“So, this is an American Apparel redux?”, one Instagram user commented on an image of a young woman named Julie wearing nothing but a light pink pair of underwear and an unbuttoned denim jacket. The next image features Stephanie, who is provocatively posed in a black bodysuit. After that is Karlais pictured in a pair of jeans with her arms crossed over her bare chest. The images are eerily familiar.
It might not be until you see a subsequent Instagram post promoting the brand’s tights – which are, according to the caption, “sweatshop-free” and “made in the USA,” that it becomes clear. Or maybe it is when you come across the blurb on its website – “Vision. Passion. Innovation. Living Wages. Sustainability … That’s Los Angeles," which is feels quite a bit like, “Globally Sourced, Ethically Made, Still Sweatshop Free. That’s American Apparel,” which is listed on American Apparel’s website – that it hits you.
This brand – with its casual-but-undeniably sex-centric imagery and proud focus on domestic, sweatshop-free, ethical manufacturing, and its utterly basic, print-devoid wares – looks and feels a lot like a knockoff of American Apparel.
Yes, Los Angeles Apparel is a dead-ringer for American Apparel. The reason for the undeniably overt similarities? The barely 2-year old Los Angeles Apparel is the brain child of Dov Charney, the scandal-happy founder and former CEO of American Apparel, who was suspended by the company’s board in June 2014 for “alleged misconduct and violations of company policy” and formally ousted several months later. Around that time, Charney – who launched American Apparel in 1989 from his dorm room at Tufts University – was making headlines on a rather recurring basis, mostly tied to sexual harassment lawsuits he was facing and legal and financial woes tied to the once-wildly-successful company he founded.
But then, in the summer of 2017, Charney began receiving media attention of a different kind: he was launching a new label.
The similarities between the two companies have been significant from the get-go. Charney’s new wares are basically identical to American Apparel’s products. Beyond that, the companies share wholesalers, ethical manufacturing mantras, and real girl-inspired, overtly racy advertising. Unsurprisingly, Los Angeles Apparel’s direct-to-consumer advertising has proven to be something of a carbon copy of American Apparel’s ads, one of the elements that helped put American Apparel on the map in the first place.
The short of this is that Charney appears to have taken his American Apparel formula, called it Los Angeles Apparel, and now is competing with the company from which he was expelled.
Meanwhile, the upper echelon of the fashion industry – abuzz with creative directorial changes, as big name creatives increasingly jump from one house to another – is experiencing something similar. Consider the recent similarities between Saint Laurent and Celine thanks to the appointment of former Saint Laurent creative director Hedi Slimane to the helm of LVMH-owned Celine.
Following an ugly legal battle over the non-compete clause in his Saint Laurent contract, Slimane – who is best known for his super-skinny suits and rocker aesthetic, which first popped up at Dior Homme in the early-to-mid-2000’s and made their way to Saint Laurent with him thereafter – took the top spot at Celine in January 2018. Judging by the clothes and reviews of his debut collection in September, at least one of which (from veteran critic Booth Moore) asked, “Was Hedi Slimane's Celine Debut Saint Laurent 2.0?”, he brought that same signature with him to Celine, as well.
Slimane is now doing more-or-less same things for Celine as he was at Saint Laurent – from some of the garments, themselves, (and the models wearing them) right down to the vibes of the ad campaigns and the stark look of Celine’s newly revamped website. As such, he is essentially competing against his own aesthetic.
However, given that his aesthetic has lived on at Saint Laurent to some extent since a number of designers that worked under him are still in place, now under his successor Anthony Vaccarello, the similarities that have popped up at Celine mean that Slimane is not only competing against himself, he is potentially competing against his former employer, which raises some interesting legal questions.
Is this legal? Should this be legal?
The answer is somewhat straightforward. As long as legally-protected designs (such as the trade dress and/or the design patent-protected accessories that Slimane created during his time at the helm of Saint Laurent) are not copied, trade secret information is not misappropriated, and non-compete clauses – legal provisions that prevent employees from up-and-immediately joining a rival brand after leaving a post – are not breached, the changing of the guard is almost certainly legal.
In the cases of Slimane and Charney, the saving grace or the kicker (depending on who you ask) seems to be that both men took their well-established aesthetics with them when they started their work elsewhere. And to to be frank, this is largely to be expected. Before the crash-and-burn of American Apparel, Charney found success with the apparel basics that his brand was offering paired with the headline-making raunchiness of its ad campaigns.
The same holds true for Slimane. The super-skinny, high fashion H&M, rock-n-roll wares – and the lifestyle associated with them – made him a cash cow for Saint Laurent. In fact, Slimane has a cult following that is invested in his aesthetic and is willing to shell out major cash for almost anything he creates. Celine’s corporate parent, LVMH, knows this, and it would be silly to assume that the success of his Saint Laurent revamp and the marketability/sellability of his wares did not play a significant role in prompting LVMH’s executives to get him on board at Celine.
These factors are also undoubtedly what led the LVMH powers that be to give him almost completely unbridled creative control over the brand, and freedom to very clearly break from the much-loved Céline-under-Phoebe Philo aesthetic despite much fan fury.
While Charney and Slimane sit in two very different positions in fashion, the commonality between them is that, for the most part, they did not necessarily take any legally-actionable design elements or exact garments with them (although an argument could potentially be made about the ripple-embellished dress that Slimane showed for Saint Laurent F/W16 and Celine SS19). Instead, they took their overall aesthetics, and legally speaking, little can be done when something as broad as an aesthetic is copied.
After all, an aesthetic is not protected by law, meaning that it can be replicated freely. Because of technicalities in copyright law, garments and accessories, themselves, cannot be protected as a whole, either. Still yet, creative ideas – as opposed to the specific and tangible expression of those ideas – are not protectable, which gives creatives even more leeway when they want to bring their well-honed look with them somewhere else.
Are these cash grabs giving rise to behind-the-scenes tensions, particularly between luxury rivals LVMH (which owns Celine) and Kering (parent to Saint Laurent)? It would not be surprising if they are, because, in reality, consumers are fickle creatures and they tend to want to the newest, most heavily-hyped (on Instagram) offerings. In a fight to the death, Celine under Hedi, due to its sheer novelty, would likely prevail over the lingering vibes of Hedi for Saint Laurent – lookalike websites and all.
As for whether these seemingly legal plays are examples of ethically sound or fair business dealings is another matter entirely. However, as it stands, it seems (almost) all is fair in rival fashion.