Friday, 3 September 2010

Friend Friday: Copying in the Fashion Industry

Friend Friday is a weekly survey for fashion bloggers run by ModlyChic.  This week is about copying in the fashion industry.  To participate email

It is surprising how rife copying is throughout the fashion industry and how high up the food chain it occurs. Yesterday I was working as an assistant buyer looking for potential stock for a designer boutique.  As the agent was flicking through some dresses from a designer he was representing he pulled out a slinky jersey number from the rail saying “oh and this is apparently a copy of a DVF dress” without even batting an eyelid.  We are not talking a cheap imitation of a DVF dress here, but one designer copying another.

Aviator jackets are another case in point.  Burberry appears to have started this trend.  But did you know many other high end designers (Paul Smith and Acne to name a couple) have released pretty similar aviator jackets in their collections this season alongside Burberry?  Who copied who?  I don’t see any of them suing each other.  Given that designers seem perfectly blasé about copying it is interesting that there is more fuss (and seemingly more public court cases) over cheaper fast fashion copies.

1. Which side do you take… Copycat designs are a way for the average consumer to stay current and wear runway styles without breaking the bank OR Copycat designs take business from the designer and cheapen the value of their work. Explain.

As a regular consumer of copycat or “inspired by” designs from the British high street (which is what the fast fashion industry is called here), I back the first statement by my actions alone.

As a fashion lover there no need to bankrupt myself in my quest to be fashionable because the high street is astounding in its ability to churn out catwalk trends at astonishing speed and prices to meet the demands of a fashion hungry public.  I personally love that being fashionable and having choices is not the privilege of a small, elite, wealthy group in society.  Why should it be?

Shopping for high street copies of designer fashion here in the UK is somewhat of a national sport!  Fashion magazines openly dispense advice of how to “get the look” cheaper with pieces inspired by or, in some cases, blatantly copying designer items.  The copies often sell out within days of hitting the shop floor.

I have often guiltily wondered if my spending habits were somehow contributing to the demise of designers by making it harder for them to survive as a business.  But if you’ve seen the video of Johanna Blakely’s presentation the arguments that the fashion industry as a whole actually benefits from the copycat culture are pretty convincing.  The cyclical nature of trends ensures that there is something for everybody every season.  

New trends are developed by the design houses, embraced by cutting edge fashionistas with generous clothing budgets and made available to the general public by the high street.  Once the trend has reached full velocity the next season looks are out and the process starts all over again. This means that designers at all price points can continually generate demand and consumers of varying budgets are offered choice.

For me looking at designer clothes in fashions shows, magazines and even in stores is like looking at works of art in a gallery, beautiful to behold, but way too expensive for me to contemplate becoming a regular patron of the artist.  In fact it would be financially irresponsible of me to do so.

Has Topshop robbed Givenchy of my business if I buy their version of Givenchy’s catwalk bandage wrap wedges?  Of course not.  I would have never bought the original in the first place because I just can’t afford it.  In a couple of seasons I’ll be reading articles in Vogue about how passé wedges are and that I should be in kitten heels instead.  I am not going to spend a fortune on a designer item that Elle are telling me are a keep forever investment now when I know they will be declaring it fashion road kill in six months time.

The people who can actually afford the real deal versus those who would buy copies on the high street are mutually exclusive groups.  There do exist some (like me) who swing both ways and mix in the odd designer purchase with cheaper buys.  But in general the prices of high end designers are so far out of the average fashion lover’s reach that I don’t believe that the high street can be robbing them of business.

For example the boutique I was buying for yesterday stocks mid range luxury designer clothes.  Mid range in this respect means the price of a coat is my monthly rent for a flat in London, arguably the most expensive city in the world.  If this is mid range imagine what high end costs and you start to see how polarised this market really is.

Does it cheapen the value of the designer’s work?  There are some good copies out there! But if you shelled out for a Louis Vuitton bag and saw someone carrying an identical fake are you likely to trade down?  If you were just buying it to show off your status perhaps it might bother you but I believe consumers who like and can afford designer gear will always buy it.  That’s because there will always be differences in the quality of material and workmanship between an innovative designer item and a copy that will justify the enormous premium to loyal buyers of high end design.

