Coco Chanel once said that “Copying is the ransom of success.” And we hate to be the one’s to remind you, but fashion is all about copying. There is no such thing as an original style (those things called trends basically mean we’re all going to be dressing the same forever); and even fashion photographers seem to run out of original ideas. So many people are outraged by the fact that lesser known designers, as well as a number of commercial companies like Forever21 and H&M seem to get away with ripping off the big names. Forever 21 has copied just about everyone, and been sued over 50 times. But, they’ve never lost. How could that be possible? Let us explain.
Have you ever wondered why the cycle of fashion has been speeding up? One fashion week ends only for another one to begin. It seems like a trend barely has time to take its first breath before it dies and gets replaced by something new.
In her fascinating TED Talk, Johanna Blakley points out that the side effect of plagiarism in fashion is the emergence of fashion trends. Trends exist because fashion can’t be copyrighted. Fashion design is “utilitarian,” and anything considered utilitarian (like cars, clothing and food) can’t be copyrighted. The logic goes that these “everyday” things are so important in our society, that if someone were to hold power over them, we’d likely all be walking around naked, eating raw and getting around on horseback. Fashion is so fundamental to our daily lives, and that also makes it a creative free-for-all. A plagiarists buffet if you will.
And so it becomes quite easy to find a dress that looks remarkably like a Stella McCartney on Zara’s, or H&M’s shelves. These companies are so affordable and accessible that trends end up spreading all over the world more quickly. Which of course means that they become uncool more quickly as well. For trend-setters wearing what everyone else is wearing is painful (and not to mention, unprofitable), so they move on to the next thing almost faster than you can blink.
Very recently, as a response to all this, what designers started doing is making deals and collaborating with some of the most popular fast fashion giants in order to take back control, and make a nice dime while they’re at it. But what they’re essentially doing is beating the copiers to it and copying themselves before the copiers do.
People think that imitation destroys creativity, but a Johanna Blakley points out, perhaps imitation can be good for creativity. As a response to rampant copying, designers started to create things so crazy and beautiful that they’re impossible to replicate. At least cheaply. And for those things that can be replicated cheaply, well there’s plenty of good in that too: It democratizes fashion, and makes it accessible to everyone from any socio-economic level. It makes fashion less of a snobby upper class thing. And it also needs to be said, that Stella McCartney is very unlikely to loose her customers to Forever21. Maybe, just maybe the people that shop at Stella are not the same that shop at Forever?
Without the safety blanket of copyright protection, designers have raised fashion to the level of art. Without plagiarism, there may never have been haute couture as we know it today (let images of couture McQueen and Pre-Melt-Down Galliano sashay across your mind for a second). Now, consider the possibility that perhaps it was all worth it. Perhaps, like everything else, even copying has a silver lining.
For anyone remotely interested in this subject, you have to watch Johanna Blakley give her talk. It’s an eye opener: