Spanish fast fashion giant, Zara, has gotten pretty good at avoiding legal battles, stemming from the designs it shows each season, with a few notable exceptions, of course. (Think: the case it won against Christian Louboutin, for one thing). So, while the company largely manages to steer clear of copyright, trademark and/or design patent litigation, it does copy head-to-toe looks - minus the obvious differences in quality.
This is fast fashion. This is the democratization of fashion. Everyone should be able to afford clothing. The button up shirt is not new and should not be protected, etc. None of those points are up for debate. My interest stems from the following: The way luxury consumers shop is changing. Designer x mass-market collaborations are viewed much differently than they were in the past. (You may recall that when Halston teamed up with JC-Penney for a line of dresses in 1983, Bergdorf Goodman immediately dropped him. No questions asked). It is also no longer taboo to mix high and low.
Celine Pre-Fall 2013 (left) & Zara (right)
Along with this change in attitude amongst luxury consumers (which is likely due to a combination of the fact that the rich are proven to be shopping differently, and the lingering economic side effects of the recession), some brands are stepping up their game a bit, so to speak. Zara is using 100% silk. Club Monaco is launching a high end line. H&M designed a "Paris" collection (which it showed during Paris Fashion Week) and launched sister company, & Other Stories, which is a few steps up the totem pole, in terms of quality.
Now, I'm not saying that Forever 21 is ever going to compete with Chanel, or that Zara is on the same plane as Celine. Instead, I'm suggesting that we may be inching towards something like this. (With the clear distinction that Forever 21 will NEVER actually compete with Chanel). It seems that some fast fashion and/or mainstream retailers, which notoriously use cheap labor, are upping their materials quality, while continuing to copy high end designers. As a result: a better product (than before) and one that still retails for quite a bit less. With the stigma of mixing high and low significantly lessening, I don't think it would be a stretch to say consumers would trade off between a $300 Theory blouse and one $150 one from Zara, if Zara were to improve the quality of its garments. Under this same reasoning, they may also opt for a $350 Zara blouse instead of a $600 Celine blouse.
I choose Zara not just because, but because Zara's business model would likely better support this new theoretical model of "improved" fast fashion. As you likely already know, Zara operates on a system of limited quantities (relative to other fast fashion chains) and high turnover. Essentially, if Zara were to increase the quality of its wares and increase its retail prices (while only increasing its costs relating to fabrics and materials - because are they really going to start employing seamstresses in the NYC garment district, or even China, anytime soon? No.), it could get away with selling quite a bit less.
In this way, design piracy (as distinguished from copyright infringement and/or trademark counterfeiting) is problematic to design houses in a very real way. It would be forcing design houses (think: brands that range from Celine to Altuzarra) to compete directly with companies that are stealing their original designs, their styling, and their aesthetic; except, the fast fashion retailers have the benefit of cheap labor and very, very little resources being spent to pay designers.
I distinguish design piracy from copyright infringement and trademark counterfeiting because these forms of copying are, in my opinion, harmful to brands, regardless of whether they are directly competing with the copiers. If the market is saturated with fake Louis Vuitton bags, authentic Louis Vuitton bags become less desirable. Not because luxury buyers are purchasing fakes instead of real bags, but because the majority of consistent buyers of luxury garments and accessories don't want what everyone (literally almost everyone) has.
With this in mind, while the increase in quality of materials among fast fashion and mainstream retailers, and the proliferation of high end lines by these same retailers, is, in many ways a very good thing for consumers, it is a warning sign of sorts for US-based designers. Why just American designers? Well, as you may have heard (but more likely have seen by way of the massive amount of perfectly legal "look for less" fashions), while protection for clothing designs exists in the U.S. to a certain extent (limited protection via copyright law and trademark law, and costly/time-consuming design patents), it does not match the protection provided to designers in our fashion counterparts' countries; namely, France, Italy and the UK. As such, if mainstream labels continue to increase the quality of their wares and the mindset of the consuming public continues to grow in, competition between luxury design brands and mainstream brands may be in effect. Thoughts?