If you look at designer clothes there is an incredible attention to detail that could never be reproduced at high street prices.  The quality of construction, cut, fit, fabric, intensity and vibrancy of colour, the intricacy of the prints, the trims – this is what you pay for – innovation of design.  And if the innovation is lacking then consumers will turn to the cheaper alternatives.  I’ve little sympathy for a designer who wants to charge me £85 for a tee shirt that I can find for a tenth of the price done in exactly the same cut and fabric.  And of course there are always people for whom the snob value of wearing designer is worth more than the actual beauty and creativity of the design itself!

Apart from democratization on the basis of economics there is also a democratization on the basis of size and fit.  I stumbled across this blog post about an Anthropologie copy of a jacket by Elizabeth and James that fitted the blogger better than the original design.  Some fashion houses cut their clothes with a specific figure in mind - usually related to the proportions of models and not of that of the average human being!  This is where the high street can actually add value to the consumer by making a trend more wearable for different body types.

2. Sometimes we do things, even if they are unethical or illegal (downloading music for free, watching full movies on YouTube). Do you think it is unethical for a designer to copy a vintage piece, make it current and sell it? 

No.  Fashion has always used the past as a resource for inspiration and I don’t see who it serves to stop them from continuing to do so.  Even copyright in the high intellectual property area of music and film runs out and cover versions and remakes are eventually permitted.  Proceeds of the sales of vintage don’t go to the original designer anyway.   Rather than just venerating it as it rots away in museums we pay homage to beautiful vintage design in recreating it for new generations to enjoy.

To explore the ethics just imagine the extreme case of making it illegal to copy clothing design from vintage items.  How would you define vintage?  From what time period do you start?  Take some contemporary classics that now count as vintage as examples.  Who invented jeans? The leather jacket?  The tuxedo for women?  Are only those designers (if they even doing business anymore) allowed to reproduce those pieces from now on?  Would that encourage them to be more creative if they were the only ones allowed to use and sell that garment design?  Or would that make them phenomenally lazy? If they are granted exclusive rights over making money from these designs couldn’t they just churn out the same patterns again and again without ever having to innovate?

You can argue that copying is not creative. But ironically imposing a blanket ban on it would probably drain the industry of the creativity energy you aim to protect.  Preventing styles particular to certain eras or even certain design houses from being revisited seems absurd.

3. Would you buy an item that is a very well done copy of a runway garment if it fell within your budget?

Absolutely! Let me just state that I totally love designer fashion.  I am someone who cries with emotion at runway shows of designers I love, and that’s just after seeing them on video!  I am also someone who will buy a designer item on occasion if I can stretch to it, really love it and know it will last me several seasons for the money I fork out for it.  But a lot of it is just not affordable for anyone other than the super rich.

So if a retail chain produces a copy that is within my budget of a stratospherically expensive designer item that I love but could never justify buying then I am all over it!

4. According to the fashion laws, at least in the US, apparel design is seen as too utilitarian to qualify for copyright protection. Would you think this is detrimental to the industry or beneficial? Check out this video on The Taxonomy of My Wardrobe to get a better idea of this concept:

I’ve already expressed my agreement with Johanna Blakely’s arguments that a business environment with low copyright protection has been beneficial to all levels of the industry through encouraging constant design innovation and the cyclical renewal of demand with new trends.

Interestingly I read that there is already a bill that is going to be introduced in the USA called the Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention Act to increase protection for designers.  The article posted on Ecosalon states that “Large established designers stand to gain the most, but they’ll be limited to protecting designs not already in the public domain and will face the formidable task of establishing that the design in question had not existed before.”

And formidable this will be. Given that fashion designers constantly reference past eras, past icons, rock stars, film costumes and street culture there must be a staggering amount of prior art already in the public domain.  Before Karl Lagerfield shot the studded, heeled clog to fame this summer Gucci did a version, and several years before Marni had made clogs popular.  And don’t they all owe something to the traditional Dutch design?  How can you prove a pencil skirt never existed before?  Who does Prada owe for their successful bowling bag? Alexander McQueen was inspired by street culture for his bumster jeans. Your design would really have to be original beyond belief to qualify for protection.

