Monday, 16 August 2010

Seeing Red

cos red dress
Image from Stylist Magazine

Alexander McQueen AW 2010
Alexander McQueen AW 2010: Image from InStyle

Alexander McQueen AW 2010
Alexander McQueen AW 2010: Image from InStyle

Cate Blanchett in Alexander McQueen
Image from Movie Line

Do you think the design team at Cos had Alexander McQueen on their moodboards when they designed this striking puff sleeve dress in this ravishing tone of red?

While flicking through the weekly freebie Stylist magazine on the tube the other day I did a double take when I opened the page to see this dress. This is a dress shape that McQueen returned to again and again throughout his collections, the structured puffed sleeves and shoulders, the waspish waist giving way to the voluptuous bell curve of the skirt. Even the U-shaped neckline looks very similar to that of the gem encrusted dress from his Spring 2009 collection, pictured here on Cate Blanchett attending a movie premiere.

Alexander McQueen remains my favourite designer of all time and enough accolades have been written doing more justice to his innate ability and talent to turn fantasy into reality.

It has been par for the course during the last decade for designers to send signature pieces or designs down the catwalk and for the high street to voraciously reproduce them at more pocket friendly prices for the masses.  I will never own a piece of the last McQueen collection pictured, but for a fraction of the price, I can don some McQueen-esque magic and attribute that to his influence as a designer trickling through to what retailers are pushing as the new shapes and colours to be wearing now.

But is this right?  On some level there is some satisfaction to see the exclusivity of high end fashion democratised.  Is there really anything wrong with providing people the opportunity to buy fashionable well made garments without having to cough up couture prices for it?  But design is not an easy path to make a living.  It was widely publicised that McQueen's label was struggling to turn a profit despite widespread celebrity endorsement and the expansion of the brand to include a more affordable diffusion line.

To build a profitable business while remaining faithful to a truly unique vision must have been difficult enough without having to consider the ease and speed at which copycat versions could be churned out on the high street.

If the McQueen label were to take Cos to court I think they would most likely lose.  Although Design Right is automatically granted to protect the design of the shape of articles in the UK for a maximum of 15 years it will not normally allow designers to stop the production of similar articles by independent creation.

The red dress is probably different enough to any one dress of McQueen's to be defensible - it combines recognizable elements of McQueen's designs but is not likely to be viewed as a direct copy.  Moreover, the historical references that McQueen no doubt drew upon to design his own collections are in the public domain, thus making it difficult to discount the possibility of independent creation by the Cos designers.

The timing here is key - and weighted heavily in the high street's favour.  This Cos dress hits the stores today, just in time for Autumn Winter 2010 and just as pieces from the McQueen pre-collections are still trickling through to retailers.  The McQueen AW 2010 mainline collection (of which two dresses are pictured above) was shown in March of this year, but the garments will probably not be available until September.

Fashion shows are run six months in advance and the images from those shows are now beamed around the world instantaneously.  They can be copied and reproduced cheaply at such speed so as to beat the original designs on which they were based onto the shop floor.

Some years ago the furore from design houses was more vocal with some court cases coming to public attention over design rights: Jimmy Choo versus Oasis, Chloe versus Topshop, and Chloe versus Kookai being a few examples.  The press coverage of these types of cases seem to have died down somewhat in recent years but I suspect it still happens.  The argument, understandably, is that cheap copies damage the designers business by robbing market share and making it harder for designers to sell their products.

But will the availability of a Cos dress "in the style of" McQueen on the high street really compete with the real deal in the sartorial shopping lists of those who can afford to spend four figures on one dress?  How much damage can this really do to a designer brand of clothes which can realistically only be purchased by less than ten percent of the population?

To use another design versus price analogy - Ikea has made good design available widely and cheaply around the globe.  The hidden cost is that many local artisan shops and designers operating in towns in which an Ikea opened went out of business as a result.  And with them also went the quality, craftsmanship, design and originality they could offer the market.  In this case the availability of aesthetics at a lower price point was able to switch demand to devastating effect.

