Reformation has been the subject of consistent praise since it launched in 2009. Known for its eco-friendly garments, its celebrity fans, and its cult-worthy “Cindy Crawford” sweatshirt, of course, Reformation is now receiving some less than praiseworthy press. The Los Angeles-based brand, which was founded by Yael Aflalo and has since welcomed investors like supermodel Karlie Kloss, is coming under fire for allegedly copying the work of its former fashion director, Sarah Staudinger. According to Staudinger, who left Reformation in 2013 to launch her own brand, STAUD, a number of Reformation’s most recent designs look very similar to pieces from her Fall/Winter collection.
STAUD vs. REFORMATION
The timeline is as follows: the STAUD products at issue were released by way of the brand’s lookbook in October 2015. Reformation, which prides itself for its ethical business model, has released images containing the strikingly similar garments over the past couple of weeks. Staudinger told New York Magazine’s the Cut that she noticed some of the similarities for the first time roughly two weeks ago, but brushed it off. She says she then received a call from "someone internally who works [at Reformation],” who told her that the STAUD “website was pulled up in the [Reformation] office and they were very uncomfortable with the situation, and they wanted to warn me."
What exactly are the similarities? A dress with similar necklines and straps; short sleeve minidresses that both bear up-the-front zippers, complete with circular zipper pulls; flare legged pants with the same aforementioned zippers and similar placement; double-breasted denim trench coats; and t-shirts with striped details around the neck and sleeves. While these are pretty straightforward designs, taken together, the similarities do suggest foul play. According to Staudinger, “The fact that it's all at once, and so blatant, is what shocks me the most.” She claims that the styling of the looks is pretty similar, as well.
The legally-minded amongst us will note that none of the allegedly copied designs/design elements are protected by law, as they are all either staple designs (such as the trench coat) that would not meet the “originality” prong required to achieve copyright protection, and even if they did, they still fall outside of the scope of copyright protection because they are embodied in garments. As you may know, copyright law in the U.S. does not protect useful articles, such as clothing.
THE POWER OF PUBLIC SHAMING
However, as we have learned, particularly in recent years, just because a designer lacks the legal ground to pursue litigation does not mean they will not prevail in the court of public opinion. The rise of the internet and social media, in particular, has given designers a platform to publicly call foul when they believe their designs have been copied.
And both fashion sites and designers, alike, have not been shy to do just that. In fact, we see this quite regularly, with Fashionista’s longstanding column “Adventures in Copyright” to our own escapes in calling out copies. Designers also personally take to their social media accounts to call, Copy! You may recall that in December 2013, celebrated designer Sophia Webster took to her Instagram account to share a side-by-side image of a bag of hers and a lookalike version that Nasty Gal was selling, along with the following caption: "Nice Try @NastyGal #COPYCAT #SpeechBubbleClutch #SWHQ." When the same fast fashion retailer copied Australian brand, Di$count Universe, Nadia Napreychikov and Cami James, the founders of Di$count, took to their Facebook and Instagram accounts to slam the retailer for copying.
While Nasty Gal and other fast fashion brands (which base their entire model on copying) tend to ignore such negative shout outs, non-fast fashion brands have been known to take the high road when caught in such a bind, pulling the allegedly infringing item from its shelves and issuing an apology. You may recall that this is exactly what Chanel has done in the few instances when it has been accused of copying. (Remember this one?) Other brands have also followed suit. As a result, such public shaming of sorts “might be just as effective as the legal system when it comes to protecting a designer’s creation from copyists,” according to a recent article by WWD.
There certainly is an argument in its favor, especially when the allegedly copied item is a garment, which are almost never protected by law and thus, when copied, the original designer is left without legal recourse. Or in instances when the brand that has been copied is a small one that likely lacks the resources to initiate a lawsuit even if it has the legal basis to do so. In such instances, public, free and lawyer-free social media shaming is not a bad alternative. “The power of social shaming has become a critical defense for smaller companies in particular, although hopes that fans will send out a flurry of outraged tweets and posts that go viral is an iffy shield for designers at best. But when it works, it works,” WWD’s Rachel Strugatz wrote.
We will have to wait and see what Reformation does next. But it is certainly worth noting that there is more at stake here than a few lookalike garments, in part because Reformation holds itself out as a good guy in the big bad fashion industry. In addition to making the brand look like an unethical copycat, Staudinger’s outcry seems to shed light on how Reformation treats its employees and former employees; don’t forget that Staudinger worked for Reformation for a number of years. Not only is bad press a bad business move, sending the message that a company does not value or respect the work of its current and/or former employees could have longstanding effects and make it difficult to lure in top talent. And as we know, once a company earns a reputation it can be hard to shake.
With this in mind and considering that Reformation bases its business on the notions of sustainability and ethics, it is likely in the brand’s interest to take some corrective action here and not just wait for the bad PR buzz to blow over.