Instagram is the latest way to deal with fashion copycats

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The internet is excited about an upcoming German doco on Zara’s Spanish founder Amancio Ortega, aka the second-richest man in the world.

According to Refinery 29, “juicy bits” of the story include explaining how “Zara was founded on creating knockoffs”.

Of course fast-fashion retailers don’t use that term; they call it “trending now”. As in, the Gucci track pant/Balenciaga sock boot/Vetements floral dress is trending now, so we’re offering a very similar look for a fraction of the price.

Win-win, right?

Most bigger brands seem content to shrug their shoulders at copying culture because it’s so entrenched. Pre-portable cameras, sneaky thieves posing as buyers used to surreptitiously sketch the outfits shown at the Paris couture shows; Christian Dior was always turfing them out apparently.

Every generation has its knockoff scandals. In the 1940s it was sniped that Mr Dior himself had nicked some of his silhouettes from Cristobal Balenciaga. In the 1950s and ’60s, Australian and American designers routinely copied Paris clothes, and when I first arrived in Sydney from London in the 1990s, little had changed. Designers here “referenced” the European catwalks constantly – some of them still do.

Big names are not immune. I remember in the early 2000s when Nicolas Ghesquiere, then at Balenciaga, admitted copying a patchwork vest by an obscure 1970s San Franscisco-based designer called Kaisik Wong. The noughties were also rife with downmarket rip-offs as logo mania reached its peak.

But in 2017, homage culture has stepped up a notch, exacerbated by our impatience – who wants to wait months for a runway collection to reach the stores? – and enabled by social media. Contemporary culture has become one giant Pinterest board, and designers at all ends of the market shamelessly pinch ideas from one another. .

It’s getting harder to tell what’s wry postmodern pick ‘n’ mix and what’s simply lazy pilfering. Balenciaga’s recent ode to IKEA’s blue Frakta shopping bag? How about current Gucci referencing the work of Dapper Dan, who built his career in 1990s Harlem referencing Louis Vuitton? Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele ain’t apologising – he calls it an “exploration of faux-real culture”. 

Except when it works the other way round.

Gucci recently filed a lawsuit against cheapie chain Forever 21 for allegedly copying the house’s signature striped webbing. According to Business of Fashion, the Italian luxury leader reckons the American fast- fashion retailer’s “business model is built on undermining the very notion of trademark protection”.

Brands like Gucci can afford to take out trademark protection. What about independent designers whose IP is increasingly being stolen by lazy, greedy bigger brands?

In Australia, fashion design comes under the 1968 Copyright Act, but you need to register a design to be protected from plagiarism and even then, the cost of pursuing a case in the courts is often prohibitive. The sincerest form of flattery is harder to stomach when you’re a cash-strapped indie player being copied by a rich, famous one.

Last year, LA-based artist Tuesday Bassen, 27, called out Zara on Instagram for being a little too inspired by her enamel pins and patches.

“We were all surprised to find that our creative work was suddenly all over Zara product,” she states on the website she set up in response, shoparttheft.com. “Our original art has been reproduced as pin and patch sets, embroidered decals and prints on apparel. Though some of the themes may be simple shapes or icons, Zara’s replications are near-identical, and the massive scale of this theft from a tight-knit creative scene implies a conscious choice by … parent company Inditex to not bother making significant modifications.” 

In June, emerging New York designer Wesley Berryman, 25, shamed Topshop on Instagram for allegedly copying his signature white-laced black denim, as seen on Bella Hadid.

“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to speak on this situation because truthfully, knockoffs mostly flatter me,” he posted. “But it would be a disservice to my community if I didn’t stand up for myself and for you. Young artists, designers, and entire cultures are constantly being stolen from.” 

When Terrence Zhou, a fashion student from Parson’s in New York, felt Viktor & Rolf had referenced an idea for doll-headed mannequins he submitted with a work experience application, he hopped on social media and told the world. Next thing he knew he was being written up by WWD.

Hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz also used Instagram to embarrass Balenciaga, now designed by Demna Gvasalia, over this Ruff Ryders shirt.

As you can see, the original featured a stylised “R”. Change it to a “B” and it’s fit for Balenciaga’s Spring ’18 runway. #feelinglikeanidiotnow

The message to designer copycats? Social media works both ways. It might provide a rich source of design inspiration, but can also be the arena for your public shame. You can run, but you can’t hide.

Clare Press is the presenter of the Wardrobe Crisis podcast.

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