At the extreme ends of the scale there are likely to be both consumers who can afford good design and will continue to buy it and consumers who buy Ikea because they could never afford artisan products in the first place. Presumably however, there were enough people who were buying artisan products, but happier buying a cheaper alternative to make a large difference to the success of a local industry.  But where is this middle ground for high end fashion designers like McQueen?  The market for luxury fashion feels far more polarised when we are talking about price differences of £50 and £2000 for clothing - there are those who can afford it and the rest who cannot and never will.  Even the diffusion lines are out of most people's price range.  It is no wonder that the more savvy ones are falling over themselves to do collaborations with the high street in order to reach a new audience.

I hate to think of a world without the theatrics and drama provided by truly creative designers.  I also feel uncomfortable that by choosing to purchase clothing that derives inspiration from high end fashion at more affordable prices, as I very often do, that I may be somehow contributing to the demise of talented designers.  But what choice do you have if you are part of the market that is excluded on doing otherwise on the basis of price?


  1. I do agree with you on the pressuare put on the designers to produce money ( see the case o Lacroix)

  2. Thoughtful essay. I agree on the polarization of markets in the fashion industry. A high percentage of people buying inexpensive copycat items would never have purchased the designer item anyway. The people who can (and do) pay designer prices will continue to choose the designer label, either for reasons of snobbery or because of a desire for quality and a respect for artistic authenticity.

    It may be up to the designers to attempt to carve out more of the mid- and low-priced market -- by continuing to create lines for H&M, Target, etc.; or by creating lines that are even less expensive than the bridge lines that already exist.

    They also need to ask themselves: how much is my name worth? A thought experiment: Say a coat costs $4000. What percentage of that is design work, materials, and craftsmanship? What percentage of that is marketing and overhead (boutiques, office space, etc.)? What percentage of that is needed for a reasonable profit? What percentage of that is just the customer paying for ethereal value, i.e., the cachet of the designer's top-line label? If designers were willing to shave away the "glamour" cost -- i.e., we need to price this coat at $4000 to maintain its designer cachet, even though we could still turn a profit at $2000, even $1000 -- they might sell far more units.

  3. Fabulous article. I'm with Cloud of Secrets, if people have the money to spend on couture and high-end fashion then they always will. I don't think a £99 dress will change their minds if they have their hearts set on a genuine McQueen dress.
    The red dress is beautiful, a great mid-range investment (but far too expensive for miserly me). xxx

  4. Thanks for the great comments everybody!

    @sacramento - Lacroix is an interesting one, one article I read gave me the impression he didn't favour getting into the production of the "it" accessory (a major way in which other houses make their bread and butter) as it wasn't true to the spirit of his line. Admirable but ultimately costly to his business.

    @Cloud of Secrets - I do wonder what kind of profit margins are built in at the designers selling point. Dolce and Gabbana were the only ones on my radar that came out during the recession saying they squeezed their margins to cut prices by 20%. Not that that's going to tip the scale for me as a consumer!

    @Vintage Vixen - it is lovely dress, it is expensive (still) and I'm trying to stay away from Cos!

  5. I'm reposting my reply to your own kind and thorough reply and query in my blog -- just to make sure you get it!

    "Hi, Veshoevius - The playground picture was taken with the little Nikon Coolpix 3500 I keep in my handbag. Most other shots in this blog, esp. indoors, are taken with a Canon Rebel XS. Haven't invested in any fancy accessory lenses or flash setups.

    Indoors I play a lot with 1) slow shutter speeds (holding the camera as still as possible, or using a tripod or propping on books!); 2) wide-open aperture (also good for low-light situations, gives good detail for the focus point and atmospheric blurred backgrounds); 3) high ISO (high film speed), also helpful for low-light although pictures get grainier the higher you go; and 4) white balance - correcting the tint of the picture depending on whether I'm working with natural light, a shady spot, lightbulb light, etc.

    Interesting (and excellent) that your consultant permitted you a hybrid palette. My experience with Color Me Beautiful here in the US is that the seasonal palettes are pretty regimented. That's part of my problem, as I've long felt I'm a hybrid of seasons -- somewhere between warm and cool, soft and bright. It'd be interested to visit a few consultants separately and see what they each decide about my coloring!"


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