Copy Culture and Creativity

As long as there has been fashion, there have been fakes. Couture was copied from its earliest days: sketchers or buyers working for counterfeiters were sent to shows to bring back new designs for replication as soon as they were available. Garment labels were developed, in part, as a measure to combat the copyists – Madeleine Vionnet even went as far as to mark her labels with her own thumbprint. Others frequently altered their label designs to stay one step ahead of the thousands of counterfeit labels being produced. In France, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture was set up so that designers could register their original works in an attempt to protect themselves against counterfeiting. In the United States, however, the legality of copying remained murky. In a video created for the 2014-15 exhibition Faking It: Originals, Copies, and Counterfeits at The Museum at FIT, US experts on fashion law note the legal differences between counterfeit items – “made in exact imitation … with intention to deceive” – and knockoffs, which are similar but not identical to the original item, as well as the lack of copyright protections for fashion design in the US.

Madeleine Vionnet labels with thumbprint via Susan Scafidi [http://www.counterfeitchic.com/2006/02/marking_territory.php]

It is standard practice for artists to copy masterpieces as part of the process of developing their own style and, in the same way, fashion designers are able to hone their skills by observing and replicating the work of master couturiers. But just as commercial forgery is widespread in the art world, so in fashion, the most popular high-end designs inspire corporate copycats. These range from terrorist groups and drug cartels, who exploit the high profit margins that can be achieved by selling counterfeit ‘It bags’ produced using cheap materials and labour, to highly creative designers like Dapper Dan, who began riffing on designer logos as part of his own fashion line in the 1980s. In the grey area between these ethical extremes lie brands like Fashion Nova, who reinterpret – as quickly and as minimally as possible – the work of more expensive and often emerging designers, to sell to the masses at a fraction of the cost.

For those with an appetite for high-end fashion but without the means to purchase it, fakes that mimic the style (without necessarily replicating the standards of production) offer an affordable alternative. Excepting those that are produced in a moral vacuum, counterfeit designer goods are a democratising power for consumers. However, the cost to the designers – and to emerging designers, in particular – is self-evident. Furthermore, the barefaced copying arguably contributes to the homogenisation of style by negating the need for self-styling through innovation. An alternative to this can be found in the ‘Versage’ style noted by Allyn Gaestel in Lagos: she writes that the self-styling is just as important to the overall look as the ‘knock-off Versace’, and that, often, the garments themselves don’t feature a logo, but rather an aesthetic nod to the designer brand that has been reinterpreted for the Lagosian consumer.

Photography Bénédicte Kurzen / Noor [https://nataal.com/versage]

With the widespread access to visual culture that the internet affords comes a partial exposure of the processes of creativity, which almost always involve references to existing creations. The growing acceptance of this fact can open up conversations around copying and inspiration, thereby facilitating respectful homages rather than theft. This same access to images means that those who do copy without crediting or sincerely reinterpreting their inspirations are likely to be targeted by watchdogs like Diet Prada. The increased awareness of references means that – regardless of the law – those who do reuse logos, whether for prestige by association or the complex forms of expression associated with ‘post-parodies’ (as described by Charles Colman), are encouraged to use them innovatively, creating designs that are evidently not direct copies of ‘originals’.

This form of homage, which is so important in hip-hop, brings us back to the work of Dapper Dan. When Gucci largely copied a Dapper Dan jacket in 2017, they initially rejected the idea that the design had been stolen. After much furore online, Gucci partnered with Dapper Dan, eventually opening a store in Harlem. This reclamation of the prestige of copying can be seen elsewhere in Diesel’s ‘DEISEL’ pop-up on Canal Street in 2018. With the explosion of visual culture for all online, attitudes towards copying in fashion are being forced to evolve and adapt to an acceptance of creative reinterpretation.

