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A short history of design theft in fashion

Gucci isn't the first or last brand to steal ideas

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Earlier this week, Gucci unveiled their 2018 Cruise collection. One particular garment caused controversy due to its uncanny likeness to a jacket designed by Dapper Dan, the legendary Harlem-based tailor who made his mark in the 1980s creating custom pieces for rappers and athletes. Gucci, a label that’s spent the last few years affiliating itself with black culture, upset many by making no mention of the African American designer until after the backlash.

Idea theft in fashion isn’t new; social media just makes it seem more frequent because everyone now has a platform to highlight it. Sometimes the use of others’ ideas is harmless and comical (Balenciaga’s Ikea bag comes to mind), but what if the idea being stolen isn’t from a brand of equal size? That’s when matters get morally murky, especially if a mega-label disguises stealing an idea as a well-intentioned “homage”. This leads us to the question: where does one draw the line between influence and theft in fashion?

Firstly, let’s name and shame a few other fashion giants guilty of stealing ideas. Let’s start with Moschino. The Italian house, creatively directed by Jeremy Scott, recently battled a messy lawsuit after plagiarising the mural ‘Vandal Eyes’ by graffiti artist Joseph Tierney, aka RIME. The artist’s work was printed on gowns worn by Gigi Hadid and Katy Perry on the runway and Met Gala red carpet respectively. Tierney was particularly bothered by the misappropriation of his work considering both the Moschino and Jeremy Scott brand names were superimposed over the graffiti to look apart of the original work. Moschino and its creative director unfortunately got off the hook, scot-free (excuse the pun), because the act of graffiti is unlawful in itself—violations of the law, no matter how artistic, don’t have copyright privileges.

Another case of fashion piracy comes from Chanel. The iconic French brand came under fire early last year for copying the knitwear garments of Scottish designer Mati Ventrillon. The story goes: months before the suspicious garments went down the runway, Ventrillon sold a few of her original pieces to Chanel staff who came to visit her. The designer says she was under the impression they were being used for research only. Considering the revered reputation of the French house she didn’t expect them to be copied. Fortunately for her, after airing her frustration on social media, Chanel promptly issued a full apology.

During Hedi Slimane’s tenure at Saint Laurent, the creative director called upon questionable inspiration for a few of his collections. Slimane went in a different direction to most luxury designers and knocked off clothing sold by fast fashion chains—specifically, a lipstick print dress by Forever 21. The original sold at $23, Slimane’s at $3490.

It’s the commonplace occurrence of designers keeping up with others that’s possibly the reason why brands feel they can send an unoriginal garment down the runway and get away with it. Often the magnitude of brands like Gucci means they feel untouchable because emerging designers don’t have the financial aid to retaliate with legal action.

However, it’s social media that gives small labels the ammunition to fire back when copied and lets others know what’s happened with clear evidence. Tweeting or writing blog posts is much less expensive than legal council. If posts go viral, which they often do, they can create major PR issues for big brands. Had Mati Ventrillon not taken to social media to blame Chanel for copying her work, the brand wouldn’t have given an apology or gone on to credit Ventrillon in its communication tools, recognising her as the source of inspiration. Whether she received financial compensation is still unknown.

Throughout history people have always looked to high fashion brands like Gucci, Moschino, Chanel, and Saint Laurent as leaders and innovators. But what does it mean for fashion if these labels are no longer doing that and instead are churning out other’s ideas? Or maybe they always have been and it’s only now that we have the technology to spotlight it.

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