February 5, 2019

PIETSCH | In Defense of Fashion Knockoffs

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“Ppl knocking each other off lol,” quips the nonchalant Instagram bio of the account @diet_prada. An angry undertone is palpable in the account’s ironic humor, however. The owners of the account, and the 1.1 million users who follow it, have had enough.

Diet Prada has been popularized — and trademarked, according to the account’s name on Instagram — as a term referring to knockoffs in fashion. Within the account, a garment that resembles Prada is exposed as a cheaper rendition that leaves behind a toxic aftertaste. Consider the industry exposed.

Diet Prada is popularizing social media call-out culture through juxtapositions of originals and knockoffs. Designers are pitted at one another through tags in an awkward, public stare-down, as followers take to their comment-pitchforks. Designers-in-question have three options: defend themselves, concede or ignore the issue, accepting a loss of consumers’ respect.

Critical to understanding the account is the distinction between a knockoff and a counterfeit item. According to Women’s Wear Daily, a knockoff “resembles another item but isn’t exactly identical,” while a counterfeit good “is identical to another product” and “infringes upon its trademark.” In the fashion industry, counterfeit goods are illegal and are typically sold online. Knockoffs are permitted in the industry due to the popularity of designs and the difficulty of regulating them.

The obvious opinion denounces copied designs. When a prominent designer finds so-called inspiration from a smaller designer, the action can shut down a start-up business and defeat a designer’s ambitions. In one example, Diet Prada called out Virgil Abloh for his “luxury knockoff business,” after his brand, Off-White, presented designs remarkably similar to those created by ex-Nike employee Elisa van Joolen. She was up for a design position at Off-White that “curiously never materialized.” Entire cultures may be harmed, as well, as when Urban Outfitters added to its rich history of ripped-off designs by mocking another one: In 2016, it marketed a “Navajo print flask.” Fashion knockoffs also harm the industry as a whole. When original designs are copied without penalty, the entire creative process is undermined.

While these injustices are undoubtedly just that, I believe the right to copy designs benefits the fashion industry and is necessary for the advancement of fashion design.

The regulation of design copyright violations is infeasible. While logos or specific colors may receive trademark protection, and iconic silhouettes may qualify for trade dress protection, copyright in fashion is effectively nonexistent. Each design ultimately has too many facets to evaluate, organize and document for legal protection, and countless designs are produced each day. This is what allows Balenciaga to sell women’s “foam platform sandals,” while the fashion public gossips about the new Balenciaga “Crocs.”

Large companies, with resources to repel legal action against them, unfairly dominate with current legal policy. However, smaller businesses and designers would still lack the upper hand even if they could sue for copyrighted designs. The reality is that all designers are copied, albeit to varying extremes. While Zara profits off copying designs from lesser-known artists, legal action with stronger footing would likely still lack power. A Goliath like Zara has the power to file suit against every small designer that carries a similar silhouette for a particular shoe. Market domination continues.

Modern original content is not the product of a brilliant idea in isolation. A new design is a collection of old ones, sewn together too often with a tool fashion journalists love to call “a fresh spin” on a popular garment. As a result, it may be difficult to distinguish copying from mere coincidence. John Galliano, the creative director of Maison Margiela, expressed his frustration with the overwhelming influx of design information the Internet provides in his Spring 2019 collection. Modern designers face the unique challenge of avoiding copying existing designs, which may occur even without conscious awareness. Overwhelmed by content, Galliano expelled the imagery back out as a sensory overload of texture and color. These designs, ironically commended for their originality, are merely a regurgitation.

Amidst a laundry list of negative issues presented by the fast fashion industry, such as poor factory working conditions and an immense amount of waste, the increasing affordability of clothing presents a glimmer of light. Businesses like Zara, Forever 21 and Steve Madden are known in the industry for their knockoffs, but their ability to stay constantly on trend has rightfully resulted in their market domination. Fast fashion’s ability to copy designs on the cheap allows fashion consumers to avoid the emotion of Mike Posner’s “Cooler Than Me.” On campus, a fifty-dollar rendition of a Canada Goose is close enough.

From haute couture to ready-to-wear, fall/winter to spring/summer seasons, women’s wear to men’s wear, designers are under constant pressure to deliver new ideas. Hedi Slimane, among others, is even criticized for copying himself. Diet Prada’s account holds so many Instagram stories in twenty-four hours that one questions how its owners afford the time to focus on their own design careers.

Marcel Duchamp once said, “Art is either plagiarism or revolution.”

Victoria Pietsch is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. Fancy Pants runs every other Monday this semester. She can be reached at vpietsch@cornellsun.com.