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fashion knock-offs: the fine line between tribute and abuse

Every two weeks, the high street spits out new knock-offs of garments originally designer by often-defenceless young designers. But when it comes to fashion, is imitation the most sincere form of flattery?

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When Neil Barrett designed the most worn jumpers of autumn/winter 13, he also became the most copied man in fashion. “I’ve never seen so many rip-offs of my sweatshirts come in on models for castings,” he told i-D after the show that followed the hugely successful Modernist collection last season. “We really have influenced a whole situation here, and a lot of people are making a lot of money out of me,” he noted, keeping a certain stoical distance to the overwhelming plagiarism of his geometrical jumpers. Two seasons on, the high street still isn’t done having its way with Barrett’s creative property. A quick browse through the UK’s top suppliers of high fashion copies, and you’ll find at least twenty pieces that are more or less identical in design, if not in quality.

The high street copies the catwalk. It’s a cornerstone in the fashion system, and the first thing they teach you at fashion school where things have always either ‘bubbled up’ or ‘trickled down’ from somewhere or other. Copycatting has been the name of the game since the dawn of fashion times – and sometimes a necessary evil – but where imitation was perhaps once the most sincere form of flattery when it came to this industry, it’s effectively causing damage in the modern fashion landscape. While the couturiers of the old industry could care less if they were ripped off, independent designers – and in particular London’s ever-growing stable of young fashion businesses – need to sell a somewhat larger number of garments to make things go round.

Labels such as SIBLING have taken no prisoners when it comes to busting the high street giants, taking to social media channels to name and shame the retailers, who brazenly knock off their characteristic knits and sell them for peanuts on Oxford Street to blissfully ignorant kids. The last part about the ignorant kids is particularly important. Because aside from all the money a label like SIBLING could cash in if people bought the originals instead of the fakes, there is the question of exposure. We’ll never know if the people who buy a SIBLING rip-off do it because they love SIBLING but can’t afford it, or because they have no idea what SIBLING is, that an original even exists, and just like the garment for what it is. This active disruption to a young label’s developing recognition by the high street is even more destructive than the financial side of things.

In an industry where designers can design under the name of other either dead or retired (or bought out) designers, and interpret the unique aesthetics of these designers freely, the imitation issue is bigger than the question of whether or not the high street should be allowed to do what its doing.

 

While a super established and huge brand like Neil Barrett is doubtlessly more concerned with the money they’re losing to plagiarism, the question of imitation and flattery applies in equal amounts to the high fashion giants. Tom Ford, for instance, imposed a photography ban at his shows so the high street wouldn’t be able to knock off his designs as easily as if the pictures had been up on Style.com within the hour. Similarly, photo bans are becoming increasingly popular at press days and presentations where brands fear the ever-watchful eyes of the high street design teams constantly scouring the pages of Instagram and Twitter for their next big prey.

More shocking than the high street’s willingness produce copies is people’s willingness to wear them. It’s not even about the old cliché of quality over quantity – and obviously the real deal is very expensive, that’s for sure – but rather, why would anyone want to wear the next best thing? There’s something at once embarrassing and incredibly unfulfilling about fakes, because regardless of how ‘good’ they are you’ll always know you’re a fraud. When people have knock-offs of celebrated designer furniture in their house, said chair or sofa always inevitably ends up being defined by its fakeness. The owner even tends to tell you before you’ve asked. “Oh, and that’s that Verner Panton knock-off we found on that flea market.” (You should be so lucky.)

Paradoxically, plagiarism isn’t a crime committed by purveyors of cheap clothing only. A few seasons ago, a split screen image of a new jumper designed by a next-generation designer and a completely identical heritage brand jumper from the 70s made the rounds online. As things go in fashion, however, the backlash was practically inexistent compared to the reaction usually generated by publicised high street knock-offs, making you wonder if fashion measures the crime by the financial scope of the criminal. If the industry turns a blind eye to high fashion bootlegging and creative bankruptcy, we’re hardly in a position to frown upon similar behaviour on the high street.

Considering the levels of imitation happening in the industry, we’re suddenly left with an image of fashion as a system run pretty much entirely on replication in one way or another. 

 

In comparison, if a fashion writer copied another fashion writer’s work, the person would be shamed to no end by the journalistic corner of the industry. A famous show season parable tells the story of how a real-life fashion journalist once phoned another real-life fashion journalist on a fashion week eve, confronting the person with copying his words in what was deemed “the most derivative report I’ve ever read”. Ouch. (Apologies for the all the hidden identities in these paragraphs, by the way. On the bright side this industry’s problem with plagiarism has nothing on its commitment to self-censorship.)

In an industry where designers can design under the name of other either dead or retired (or bought out) designers, and interpret the unique aesthetics of these designers freely, the imitation issue is bigger than the question of whether or not the high street should be allowed to do what its doing. (Big brands sometimes successfully sue them, mind you, while smaller labels have no way of funding the unrealistic legal bills that come with fighting back.) Large parts of fashion are still fundamentally based on imitation being the most sincere form of flattery, but if it feels bad for a young designer seeing his work ripped off by a high street giant, being a designer and watching a stranger design under your name must be a different terror altogether.

Considering the levels of imitation happening in the industry, we’re suddenly left with an image of fashion as a system run pretty much entirely on replication in one way or another. Some would argue that the fine line between flattery and abuse cuts down through luxury retailing and high street retailing, but really, it’s always embarrassing to wear a fake – even if it’s expensive. For the younger labels of London and the world, a support system needs to be established where designers can get pro bono legal aide in fighting the retail mastodons, who make a fortune ripping them off because they know they can get away with. And as far as us consumers go, just stop wearing fakes. For your own sake, if not for anyone else.