Is Copying Couture Criminal?

 

London fashion week came to a close last week. We have now seen what high end retailers will be selling in 6 months; high street brands will now rush to put out similar items, or copies of the designs unveiled on the catwalk…but should high street shops be allowed to get away with it? By copying those Gucci shoes from the runway, is Topshop committing an act of theft? Or are they making high fashion available to that people who simply cannot afford the real thing?

If you are of the opinion that fashion is a form of art, then watching a catwalk is on the same cultural plane as visiting an art gallery. If so, the act of copying from the catwalk can be likened to an art heist, or the production of fraudulent, worthless fakes. Hours of hard work by a team of skilled tailors, pattern cutters and artists goes into the collections, which are now produced in a very, limited timeframe. From this perspective the copies that appear on the high street are worthless compared with the real thing. Of course there are things that the high street simply cannot replicate. That gorgeously intricate beading on the Alexander McQueen dresses was produced in an atelier, not on a production line. Purchasing a replica will fund the cycle of copying, rather than funding the work of artists and craftsmen in the fashion industry.

 

However, with the rise of social media and online reviews of shows, it has never been so easy to copy high end pieces accurately. Holding fashion shows in secret to prevent piracy would cause outrage in a digital age. I would not be happy if next season’s Molly Goddard show screening was cancelled in a futile attempt to stop digital design theft. Many see the runway as a source of style inspiration, and the internet is a platform for browsing new collections, looking at street style etc. When you have been lusting after pieces on Instagram, a strikingly similar high street dupe may be the answer to your fashion prayers.

From a student perspective, these copies are often a style lifesaver. They provide an affordable alternative for the fashion lover living on a student budget. When your style is a way of expressing yourself, it is nice not to be restricted to plain, boring items. We can see the glossy editorials of Vogue and Porter as aspirational or inspirational. A fashion fantasy. Then we can buy something that closely resembles the pieces of our dreams on ASOS.  There is something to be said for providing clothing at an accessible price point, rather than restricting style to those with a luxury budget.

 

From a legal point of view, the issue of copying is intricate. For detailed analysis of individual cases check out thefashionlaw.com. It is up to the individual company whether they wish to file a design or trademark suit against high street retailers. Another option is to file a patent for the design before they hit the runway. The French fashion house Chloé has chosen to sue for its handbag designs in the past. High street brand Nasty Gal has been taken to court numerous times over copyright infringements; Givenchy’s Rottweiler bags, a channel logo t-shirt. On the other hand, these laws can only go so far- You don’t see the 1970s suing to get its flare cut jeans back.

 

There seems to be a trade off to be had between fashion and art. High street designers surely have it in them to come up with original designs of their own; perhaps then these shops would be exciting enough to its target audience that the copying of couture would happen less often. Designers should be inspired by what appears on the runway each season, but copying of pieces just feels lazy, as much as anything else. However, high fashion for only the elite and wealthy is not something I support; in an age where we have access to images and videos of these inspiring high end designs, I can understand why being able to capture the essence of one look or another for less money is very appealing.

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