Thursday, March 30, 2006
No More Knockoffs?
There was a time when I wanted an Izod shirt so badly that I actually hand-embroidered a fake alligator and put it on a sweater I had bought in Japan. For a finishing touch, a nice boy gave me the label off of his authentic Izod sweater and I sewed it in over my sweater's original tag. The problem, of course, is that if you were a quiet but inwardly precocious child like me, it was very, very hard to keep quiet about this kind of prank. When people came up to congratulate me on my new sweater, I'd lead them on for a while, then go in for the "big reveal."
I never managed to do a good Polo logo. There was something about the way the polo rider's head was turned and the horses legs were bent that made it difficult to do neatly by hand.
I was just enormously frustrated as a teenager that our shopping options made it so clear who had a real Izod shirt and who did not; it seemed so obvious to me that there was room in the market for stylish but affordable knockoffs, and now, all these years later, there are shops where you can go to find a decent "Prada" looking bag if that is what you want.
The New York Times has an article (reg. req'd) this morning about the proliferation of knockoffs in fashion. A similar article ran in the Telegraph last year. The Personally, I think the whole knockoff thing is fabulous, though it makes shopping for truly original pieces to add to your closet a challenge . . . or an adventure, depending on your personality or point of view.
A few designers, like Zac Posen and Diane von Furstenberg have banded together to try to pass legislation that will protect "original designs." Allen B. Schwartz, who owns, like, the most successful knock-off company ever says:
"That is the most ridiculous thing," Mr. Schwartz said. "There is no such
thing as an original design. All these designers are getting their inspiration
from things that were done before. To me a spaghetti strap is a spaghetti strap,
and a cowl neck is a cowl neck."
Personally, I love all the kockoffs, but then I also tend to like a little bit of chaos thrown into an ordered world to see how people will react.
How original is design really? A few years ago when I went to Mexico, I fell in love with a small store selling original Mayan art. We even came home with a few pieces; I absolutely loved this oil painting by a Mayan shamaness (detail above); for me it showed the power of storytelling and myth all at once.
The store owner, who was German, had a few nice pieces of embroidered Mayan textiles. I admired them and then he said to me:
"I had more a few weeeks ago. But John Galliano came and bought almost everything I had."
Well, that was pretty interesting. And, hey, no coincidence, what did John Galliano design for the following year's of fall collection?
I happen to love John Galliano. He is exactly the kind of intense, creative, bizarre personality I like and feel comfortable with. Never mind that, since I'm neither an Amazonian, gorgeous woman nor a young gay man, I'm not likely to ever get his attention. For those who are keeping score, can you believe that this is something like the 5th year that the peasant blouse and skirt are still around? I won't give Galliano full credit for introducing it into our closets (or the racks of H&M) but I think it's pretty clear that he was a major factor in its sudden popularity. Plus, as my friend Debbie says, there is the fact that embroidery is very cheap if you contract labor in China.
But all this did make me wonder and think about how things come "into vogue." It also makes me think about how writers come up with stories, and deal with the pesky issue of cultural appropriation and originality, which will probably be a part of the dialogue in writer's circles for a long time to come.
In addition to someone like Galliano going off on his research trips, I have also come to notice how clothing designers pick through vintage stores to look for inspiration. There is, for example, and incredible resale shop near where I live. If you go there on a given afternoon -- and particularly on a Friday or Saturday -- you will see, alongside poorer New Yorkers looking for a bargain, models, Manhattanites and fashion designers looking for something to knock-off. Every now and then, when I am in a picking frenzy, dealers will come up to me in Chez Marie and ask me if I am a) a dealer or b) a designer. When I say that I am neither, they do invariably ask me if I am interested in working for them as a picker (ie., I pick clothes that I think are stylish, and turn them over for resale or design research. I have always said "No.")
The other thing I have noticed -- and I do wish I have photos, but I don't for obvious reasons -- is that if you go to a true sample sale in New York, you will often find for sale, alongside the samples of famous designers, racks of "vintage clothes" which a designers used to inspire their own creations. How wierd is that? Not only can you buy a discarded sample, but you can also buy the original thrift store item which inspired the sample!
I am not the only one out there going to resale shops like this. It's a growing trend and has been for a while. And the designers and store owners are responding by actually putting vintage items for sale in retail stores.
How do you legally protect originality? Writers are forever talking about how there are really only a few plots (romance, quest, tragedy, etc.). Cynical readers constantly say things like, "Well, I thought it was clearly John Fowles The Magus but set in Silicon Valley during the boom years." I mean, even to pitch a novel, you are supposed to say things like: "Think Amy Tan but with a Godfather twist" to describe a book. So, are there really only a few designs just as there are a few plots? Is everything just inspiration or a reinterpretation?
The aforementioned New York Times article has this quote;
Stan Herman, the president of the Council of Fashion Designers, sees the
matter as clear cut. "It's not as complex as everybody's making it," he said.
"To take somebody's design and make a line-for-line copy, that should be
This makes sense to me. You can't plagiarize, and you shouldn't be able to do line copies in fashion. After that, things get murky.