Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Copyrighting Fashion

With the craziness of driving cross-country and moving into my dorm this weekend behind me, I finally was able to catch up on the weekend's news yesterday, and I noticed two related articles in Sunday and Monday's New York Times. On Sunday, Guy Trebay's article "Admit It. You Love It. It Matters," argued that fashion shouldn't be viewed as superficial, consumerist, elitist or anti-intellectual, but as a potent art and cultural form. As he writes, "clothes are ideas," ideas that are used as cultural, political, personal and creative expression.

This is an argument I've heard, and even made, many times. Yet when I read this article on the contentious issue of designer knock-offs and whether fashion designs should be copyrighted, I had a hard time viewing the designers as artists who deserve protection from others profiting from their creations.

Like all art forms, designers build off of each other's ideas, tweaking cut, color, pattern and proportion to create something new and different. As an art history major, I've learned how even the most original and prolific artists in history were constantly copying and engaging with other artists' work. Artists, composers, musicians, architects, filmmakers and designers do not work in vacuums, they need exposure to the work of others to find their own place in the cultural dialogue.

But just as Picasso and Bracht didn't copyright cubism and Brunelleschi didn't sue the millions of artists who used 3-point perspective after he invented it, it seems unfair that Diane von Furstenburg should get royalties on every wrap dress produced, or Miuccia Prada should get a check for every colored knee-sock purchased round the world.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America is distinguishing the copying of clothes by discount designer stores like H&M and Forever 21 from copying by other A-list designers, arguing that when nearly every detail of a dress or handbag is reproduced, then sold at a huge discount, the designer's ideas are being stolen. Their real problem is that the factories that produce these clothes are able to churn them out and get them to consumers before the "real thing" arrives in stores months later.

The irony is that this has been a problem for artists forever, as there's nothing stopping an artist from viewing another's unfinished work and quickly painting a nearly identical version, or copying inventive techniques, beating the first artist to market and often getting credit for the other artist's innovations. Just consider just how many similar paintings of bathers or sculptures of Jesus exist... are they the property of just one person?

When it comes down to it, the CFDA is really just concerned about losing money and retaining their elite status. I think a large part of that is dependent on keeping their products exclusive and available to a select few. I don't think that the market for discount and knock-off clothes and accessories will ever come close to replacing the designer market, as there will always be people who want the best quality and the real deal.

Finally, I don't see discount store copies as truly identical products, as the quality of the pieces available at H&M could never compare to those off the Chanel runway. It's the equivalent of buying a Pollock poster or the real thing...they might look the same from across the room, but there's a very large and obvious difference, and people will gladly pay many times as much for the genuine article.


Kelly Mahoney said...

I don't think you should be able to copyright fashion. Let's face it, it's just like music -- it's all been done before. It's just a matter of how far back in history you look.

I know designers get all bent out of shape about knock offs, but Louis Vuitton is the best example of why I think there's nothing wrong with it. Recently, they went to a mechanical system of making their bags, thus eliminating the claim that they were original, hand-made, one of a kind bags. It's just another purse made automatically, as far as I'm concerned, and I can no longer justify the expense.

winnie said...

I think it isn't applicable to use 3-point perspective and jesus as examples since 3-point perspective is simply a discovery much like science. It exists in the natural world so how can you copyright that? You can copyright a method of reproducing the effect of perspective on canvas but if you simply say hey look when you around you, everything appears to recede towards three points or two points or etc., you can't say i copyright nature.

As for images of jesus, jesus is cultural/religious property. The artwork of the medieval ages were considered public property pretty much and no one thought to put their name on their work.

Personally, I don't think it's right to buy knock-offs. You could simply buy a cheaper item that does not look like a designer item but people don't. If you are buying something because of the way it looks then the original designer should get credit and paid. As for the posters, the original painters or artists or foundations that currently own the piece do get paid for use of the images so that isn't a good example. (Even Disney gets to decide who uses Mickey's image and how much they pay to use that image.)

As much as everyone hates the idea of paying a lot of money for designer items, thats what they want. They want the ideas and imagination of designer pieces. I see it as intellectual property. It is fine if you are influenced by someone else. But the images you show clearly demonstrate a copy not and influence.

If you can't design your own clothes and make them yourself, the ppl who are designing them should be paid. It is simple as that. It doesnt matter how much they charge. Someone is willing to pay for it. If you can't it is unfair to make another person rich who is simply stealing the idea instead of being influenced by the idea.

Ms. P&C said...

I also posted about the Guy Trebay article, but found a different take! I love how each blogger finds their own idea in the same source...a bit like designers, non?

Just to be purely devil's advocate, what about the trickle-up theory of fashion we've been seeing over the past decade or so? Actually, one would go as far back as Marc Jacobs' seminal "grunge" collection for Perry Ellis - that came direct from the street and designers have been getting inspiration from the bottom ever since!

So, one could say that H&M, Forever 21, and all the other stores that cater to the young and stylish-with-no-money are actually inspiring the designers as their more accessible looks get worn by more people than the "designer client" demographic.

Then, they get captured by the trend forecasters, put in a big expensive report, and given to the designers who create collections based on the findings...

It IS a vicious cycle isn't it?

lisa said...