Consider this Givenchy jacket which spawned many copies on the high street.  I bought a very similar version from Zara recently.  A quick web search for other copies of this jacket turned up even closer copies (Anthropologie!).

Left: Givenchy.  Right: Anthropologie

But the icing on the cake was the comparison made by several bloggers (including Fashionista) to this jacket worn by David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust phase.

If Ricardo Tisci were to take on Zara in a lawsuit how would his case stand up in court?  I think encouraging a high litigation environment in which nobody other than intellectual property lawyers get rich will be potentially more damaging for the industry!

5.  Own up… share the things in your closet that is a knock off. You know those things you got in China Town, on the streets of New York, or where ever.

Ha! Where do I begin?  I don't like anything with logos but I do own a couple of imitation bags that came from Thailand.  The patent hot pink Louis Vuitton I got while on holiday for a laugh and the cream and pink Gucci was a present from my mother!  I don't find them particularly convincing (the Gucci has Ferragamo stamped on one of the four steel handle fixtures!) but I'm always astounded how many people actually think they're real!

If a Zara copy of the Givenchy Stripe Jacket wasn't enough (see previous post of a photo) I also bought a knock off of the bandage wrap shoes that graced the catwalk in the same collection. They were hundreds of pounds.  The striking resemblance of Topshop's chiffon tie Wisteria Wedges has made them a bestseller.

Top right and left Givenchy wedges, bottom Topshop Wisteria Wedges

This long line leather biker by Alexander McQueen will set you back £2855 from Net-a-Porter.  I got a similar style by Warehouse for £50 on sale!

Left: Alexander McQueen biker. Right: Warehouse biker.

When Balmain released its pagoda shoulder jacket costing thousands of pounds last winter Topshop released this more wearable version and it sold out.

Left: Balmain blazer.  Right: Topshop blazer.

Very often though I have come home with something I bought because I liked it and then later discovered that it was a designer copy.  In some cases the high street garment was actually released a couple of seasons earlier than the designer version so it is questionable who copied who!

I bought this Topshop beaded ostrich feather skirt on the left just after Louis Vuitton made them trendy and it bears more than a passing resemblance to the Adam skirt on the left.  However the Adam skirt came out six months later than Topshop's version.  Who copied who?

Bird by Juicy Coutoure released the leather dress below on the left this winter.  I bought the almost identical leather dress on the right from Oasis in last year's winter sales and it was the second season running that they had done that dress.  Again the high street store was two seasons earlier than the designer version.

I bought this feather trimmed suede vest from Topshop.  Some time later I was very surprised to see a photo of Kate Moss wearing what is probably the original version by Anne Demeulmeester!


  1. Fascinating and as always, so well written.
    The High Street and High End designer are, in my opinion, directed at an entirely different demographic. Those who can afford Balmain will always buy Balmain no matter how good the TopShop version looks.
    By buying any fashion no matter where it's from keeps the industory ticking over and we shouldn't worried about it.
    On a totally different level I'd so love to rummage through your wardrobe, you have impeccable taste. xxx

  2. Hi from Glasgow! Vix above sent me the link to your blog as she thought I'd enjoy it and - oh gosh - I really do! Really well thought out and written article, which I 100% agree with. Aside from issues of budget, even if I had the money I would still opt for the high street version 99% of the time becuase a) I'm faddish and get bored of things very quickly - however much I love something at the point of purchase and just can't live without it, there's a very strong chance that 6 months later it'll be out of favour and on eBay! Also, I just couldn't justify spending so much on clothes - the older I get the more I want to spend my money on experiences rather than material things. So yeah, I'd prefer to have a great day out with friends and wear the Dorothy Perkins copy of the Miu Miu! xx

  3. @Vix - thank you so much. Where would I be without Topshop? Waiting to see more pictures of your other wardrobes btw!
    @WeShop - welcome! and excited you visited as I've been visiting yours for a while via Vix's blog!!

