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Looks familiar: Why copying in fashion remains a grey area

By Don-Alvin Adegeest

Sep 22, 2015

Fashion |OPINION

Fashion brands copying other brands is so commonplace in the design landscape that barely anyone bats an eyelid these days. If you peruse the rails at Zara you will be able to spot the designer references seen on the catwalks that inspired its collections, it is that blatantly obvious. One season, not long ago, it was as if Phoebe Philo from Celine did a collaboration with the Spanish high street retailer, so canny and literal were its interpretations of her silhouette. Incidentally many of Celine's designs could be seen to have been inspired by the Helmut Lang or Japanese designer's archives, so you can only imagine the journey of influence and, urgh, direct referencing.

The wheel of fashion was not invented yesterday

Once, when I worked for a well-known American designer, I found myself in the company's design studio, and saw tens of trainer styles in its shoe department used as sample references. Designers often use a subtle detail from an existing design and reference it to create something new. The wheel of fashion is hardly a recent invention and probably this ought not to stir up too much sentiment.

So when New York brand Maryam Nassir Zadeh informed the world via social media that one of her signature mule designs was too literally adopted by another New York brand, Mansur Gavriel, the media has been rife with comments, accusations and opinions. Why this particularly case is so interesting is that both are emerging brands and based in the same neighbourhood, and the 'copied' styles appeared within just a few months from its bought original.

Nassir Zadeh stated: “Since I was notified of Mansur Gavriel design’s likeness to my shoes, I did research into Maryam Nassir Zadeh store records. I found proof of purchase receipts [from my store] from Rachel Mansur dating March, April and May 2015, of the exact styles and colours in question, as well an earlier purchase of Maryam Nassir Zadeh sandals from Floriana Gavriel in July 2014. For me, this is clear proof that they had my designs as a reference to develop their shoe line by emulating my shapes, materials and colours.”

Mansur Gavriel did not deny they purchased or indeed copied her shoe, instead they stated: We are well aware of rampant imitation of young designers in the marketplace and have personally experienced this many times. However, we are also well aware we do not own the silhouette of the bucket bag or the tote," referring to two of their 'signature' bag styles.

In the US a designer cannot claim ownership of a functional design

You can understand Nassir Zadeh's frustration, that this case goes beyond flattery and the inspiration of someone's good design. Sadly in American copyright law Nassir Zadeh cannot claim ownership of the mule, of suede or of any particular colour. Whilst the similarities between both shoes is indisputable, it is not a design that American law can protect under its copyright laws of functional items.

What exists, instead, is a grey area and gentleman's agreement, whereby designers use subtle references of past and present designers, but respecting their original work without wholly copying in its most literal form. This is what keeps the fashion wheel turning, what keeps the fashion landscape interesting with new ideas without having to forsake the good of what has been presented in the past.

If you think about it - the dress, the jean, the shirt, the tie - all these pieces in our wardrobe were created a long, long time ago. Variations thereof is what we are wearing today and what we'll be wearing tomorrow. No current day designer has invented any of the styles we are wearing today. But, when it comes to variations thereof, there is a fine line between ingenuity, referencing and downright copying. Perphaps Mansur Gabriel didn't have enough inspiration to design a variation they could call their own.