Monkey See, Monkey Do
Does Copying Hurt or Help the Fashion Industry?
The new crop at Zara, a stellar jacket at Top Shop or those chic trousers from H&M: Are you buying these items because they look identical to the designer pieces found on the runway and adorned by celebrities? Or perhaps you feel that these items are the current trend and you’d like to follow suite.
There’s no question the fashion industry is plagued with copies and look-a-likes, and much debate surrounds the issue, especially in the absence of copyright laws. Companies such as Forever 21 are constantly making headlines with claims of copying high-end designers from Anna Sui to Diane Von Furstenberg and even smaller independent labels. Yet, they have not lost one case and they continue to strive in the industry.
The fashion industry is full of trends, “hot items”, and the “it-bag”. All of these items start somewhere, with someone, with one idea. If copyright laws existed in fashion, where would that leave the industry? This begs to ask the question, does copying hurt or help the fashion industry?
The issue of copyright in fashion has been a subject of debate for years. A bill proposed in September 2012, to include fashion design as a protected art form was not approved, as reported in a January 25 article on Telecommunications and Law Review Blog. The bill, proposed by Senator Chuck Schumer, entitled the Innovative Design Protection Act of 2012 was not the first of it’s kind. Since the IDPA was not approved by the end of the Congressional term, it would have to be reintroduced if any changes are to be made to the current copyright law.
Little is done to protect designers and their work. Trademarks are the only exception, which inadequately defend fashion designs, as they only protect a brand from being used without permission. Beyond that, it’s a free for all industry, with only the designer’s word and reputation at stake. Christopher Sprigman, author of The Knockoff Economy takes a side to this debate as portrayed in his interview with Katy Steinmetz for TIME (September 10, 2012) by stating:
One of the reasons that fashion isn’t protected is that we view it as functional, the same as food. It’s something you need to survive. It’s not an art form the same way that music or painting is, which have no real function. At a deep level, there is this distinction drawn in the law.
When a designer’s work is copied, they are furious and rightfully so, that someone else is profiting from their original designs. But at the same time, designers proclaim it’s the nature of the industry, are flattered that their designs are worth duplicating, and move on. Coco Chanel herself is historically quoted saying, “a fashion that does not reach the streets is not a fashion”, where imitation is a measurement of a brand’s success.
According to a July 20, 2011 article by Jezebel author Jenna Sauers, in 2007 Anna Sui filed a lawsuit against Forever 21 for violating copyright laws. The case did not proceed to trial, however Sui used her designer status to publically accuse Forever 21 for theft. At her Spring 2008 fashion show, her gift to attending guests was a t-shirt with a “wanted” poster illustrating Forever 21 founders Don and Jin Chang. It’s clear that designer’s become angry in these situations, but they make their mark, stake their claim and eventually move on.
Some designers claim that they look for inspiration outside of the industry for fear of unintentionally copying other designer’s work. However, they still may look at current cuts and fabric for referral. But where does one draw the line between inspiration and imitation. Since this seems all but a blur, it becomes apparent that laws protecting designers and their work become difficult to define.
Fashion designer Tippi Ocampo suggests that in order for a designer’s work to be relevant, they must be acutely aware of what’s going on in the industry around them, as found in an article on Spot.ph published on February 16, 2010. She quotes her book, Not by the Book: Fashioning Design and adds, “Life and Art are locked in mutual admiration. Because Life will always imitate Art, and Art will always imitate Life. Both are expressions of the creative process that is constantly, progressively at work.”
It becomes apparent that fashion strives on trends and in the moment fashion items. Without similar items being available at different price points, the world of fashion would be a very different place. Copying helps set these trends and trends are what sell fashion. Much of the growth and creativity in the industry depends on imitation.
Should we as devote fashion enthusiast take a stand and avoid look-a-likes and copy cats? Or will this inevitably leave our closets bare and us on an endless search for designs that we deem original? We’d be ignoring our fashion instincts to wear what’s “in-style” and ultimately what the industry is telling us to wear. With the exception of many designer’s feeling ripped off and hurt that their work be cheaply copied and sold to the masses, the industry overall has not failed due to copying. If it were banned, fashion as we know it, would ultimately die. Christopher Sprigman ends his interview for TIME stating that by continuing to allow copying in fashion we’re also enabling the industry to thrive, grow, innovate and change.