Call it homage or call it copying, the fashion industry is full of recycled ideas.
I recently heard two quite disturbing, but completely unrelated, stories from within the Kiwi fashion industry. Neither is ground-breaking, but they provided interesting food for thought.
One involved an established designer who left her intern alone in the workroom for a week, only to discover upon return that one of her most recent designs was being sold in a store across town under a different label - that of said intern. It was exactly the same dress. The second story involved a very well-known designer judging a project for a Massey fashion design course. The project was to create a garment for the well-known designer's clientele. The next season, the well-known designer released a garment that was an exact replica of one of the student's designs. No permission was asked, the student merely received a note after the fact with a photo of the designer's garment alongside the student's sketch that said "thanks".
Neither of these stories is unusual. The fashion industry is one that thrives on copying, imitation and homage. However you like to put it, nothing (or very little) in fashion is new.
British designer Bruce Oldfield once said: "Fashion is more usually a gentle progression of revisited ideas."
Each season we see a collection of previous ideas re-examined, re-explored, re-interpreted. For good designers it's not about the original. It's about taking that idea and pushing it to a new level. Adding your own spin so it becomes fresh.
But then there is an entire portion of the industry dedicated to copying exactly what goes down the runway. They call it "fast fashion". This is where big chain stores, like Topshop, H&M;, Forever 21 and even our own Glassons, send their buyers off in search of the next big thing. They then replicate it. I was once told these buyers can see something overseas or on a runway and have it replicated and on their racks in three weeks. Three weeks! Most of what is shown at various fashion weeks isn't available for at least six months. But this is how trends are born. That imitation and taking from each other's ideas, it's no accident.
Isn't this outright plagiarism, I hear you ask? Well, no. In the US, fashion has been deemed too utilitarian to warrant copyright. The courts decided it would be too expensive and difficult if designers started copyrighting cuffs and hems and collars. So there's just no copyright protection there at all. Here in New Zealand, it's slightly better. The copyright laws here protect designers against "substantial copying of an original design". But what constitutes substantial copying? A sleeve? A skirt shape? An idea? It's a murky area. Not to mention the monetary gain of a legal battle isn't always worth the fight. Sometimes it's easier to keep your mouth shut and let it go.
But while there is a need to protect the hard work and innovation that goes into many designer collections, there's also something to be said for making high-fashion looks accessible to the population at large. After all, not everyone can afford upwards of US$1000 for studded Christian Louboutin loafers, or even $200 for the Matiko interpretation, so the $40 Glassons version could be seen as a positive.
But then, where do you draw the line? While the knock-off customer is certainly not the same customer who shops on Fifth Ave in New York, how do you decide what level of copying is or isn't okay? This would be where the consumer comes in. After all, the fast fashion stores wouldn't exist were it not for the customers who buy their products. It's up to consumers to decide what level of imitation they're okay with.
And as far as designers go, the culture of copying could be seen as a challenge - to create garments that aren't easily copied. It's in their own best interests to ensure what they create is original or, at the very least a new interpretation thereof. After all, the damage that a copied design can do to one's reputation can make or break a career.