"Personally, I don't think it's right to buy knock-offs. You could simply buy a cheaper item that does not look like a designer item but people don't. If you are buying something because of the way it looks then the original designer should get credit and paid." - winnie

Simply buying a cheaper item that doesn't look like the original isn't actually all that simple. Even if the item isn't an exact replica of the original item, many mid-market stores and designers often mimic the trends that show up in high-end lines and on runways. Someone who just likes good design and pays attention to trends without bothering to find out which designer the trend comes from can't "simply" make the conscientious choice to purchase something that does not look like a designer, because the knock-offs predominate the market for the season. For example, this season has seen a lot of quilted textures in bags and shoes; does that mean every time a quilted bag or pair of shoes is purchased, a percentage of that should go to Chanel and Marc Jacobs?

On top of that, designers aren't exactly super-innovative all the time. As other comments have pointed out, things get recycled and it's all been done. Consider the "skinny belt over sweater and skirt" look that Louis Vuitton popularized for the fall season. Does that mean longish sweater and skinny belt sales should generate royalties for Louis Vuitton? All they did was pair pre-existing clothes together in a certain way for the runway.

Veronica said...

I agree with you 100%. Unless there is exact copying including quality of materials and logo, then i don't think there's really a case.

Fashion designers are inspired by each other and other sources all the time. This season we're seeing a lot of 1940's style clothing, which although feels new in a sense, has all been done before. Also, i agree with lisa about how many designers are inspired from what people on the street wear. So, i suppose every time they see a hobo or a school girl who inspires them they should talk to them, create a contract with them, and give them royalties. In addition, Marc Jacobs should be paying royalties to Chanel because Chanel obviously did the quilted bag thing first. Please. This is just ridiculous.

The band Aqualung copied note for note a song by Bach which they just syncopated and played on different instruments. Then, That same song was changed a bit more to be used by Andrew Lloyd Webber in Jesus Christ Superstar. I seriously doubt that Bach was paid royalties by either.

When we get down to it, places like H&M don't copy every single detail of a piece. There is no designer logo on the tag and the quality certainly isn't the same, not to mention there are usually slight differences in design details. If you know designer apparel enough to recognize who the H&M piece is copying, they you'll know well enough to recognize it as a copy and not the original.

If anything I think this helps the high end designers. Think about it. You're a girl who likes cute clothes but who doesn't really know much about designer clothes. You buy a cute dress from H&M. Then, your friend, who knows a lot about designer clothes, says to you "oh my gosh, that looks so much like the new Marni dress!". You're going to go "wow" and might even look it up. Your friend will know that it isn't the Marni dress. So will anyone else who knows what the Marni dress actually looks like, but you just found out who Marni is and your curiosity is piqued.

Another case in point, Surrealism is coming back big on runways this season. Schiaparelli did it all first. There were even some designs that were obviously copies of her work in the 30's. Does this mean that Dior and the other designers who went with a surrealistic look should be paying Royalties?

winnie said...

"On top of that, designers aren't exactly super-innovative all the time. As other comments have pointed out, things get recycled and it's all been done. Consider the "skinny belt over sweater and skirt" look that Louis Vuitton popularized for the fall season. Does that mean longish sweater and skinny belt sales should generate royalties for Louis Vuitton? All they did was pair pre-existing clothes together in a certain way for the runway"

Hi Lisa, I didn't say that designers can copyright a look. But they can copyright a specific print/logo they designed that is not something generic. In the NY Times article, Anna Sui mentions that Forever 21 knocked off many of the prints that she designed specifically for her dresses. When designers talk about copyrighting designs, they don't normally mean that they can copyright the shape and cut of a pencil skirt.

In literature, you wouldn't take paragraphs out of other ppl's work and call it your own. Why should you be allowed to do that in fashion?.

And as I mentioned before, being influenced by something is fine. Making something that looks like a cheap copy is not.

The industry makes knock-offs because there is a demand for knock-offs. This has only happened recently with the rise of the internet and the access the public has to design.

lisa said...

Hi Winnie,

You argue your points well and your perspective is valid, but somehow I still have a lot of trouble buying the idea that designers' work should be copyrighted to prevent knock-offs. If this were strictly about acknowledging a designer's hard work, fine, but I think that as Meg said, in the end it's about keeping designer fashions elite and expensive.

You made an analogy between plagiarism and copying another designer's work. As an English literature student and recent university graduate, when I cited a scholarly paper, I acknowledged the writer of that paper as the source of an idea that I use. I did not pay the writer for the right to cite their ideas. I therefore think this analogy is problematic, as one of the major reasons cited by the designers in the NY Times article for copyrighting designs is money.

But for the sake of argument, let's go back to the question of acknowledgement and forget the money. I'm not convinced copyrighting designs and prints is the only way to give designers the acknowledgement they deserve. Even without copyrighting, many people recognize Levi Strauss as the inventor of blue jeans and know Valentino has a signature shade of red. Consumers with some knowledge of fashion history can recognize a print on a bright scarf at Claire's that's inspired by Pucci and know that Scottish clans have distinctive plaids.

Raven said...

Anyone into the issues of knock-off fashion should read Counterfeit Chic:

It's entertaining, and a notable break from standard fashion blogs and articles.