Are You Wearing Knockoffs?

September 10, 2014

When we think of knockoffs in fashion, we typically think of the cheap imitations of luxury brands such as Chanel and Gucci, which can often be found in the back alleys of major metropolitan centers. But the practice of copying designs is much more pervasive than you think. Peek behind the curtains of fashion production rooms and you’ll find that many – if not most – designers are ripping off designs in some way.

And it’s not just the companies you’d expect, either. We all know that fast fashion brands are quick to mimic the latest looks. Just check out this collection from Zara, for example. It’s essentially a rip off of avant-garde designers such as Rick Owens, Yohji Yamamoto, and Maurizio Altieri (for those keeping track, this is the fifth mention of Rick Owens at Put This On). Companies like Zara have built business empires by copying runway looks and offering them at more affordable prices to the high street consumer.

No, the fast fashion stuff is obvious, but copying happens elsewhere as well – even among “top designers.” Maison Martin Margiela’s German Army Trainers and Common Projects’ white Achilles Lows, for example, are essentially rip offs of earlier designs by other companies (albeit with ever-so-slight modifications). Then, of course, there are all the rip offs of Common Projects’ work. Nigel Cabourn also often mixes and matches things he sees in vintage pieces, but sometimes, things are pretty straightforward reproductions. Speaking of reproductions, many of those niche Japanese labels many of us covet (e.g. Buzz Rickson, The Real McCoys, Toys McCoys) are just reproducing vintage garments they’ve found at flea markets.

Free Culture and Innovation

Johanna Blakely, who serves as a Deputy Director at a media-focused think tank at USC, gave what I think is one of the best talks on this issue at TED. In a nutshell, her argument is: fashion’s free-for-all culture drives trends, which in turn, pushes innovation. In other words, fashion evolves like this: one company introduces a risky, but good design, and when it proves successful in the market, other high-end designers copy it. This creates a trend. Eventually, the trend becomes safe enough for mass-market fashion retailers to copy (since they have to wait until they can move millions, not just dozens, of units). These retailers milk it for all its worth, and when high-street consumers start wearing the style, early-adopters move on to other things (perhaps out of snobbishness, or just not wanting to pay top dollar to look like everyone else). This gives those earlier experimental brands an incentive to innovate. As Blakely puts it, without this free-for-all copying culture, the world of fashion would be much less vibrant.

Naturally, the argument is not without its opponents. This week, The New York Times hosted a discussion on intellectual property rights in fashion, and a few writers argued that the industry needs much stronger protections. Admittedly, I wasn’t terribly convinced by their arguments, but one good point they did touch on is that, when a big brand rips off a smaller company, it can be a devastating blow to a young designer, who can’t afford to have the wind taken out of his or her sails. Those “hot trend” moments can make or break their career.

Of course, there are also the ethics surrounding intellectual property, which is a separate (and perhaps thornier) issue. One thing is for sure, however – we as fashion consumers can avoid the kind of knockoffs with fake luxury labels (the kind sold in those downtown alleys), but it’s almost impossible to not wear something that has stolen a bit of design from somewhere else. When Oprah asked Ralph Lauren in 2011 how he’s been able to keep designing for so many years, he answered: “You copy. Forty-five years of copying; that’s why I’m here.”