Fashion has a huge copycat problem – with fast fashion being one of the main culprits. Not known for its originality or innovation, fast fashion is based on creating on-trend pieces of clothes at accessible price points, meaning that they jump on a trend, alter it to be more wearable and sell it for incredibly cheap prices. This often involves ripping clothing items and sometimes entire outfits from the catwalk.
For the designers who have put their blood, sweat and tears into creating unique and one of a kind designs for the world to enjoy, it’s disheartening and often frustrating. Particularly as fashion is a lot harder to protect than music, literature and similar pieces of work. Whilst borrowing or being ‘inspired’ by others is part and parcel of the fashion industry, is it ethical? And why is it that small brands suffer the most?
For well-known designers such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Chanel, copycat fashion dilutes the allure of their luxury brand and makes their style more accessible. Is this a bad thing? Perhaps not for the top-end brands that are unlikely to see a dent in profits, but unfortunately fast fashion doesn’t just mimic designs from the top dogs, they also rip designs from small businesses and emerging designers, who will feel the effects financially and be unlikely to benefit from the interest in their work.
Is it legal?
It isn’t legal, but it’s also not illegal. Protecting fashion concepts and designs isn’t as cut and dried as it is to protect other works. There are specific instances where it would be easier to prove plagiarism than others – for example a familiar and distinctive logo or pattern. However, copyrighting or trademarking other instances of fashion could prove to be much more difficult.
“Lawsuits are expensive and difficult for small brands to undertake, but the larger issue is that many shoppers don’t seem to care about where they buy their clothing. In other words, the reason this keeps happening is because consumers keep buying, and the bad press doesn’t outweigh the potential profits.” – Teen Vogue
A brand or designer could seek to take the issue to court, but it is often a lengthy and expensive process. This isn’t something that smaller brands or emerging designers would be able to afford to do and would most likely bring little benefit to them if done.
Are we naming and shaming?
Let’s take a look at some examples:
Forever 21 has been notorious for imitating a range of items from a phone case through to a feminist t-shirt design.
Zara has been accused multiple times of ripping off other brands including Balenciaga trainers and Kanye West’s Yeezys!
H&M got into trouble for using Gosha Rubchinskiy’s gothic font styling on t-shirts and hoodies.
Urban Outfitters settled with Navajo Nation after using their name illegally in a line that included jewellery, flasks and underwear.
Shein is constantly making headlines including being called out for producing rugs that resembled Muslim prayer mats – with some featuring illustrations of the Kaaba, one of Islam’s most sacred mosques. They have since apologised for the incident.
What can designers do to protect themselves?
As mentioned before, there are some ways that designers can protect elements of their work. Company names, logos, slogans etc can be trademarked meaning that they can’t be used by anyone else other than themselves. Then there is the ability to patent certain fabrics or patterns, helping protect those components of the design. However, for smaller emerging brands or designers, this can come with a cost they simply cannot pay.
“As designers in similar situations have found out over the years, there is often little they can do to protect their designs from being replicated by others. According to law firm Morgan Lewis, ‘trade dress protection’ is a tool that allows a company to keep third parties from using a design that could cause confusion in the marketplace, but the item must be ‘non-functional’ in order to qualify. That means that a drawn design, print, or logo that’s distinctive to the brand is protected, but a pair of shorts is not. Similarly, copyrights — exclusive legal rights that grant the originator the power to decide who or what can recreate their copyrighted property — give designers legal protection against copycats only when it comes to design.” – Refinery29
It doesn’t look like fast fashion is going to go anywhere fast. And whilst in some ways, it brings positive elements to the fashion world such as speeding up the trend cycle, providing more accessible and affordable options for those that may not otherwise be able to afford certain brands or designers – there are some definite dark sides to the copycat element it brings also, putting younger, less established and emerging brands on the back foot.
There are lots more issues with the fast fashion industry, including the problem with waste, environmental issues and lack of sustainability too. I’m sure you’ll see articles from us in future tackling these topics and themes!