  4. OMG you're a legend! Such a well-researched and written post! Hope it gets into next week's IFB's Links, every blogger/fashion-lover should read this.
    Personally I'm not all that keen on copying, but everyone copies each other and as your agent yesterday proved, it's widely accepted.
    Funny how musicians and authors don't seem to hesitate in taking each other to court for copyright infringements, yet it's just not the done thing in fashion.
    Let's make one thing clear - I have a zero clothing budget - yet I love the thrill of witnessing a designer's visions swanning down the catwalk each season.
    I can't even afford to buy a pair of designer tights, let alone some of the sometimes beautifully reproduced high-street copies of designer clothing.
    Yet, fast-forward six months after the shows, I so feel a little sick when I see original ideas being bastardised to the nth-degree.
    As I get older I appreciate the beauty of vintage and antique clothing and accessories.
    Sometimes that inspiration spills over and I find a bargain knock-off designer piece that falls into my idea of where I want to be fashion-wise.
    Case in point:
    I have a pair of Forever 21 heeled lace-up brogues that I wear constantly. Yes they are knock-offs, yet they remind me of the sensible shoes women wore during the Depression years of the 30s, when everyone when all sensible after the Roaring 20s. The F21 shoes have a sexed-up heel, so I don't feel like a granny in them. They are blatant copies, but they feel sexy/vintage.
    Hey, in saying all that you know, once Zara arrives in Oz next year it could be a different story! xoxo

  5. Clothes should be democraticlly available to all.
    And so not everybody can afford a 3.000 pound dress, why not coy or be inspired.
    It will be up to the wearer to make it stylish.
    Your super posts needs some reading he, he...
    You can tell that you enjoy writing it.

  6. Fascinating, and thank you for searching out the great example photos. And for calling out fashion magazines' "keep forever" platitudes: "I am not going to spend a fortune on a designer item that Elle are telling me are a keep forever investment now when I know they will be declaring it fashion road kill in six months time." One of my pet peeves! My only comfort is that in five or ten years wedges or kitten heels, to borrow your examples, *will* be the season's important items again. If I've bought not-too-gimmicky versions, I can use them chicly again.

    My interest in designer-level items is quality of materials and workmanship more than innovation. Yet as I've mentioned before, I'm not convinced that designer quality always rates its exorbitant price tags. I will acknowledge that a chain store's $50 cashmere sweater is probably not of the best quality. But do I need to pay $400 for a Big Name Designer's cashmere sweater to get that quality, or will I find it from, say, the quality-obsessive Pure Collection for $150?

  7. Great post! I personally think it's great that there are good looking clothes for affordable prices! Clothes is one of the ways people can gain their confidence, feel beautiful and happy and if only high end designs were worth wearing, we would all feel so miserable drooling over YSL or Givenchy and feeling really unhappy with ourselves for having to wear track suit bottoms:P But it's great that there are so many amazingly beautiful clothes to choose from for such low prices! And I don't even think it is necessarily who copies who, because the way it works is there is fashion research papers (most prominent organisation that does it is WGSN, check them out), and then designers and high street shops even pay to gain access to research papers, and prepare their collection based on that, that is reason why we see certain 'trends' appearing in multiple collections- such as 'mad men channeling' , or military etc..

  8. @Pull Your Socks Up - "Sometimes that inspiration spills over and I find a bargain knock-off designer piece that falls into my idea of where I want to be fashion-wise." - Yes! Exactly! Every so often a trend comes around that I feel reflects certain vintage styles I always love to wear but there isn't always the vintage garments in the right condition or the right price either and sometimes the high street fills the gap with some very nice pieces. I have to say I love it when Victorian and Edwardian comes around as an era for inspiration because those are generally done quite well on the high street.

    @Sacramento - I'm frankly exhausted after writing this and am going to write short and sweet from now on! Promise!

    @Cloud of Secrets - Can you tell it was one of my pet peeves too! I especially hate those articles telling you to throw this and that out because it is so last season like we are all made out of money - and how wasteful is that too? I keep things too - I already had the clogs when they came out this year!

    @Filipa - I didn't know about the paid access to research papers. Very interesting! I'm going to check out WGSN and thanks for the tip off.


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