By Lucy Corkish

Sources:

Allyn Gaestel, ‘Versage’ in Nataal, issue 1 (2018)

Charles E. Colman, ‘Trademark Law and the Prickly Ambivalence of Post-Parodies’, NYU School of Law Public Law Research Paper No. 14-45 (2014)

Ellie Pithers, ‘Why Diesel Is Selling Knock-Offs To Unsuspecting Customers’ (2018) [https://www.vogue.co.uk/article/diesel-fake-store-new-york-february-2018]

Farah X and Lisa Cortes, ‘The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion’, Netflix (2019)

Nancy J. Troy, Couture Culture (2002)

TED, ‘How fake handbags fund terrorism and organized crime | Alastair Gray’ (2018) [https://youtu.be/5UH7uTpTa44]

The Museum at FIT, Faking It: Originals, Copies, and Counterfeits (2014-15) [https://www.fitnyc.edu/museum/exhibitions/faking-it.php]

The Museum at FIT, ‘An Insider’s Perspective on the Counterfeit Industry’ (2014) [https://youtu.be/Is9Hxn7Wr5w]

Dissertation Discussion: Fran

What led you to choose this subject?

I was uniquely led to my chosen subject through Instagram (yup.). In the first week of March (2019), I uploaded a multiple-image post to my personal Instagram feed (@francesrcrossley) containing two comparable fashion images (Fig.1). The first was taken by fashion photographer Jason Lloyd-Evans at @edwardcrutchley’s Autumn/Winter 2019 show during London Fashion Week Men’s (2019). It features a collection of models, but one acts as the point of interest, her attention held away from the camera’s gaze. Atop her head is a tall, wide-brimmed hat (@stephenjonesmillinery), its structure implied through a meshed, translucent nylon that allows for the bones of its unique construction to be perpetually on show. It is fixed onto the model’s head with a long ream of ribbon that fastens in a delicate bow across the centre of her neck. 

Fig. 1 The first-half of the multi-image post I uploaded on my IG feed, featuring Edward Crutchley / Stephen Jones designs…

I placed this image in conversation with an archival photograph of American sportswear designer Bonnie Cashin, in which she models a similarly structured, cylindrical hat. Dr Stephanie Lake (@cashincopy , @bonniecashinarchive ), author of Bonnie Cashin: Chic Is Where You Find It (2016), later informed me that Cashin purchased this hat during her travels for the Ford Foundation throughout Asia during the 1950s (Fig. 2). 

Fig. 2 …and the second half.

This post was intended as a personal exercise, visually demonstrating the cyclical movement of twentieth and twenty-first century fashion systems, in which styles and motifs are recurrently recycled and given new meaning for a contemporary audience. After posting, I swiftly received word from Crutchley (also via IG), and the designer disclosed that his AW19 hats were based on the traditional male Korean bridal gat (a form of Joseon-era headgear). In this instructive experience, the trend of reproduction in fashion played out to confirm a well-discussed concept: fashion is a powerful cultural phenomenon that cannot be reduced to a singular, ‘present-day’ understanding. Through this three-way interaction, I formed a fascination with concept of ‘copying’ or ‘knocking-off’ another designer’s work vs. find inspiration in the silhouettes, modes of production or craft appropriated in past histories. I wanted to explore the difference between repackaging historical borrowings and ‘copycatting—which I believe to be an inherent exercise operating within the fashion system. And so, voilà: a dissertation subject was born! 💥

Mr Edward Crutchley setting me straight on gat-gate via Instagram’s private messaging feature.

Favourite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?

Pfftttt that’s hard—I have discovered so many new (to me), fiercely innovative authors during this research period. I therefore have to choose two: Véronique Pouillard and Agnès Rocamora, who between them have produced some of the most fascinating texts I’ve read over the course of my undergrad and postgrad experiences. Pouillard’s extensive work on the formalisation of design piracy in the fashion industry during the interwar period and her exploration of intellectual property rights in relation to the preservation of originality European property laws vs. U.S. patents and trademarks)—-beyond helpful; and Rocamora’s comprehensive dissection of Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptual arguments surrounding the sociology of cultural production—theoretical life–saver. 

Also, Sara Beth Marcketti’s 2005 PhD thesis, ‘Design piracy in the United States women’s ready- to-wear apparel industry: 1910-1941’ (Iowa State University)—gold dust. 

Favourite image/object in your dissertation and why?

A memoir-like interview I found through FIT’s Oral Histories Project (@fitspecialcollections), in which American entrepreneur Andrew Goodman [son of Edwin Goodman and former president (1951) and owner of department store, Bergdorf Goodman (1953-1972)] discusses his life and career in the New York fashion industry (recorded in 1977). Goodman tells all manner of awe-inspiring anecdotes, but my favourite is one in which he goes undercover for a sting operation in Paris (while working for Patou in 1926) in order to apprehend a group of French copyists: just the right blend of theatricality and fun!