to bring in pieces to explain what she wanted. She has written that her Onia designs are inspired by vintage pieces in her wardrobe, but some said Bernstein was more likely to bring in contemporary articles from giants like Zara and Asos, as well as smaller brands like the model Emily Ratajkowski’s Inamorata and the French fashion designer Isabel Marant.
In interviews with Onia employees, “she’s not a designer” was a common refrain. Bernstein, unfamiliar with clothing-production schedules, frequently waits until late in the process to propose major changes, employees said. This occasionally forces the company to resupply factories in Asia with new materials at the last minute, they added, and ship garments by plane, which can cost five times as much as transport via cargo ship. She also lacked knowledge of design details, such as whether a large ruffle would weigh down a swimsuit when wet, they said.
Stress around production schedules and the perceived pressure to copy contributed to what some Onia employees described as a tense, unpredictable workplace. Bernstein regularly held meetings at her two-bedroom apartment in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan, which several employees considered unprofessional. Some Onia employees were worried enough about upsetting Bernstein, they said, that they would watch her Instagram stories before meetings to get a sense of what to expect.
“We all check it to see what mood she’s in — whether she’s having a good day or a bad day,” a current Onia employee said. “Across the office, everyone is just casually stalking her Instagram just in case.”
About a year ago, Jade Myers, a seller on Poshmark, an e-commerce website for new and used clothing, purchased about 100 pieces of WeWoreWhat clothing from Goodwill and put them up for sale. Soon afterward, Myers received harried messages from Bernstein saying that they were not yet released and offering to buy each piece, according to screenshots of the exchange. Myers took down the listings. Bernstein later rescinded the offer to buy the pieces, Myers told Insider, and the influencer’s attorney contacted her, alleging that Myers was violating copyright law. Bernstein threatened to ask Poshmark’s CEO to take down Myers’ page, which is her sole source of income.
After the story landed on BuzzFeed, Myers said, she was invited to a business meeting at Bernstein’s apartment, at which the mega influencer complained about death threats and begged Myers to unblock her on Instagram. Myers said she cried at the meeting because she was terrified she would lose her business and that Bernstein responded by appearing to cry too. In the end, Myers said, Bernstein asked Myers to take a video with her to show that they made up.
“The Poshmark day was a rough day,” one current employee said, adding that Bernstein was in an especially bad mood. “That’s the day you tell her, ‘You look amazing.'”
Onia and Macy’s both generated millions in sales through their partnerships with Bernstein.
Bernstein has previously dismissed the claim that she has copied designs. During an October podcast interview with Revolve Chief Brand Officer Raissa Gerona, she called it a “false story” and added, “In the world that we live in and the way social media is today, you do one thing that people perceive as wrong and you are ‘canceled.'”
“There’s not really much research that goes into it. They’re listening to not the other side of the story,” Bernstein said on the podcast. “It’s this very mob mentality, cancel culture of like, ‘Oh, a new person to hate. She did this. Let’s go after her.’ Rather than being like, ‘Well, did she do it? What is the other side of this story?'” Bernstein’s representatives did not make Bernstein available for an interview.
Scafidi, the fashion lawyer, said she sympathized with lesser-known designers who may struggle to compete with stars such as Bernstein who have far more financial and promotional reach.
“The average designer who is not an influencer has spent four years in design school and gone through years of poorly paid apprenticeships or internships,” Scafidi said. “They finally manage to launch their own line and have to compete with someone who has an automatic audience. There is a little bit of resentment, frankly, and envy of that kind of manufactured success.”
Adding Bernstein’s name to their lineups has added millions to both Macy’s and Onia’s coffers. Bernstein’s first collection with Onia sold $400,000 worth of merchandise in the first 24 hours. The second sold $1 million, and the third sold $2 million, according to Business of Fashion.
Now Bernstein is able to sell and develop a wide variety of products through Onia; when Bernstein said she wanted to sell denim, the brand hired denim designers, employees said. Of the company’s cofounder Nathan Romano, one former employee said, “Nathan kisses the ground Danielle walks on and will do anything to keep her happy.”
Bernstein’s first collection with Macy’s generated $2.5 million in sales in its first 24 hours, with $1 million in the first two hours alone, Business of Fashion reported.
“They want to get the younger customers in there,” a current Macy’s corporate employee told Insider. “It’s proven to be more difficult at times, slightly elusive, but that’s why they made a strategic choice with someone like Danielle Bernstein.”
Despite media coverage of the copying allegations against her, Bernstein’s following has continued to grow.
There are signs that the knockoff accusations may have begun to affect Bernstein’s business. Her engagement rate on Instagram fell by about half from a high in July to a low in December, according to Social Blade data, which could eventually shrink how much she’s paid per post, influencer-marketing experts said.
Bernstein’s profile has disappeared from the website of the American Influencer Council, even though she was a founding member. In an email, a representative for the council said that it “parted ways” with Bernstein in July of last year and that she was a member for less than a month. The copying allegations against her have been covered by gossip columns and news outlets such as The Daily Beast and BuzzFeed. In November, Essence published a story on its website that called Bernstein “a perfect testament to the workings of white privilege and mediocrity,” but the story later disappeared from the magazine’s website without explanation. Essence did not respond to requests for comment.
In other ways, Bernstein’s business continues to hum along. She gained nearly a quarter-million Instagram followers in 2020. She landed on The New York Times Best Seller list in June, albeit with a disclaimer indicating possible bulk book ordering. Since her 2019 launch of Moe Assist, a project-management platform for influencers, Bernstein has described herself as a “tech CEO and founder.” The company raised $1.2 million in seed funding, according to PitchBook. She also launched WeGaveWhat, a philanthropic effort promoting small designers.
Bernstein’s detractors say she fails to give credit to the competing designers whose work she is accused of copying. But some who work alongside her say this attitude is not reserved to her competitors and that it extends to her own design team.
The former Onia designer who was once thrilled to work with a beloved influencer lost her job in 2018 — the same year she started. The reason for her layoff was unclear, the designer said; her boss told her Onia was “moving some things around.” She told Insider she was ready to leave and had been calling her mom every day during lunch breaks in tears, distressed by the workplace culture and what she considered endless turnover. Onia denied that its turnover was unusually high.
Days later, the designer and her boyfriend posted on Instagram about her work on the WeWoreWhat line. Bernstein didn’t appear to like it.
“Babe I know your proud of helping me design but this isn’t really cool to take the credit,” Bernstein wrote in a text message. She asked for changes to the social-media posts and complained about the designer’s bio.
She added: “You made my designs come to life — I’m the designer.”
Do you have a tip you want to share? Contact Rachel Premack via encrypted email ([email protected]) or on the encrypted messaging app Signal (313-632-8232).
Update: This story has been updated to reflect a statement from the American Influencer Council, which responded to a reporter’s inquiry before publication. A previous version of this story stated incorrectly that the AIC had not responded to a request for comment. Insider regrets the error.