in the fight against high-street plagiarism, fans are the secret weapons of independent brands
Armies of followers are shining a light on the corporate giants who knock off independent labels.
Image via @hopelesslingerie
Last month, Melbourne label Hopeless Lingerie found themselves at the centre of the most recent debate around how high street brands lift ideas and designs from smaller, independent creatives. After being tipped off by a Twitter follower, Hopeless discovered that online retailer ASOS were selling pieces bearing a strong resemblance to their own. Within hours, news of the similarities began to percolate online, and Hopeless joined Tuesday Bassen, Brother Vellies and fellow Aussie artist Georgia Perry as the most recent participants in an uninvited exchange of "inspiration" with a fashion giant.
It wasn't the first time Hopeless designer Gaby Adamidis had been alerted to this kind of activity, and it probably won't be the last. Gaby says she's regularly tagged in Instagram and Twitter posts by followers, alerting her to foreign labels who have copied her distinctive handmade designs. "Usually when this happens, it's small international brands, so we just ask if they can remove the items from sale and move on," she explained to i-D. But when it emerged that ASOS had allegedly lifted the style off a Hopeless set, it became clear that reaching a compromise would be a little more complex.
Since the dawn of mass production, consumers have come to accept that retail giants will pluck inspiration from houses such as Gucci or Chanel. But they're increasingly less forgiving when the same treatment is served to smaller brands.
When Hopeless posted a photo comparing their own Darla knickers and Rosemary bralette to ASOS' similar effort, their loyal army of online followers responded in digital uproar. The internet spoke and eventually, the online retailer responded, promising to look into the matter further.
Ultimately, the final result wasn't what the brand had hoped for. Gaby explains, "The company said that following an investigation, they'd decided no infringement had occurred, and that the design was the result of inspiration from customers who had 'DIY-ed' similar looks." While the response itself wasn't totally satisfying to her, she admits the consumer outcry was more important than the results.
Looking at the most recent copyright accusations from smaller brands to retail giants, it's impossible to ignore the strength of online communities in these situations. From the moment Hopeless hit publish on that Instagram post, their fans set to work doing what dedicated followings do best: they shared the photo, sent strongly worded emails and flocked to Hopeless' online checkout, adamant to show support in the form of an online shopping spree.
Within hours, their 184 thousand followers transformed a complaint into a viral movement. "Our social media following might be small compared to theirs, but it's our best chance at getting these big brands to listen," says Gaby.
Where small, self-reliant labels lack the means required to invest in lengthy legal battles and design patents, they are in excess of loyal fans, well-versed in a language of hashtagging, tweeting and multi-platform sharing. In a pre-digital world, designers suffered in silence when facing similar situations. When a number of Coco Chanel designs were copied by Suzanne Laneil in the 1930s, it wasn't until the French designer saw women wearing versions of her own trademark tuxedos on the street that she realised she'd been copied. But today, thanks to our online connectedness and camaraderie, this kind of behaviour isn't being swept under the carpet any more.
Increasingly, fans are becoming more and more aware of their power, and they're using it to protect and support the brands they love. Just look at the response Tuesday Bassen's accusations against Zara aroused earlier this year: Her initial post, which compared a number of her own designs to Zara's alleged knock-offs, clocked in at almost 44,000 likes. Currently undertaking legal action against the Spanish company (her latest post on the matter claims "now lawyers are talking to lawyers"), Bassen has kept her fans up to date with legal proceedings. She's using Instagram as a platform to incite activism, encouraging followers to "repost and tag [Zara] on Twitter, on Insta, on Facebook." And they have. Coining the #boycottzara hashtag, Bassen's fans have taken advantage of the internet's viral capabilities to help spread the word.
Also capitalising on the internet's interest in Bassen's case, friend and artist Adam J. Kurtz created online space @shoparttheft, where users could upload and compare photos of fast fashion imitations to help raise awareness of similar infringements.
Since the rise of MySpace, social media has been the most intimate link between brand and audience. It's through platforms like Instagram and Snapchat that we're allowed access into the private prisms of our favourite labels. It's through these channels that fashion fans are able to rise up. "Legal costs are out of reach for us at this time," says Gaby. "Our fans are the most powerful weapon we have."
Right now, online backlash might only be capable of arousing an apology tweet and a promise to review the matter. But as Kurtz points out, since launching shoparttheft.com, many of the items Zara was accused of copying have been removed from the company's online store. Similarly, after being bombarded by a torrent of disapproving tweets, ASOS revoked their version of the Hopeless set.
In the scheme of things, these are relatively small, inconspicuous glimmers of change. But for the industry's smaller players, they symbolise a step in the right direction.
When Hopeless joined the league of labels affected by fashion theft, it became evidently clear the high street is looking beyond the luxury market for stimuli. And rightfully so. But we can only hope the online traction inspired by these cases shows mega-brands there's a more positive solution to lifting looks. "We are definitely open to collaborating if we respect the brand's ethics," says Gaby, hinting at a possible win-win situation. "It's definitely a potential solution."
If independent labels continue to use the internet as a stage to stand up for themselves on, and fans respond accordingly, the attitudes of the industry's stalwarts might just change. And until then, the next time you notice a design resembling that of your favourite label selling in a suspicious place for a suspicious price, go forth, and raise that voice the internet gave you.
Text Amy Campbell