image: Vetements, Cedric Charlier

image: Vetements, Cedric Charlier

Social media is inundated with claims of copying. In many cases, these social media-centric complaints have been lodged either because: 1) The targeted designer – i.e., the who was copied lacked legal recourse (likely due to the structure of copyright law in the U.S., which does not protect useful things like garments and accessories in their entirely, the cost associated with patent law, or the fact that trademark law only protects source-identifying designs), or 2) the designer who has been copied does have a merited case, but hiring legal counsel is not a financially viable option. 

Nowadays, the line between “inspiration” and “imitation” is being blurred significantly and with increasing frequency, thereby giving rise to claims of “copying” that simply are not reasonable or viable claims and this is damning for the fashion industry. 

It is not unusual for fast fashion retailers to churn out cheap copies that look a whole lot like another’s previously shown design. Zara, H&M, Forever 21, Mango, and co. have made built wildly lucrative businesses based on the selling of garments “inspired by” others’ designs, a perfectly legal and ethical move – when they are, in fact, erring on the side of inspiration. (Note: Inspiration is different than imitation).

The same can be said of big fashion brands, which are not in any way immune to the practice of taking inspiration from other big fashion brands, or even smaller fashion brands, or in some cases, imitating them. This has been fashion’s practice for maybe as long as commercialized fashion has been around, and it is important to unequivocally state that the entire fashion industry is based (and has almost always been based) on the ebb and flow of inspiration and facilitation of trends. 

Referencing previously shown designs, i.e., taking inspiration from others is distinct from imitating earlier works. Imitation refers to the production of identical copies and/or the substantial copying other artistic works. This is the type of replication that would run afoul of intellectual property laws, if we considered it in a legal context.

Speaking outside of the legal realm – largely because copyright law is notoriously limited for garments and accessories in the U.S. (more about that here) and thereby, not particularly helpful – imitation is the blatant replication of the cut, construction, print, pattern, and/or other features of another garment or accessory.

Imitation is different, of course, from inspiration, the latter of which entails taking existing elements and interpreting them in a new way. Inspiration is extremely commonplace not only because so much has already been done (i.e., jeans have been around since the late 1800’s), but because fashion at its core is driven by the practice of adopting design elements of the past and adapting them so they resonate with modern day consumers. 

This sentiment is increasingly lost when designers or the many social media accounts/websites dedicated to “spotting copies” post side-by-side images and (erroneously and potentially illegally if we consider the tenets of defamation law) call “IMITATION!,” when the word they are actually looking for is … inspiration.

What is different now that had led to the influx of claims of “copying”? Well, for one thing, it is simply very easy in 2018 for anyone with access to Vogue Runway to pinpoint designers’ inspirations, put them side by side, post them on social media, and gain a following. It is also worth noting that in 2018, in light of the wildly sped-up fashion cycle, these inspirations are being referenced in much closer proximity (time wise) to the earlier rendition. 

The promotion of inspiration – even by fast fashion retailers – may seem like a strange argument coming from a website that is largely protectionist in nature, one that believes that designers and garments deserve the same level of protection as photographers and photos, painters and paintings, singers and songs.

However, there is a fine line between imitation and inspiration (legally and otherwise), and it is an important one – one that cannot be confused or widely misused – because fashion so thoroughly depends on the ability to draw inspiration from existing sources … because the silhouette of the pencil skirt already exists and the button-up white shirt has already been done.

If we were to start calling ‘COPY!’ every time an existing element was used, fashion would be left in an inherently problematic position.