What to Do About Sartorial Doppelgängers?


The fashion industry is highly self-referential. Designers love to find inspiration from the past, other cultures, and other designers (just last week, for example, Donatella Versace crafted an entire collection in homage to her brother Gianni’s work). But sometimes, without properly crediting their sources, these references can come across as theft—especially when it’s a big-name brand taking from someone smaller.

This summer started with Gucci’s Alessandro Michele being accused of “stealing” an iconic jacket design by Dapper Dan. New York Fashion Week ended in a similar controversy with Calvin Klein’s Raf Simons accused of knocking off a 1978 zippered poncho design by Bonnie Cashin. After swift online backlash, Michele clarified that he meant the look to be an homage to the Harlem couturier (and has since enlisted him in a fashion campaign). So was Simons’ design a similar homage? Was it outright theft? Or was it merely a coincidence?

When it comes to stealing popular looks the first thing that comes to mind for many is fast fashion. Companies like H&M and Forever 21 have long profited from the drawn-out runway calendar by identifying trends from shows and producing them faster than the luxury brands. Not to mention making cheaper knock-off versions of “it” items. Companies like Proenza Schouler have even taken legal action to protect their intellectual property and trademarks. More recently, Italian luxury shoe label Aquazzura has been tied up in a court battle with Ivanka Trump, accusing her of copying the designs of three of its shoes. The trial begins next March, and the outcome might be significant when it comes to designers protecting their work.

What is perhaps more insidious is when fast fashion brands take advantage of lesser known artists or designers, such as last summer when Zara was accused of copying an LA artist’s work, or last week when Forever 21 was called out for replicating a t-shirt that was originally designed to benefit Planned Parenthood.

High fashion also sees a lot of repeat designs but brands are often afforded more leeway. Designers are always on the hunt for new inspiration, and nothing is off limits, including the vintage work of other, occasionally lesser-known, designers.

That being said, sometimes sartorial doppelgängers are complete accidents — after all, there are only so many different styles and silhouettes. And some point, designers are going to start repeating themselves. Take, for example, Jeremy Scott’s Spring 2018 collection for Moschino, in which some looks bared resemblance to John Galliano’s Fall 2010 couture collection for Dior. Both designers used flowers to inspire their silhouettes, and while for the most part they each interpreted the theme in their own way, there was bound to be some overlap considering they were drawing from the same source material.

What might help is more transparency when it comes to references. In the case of Gucci, Michele’s gaffe could have been cleared had his reference been more clearly credited from the get-go. In the case of Zara and Forever 21, it was that smaller artists were losing out on profits. What fashion fans and creators want is credit where credit is due.

So far Calvin Klein has declined to comment on its copycat issue. Could Simons have been referencing Cashin’s work? It’s possible that he stumbled across her, as his collection was so heavily steeped in American history and culture. But this could also be a case of pure coincidence, considering both designs are relatively simple.

Regardless of what happened, the fashion industry needs to come to a consensus about what is a reference, what is homage, what is an accidental similarity, and what is outright theft. The more we talk about it, the more designers will have a guideline to be able to explain or credit their sources, or simply veer away from being a copies in the first place.


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