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]