Everybody’s talking about | Fashion copycats


At what point does referencing and inspiration turn into blatant copying? It’s a question that is increasingly on the minds of designers — particularly young designers and small brands — who don’t have the legal muscle (read: cold hard cash) and time to defend the integrity of their designs.

In other creative disciplines like music, writing and visual art, it is much easier to defend copying. In fashion, referencing, inspiration, and trends form the backbone of our industry (just check out this long list of adventures in fashion copyright). So, where do we draw the line?

Case 1:  Steve Madden
Sometimes it’s quite straightforward to see what is going on.  A post on Manolo’s shoe blog alerted us to this blatant copy of the Balenciaga sportiletto shoe. Some may find it amazing that anyone would even wear these shoes, but I find it amazing that any company would be so brazen as to rip designs off in this way. 

As Manolo points out, it’s not the first time that Steve Madden has been seen to blatantly copy the designs of other brands.  It really makes me lose all respect for Steve Madden. Perhaps if the company’s executives saw the passion, perseverance and energy that go into innovative designs like these, they would understand why anyone who respects the creative process would be aghast at these actions. It’s unacceptable.

Case 2:  Diane von Furstenberg
On the other hand, sometimes it’s a lot more tricky to prove that designs have been copied.

Case_2_diane_von_furstenberg "What if a very well known designer, one that say, would be on the vanguard of copyright protection (and going as far as lobbying Congress), were to be discovered to have, shall we say ‘dipped a toe into the knock-off pool as well?’ "

This was the note we received from an anonymous reader, lets call her Freda, with the accompanying photo. While Freda didn’t identify any of the designers or brands in question, it wasn’t too difficult to determine that garment B is from Diane von Furstenberg’s Spring/Summer 08 collection, which is in stores now.

What is a lot more difficult to determine is whether there is a case for copying here.  While Freda was very careful to underline that she is not making any accusations at all, she did note that another designer had put out garment A a full year and a half before garment B came out. Freda also asserts that she is not directly connected to either of the two designs in question.

"Throughout my career as both a textile designer and clothing designer and merchandiser, I have been continuously exposed to knocking off and being knocked off," she said.

"But, there is also such a concept as the public domain. Did Gucci do the flat ballet slipper with the big medallion before or after Tory Burch?  Did Prada’s 2-tone ballet slippers so popular a few seasons ago infringe on Chanel’s original concept? Did Versace’s status prints of the 80′s infringe conceptually on Gucci and Hermes?  Where does one draw the line? And if the line is so blurred, why lobby Congress?"

Freda wanted to float these questions in the most "neutral court of public opinion," and we were happy to oblige. It makes for a very interesting discussion, especially when someone  who is representing the CFDA in order to stop copying can be accused of doing the same.

So what do you think? Is this copying or coincidence? And where do we draw the line?

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  1. If I were on the jury I’d say the DVF dress is not a blatant copy. It has similar colours, though not the same and the colour combinations are not the property of any one artist. The shape differs considerably and the design itself is not a stand-out, original, never-seen-before design. The vest top could even be described as generic. However, Steve Madden would be guilty as charged. I’d sentence him for ripping off Ghesquiere’s original design in shape, colour, style and concept.

    modaRhoda from Motherwell, North Lanarkshire, United Kingdom
  2. Please add Nine West as another knock off brand of the more expensive designer shoes. They’ve copied everyone from Christian Louboutin to Prada. Adding more insult to injury, Steve Madden has custom designable shoes, of which one of them is a two-tone high stiletto spectator shoe (another Louboutin creation) where the client can choose different colors and trims of the same design. I agree with Madorhoda, DVF’s design is similar but not straight out copying. But something as unique as Balenciaga’s shoe, it would be hard for Steve Madden to justify the motive behind such a design.

  3. Balenciaga doesn’t have to worry about the madden shoes…they are plain highlarious….looks like a home economics craft project gone bad….but this would be an obvious open n shut case for copyright infringement…the ombre tank and dress on the other hand is a bit more gray. Its just a different take on a theme….On a more refined level,I’m reminded of that fabulous Miguel Adrover presentation where he reworked Iconic brands into genius collection. Fashion inspires fashion… as long as the the inspiree(new word added just the other day to websters) is taking the inspiration to new heights i think its fair game….The Maddens i don’t think will have and impact on the sales of the original Balenciaga shoe…i mean look at them…the people to worry about are when big corporations knock off smaller houses that cant afford to protect themselves or the ones that make say a Gucci bag thats so identical to the original….for a fraction of the price that most consumers would be easily seduced….They have the most impact on the life of the industry.

  4. @ Womens Designer Shoes: I believe that was Victoria Beckham. She told British Vogue that, “I have joined a gym but I can’t bring myself to start. Obviously working out is important – well, I don’t. What do you wear on the running machine? I can’t bring myself to wear flat shoes” (Source: Celebrity Smack Blog). One more thing: I realize that the shoes Steve Madden copied carry the Balenciaga label, but while we’re on the subject of giving credit where it is deserved, let’s acknowledge the fact that the shoes were actually created by none other than the genius Pierre Hardy! : )

    Anjli from United States
  5. DVF—soooooooooooooooo full of it.

    t from Toronto, ON, Canada
  6. Karl Lagerfeld is on the record as saying it’s not copying if you change three details – so there you go! But where do you draw the line between copying and following a trend, which is I think the real question raised by the DvF example?

    Caricouture from
  7. It happens all the time. I have worked with ‘designers’ who scour the markets and shops in countries like Paris and London, buy the items that interest them, and instead of doing an ‘interpretation’ of the design, they just copy the design. This is a world wide occurence, whether in Shanghai, LA or Milan, where small shops who are trying to irk out a living will produce something unique, only to have it copied by big name corporations. The worst part for many of these small establishments is these so called designers and buyers coming in and blantantly showing they were there to copy. Most designers nowadays are too pushed to come up with new and unique ideas on a constant basis, and so they use their travel budget to travel the world to get inspired (read ‘find what they can copy’). There are of course exceptions but they are few and far between. In Europe, as long as there are seven differences from the original design, the product is deemed not a copy. How one interpretates these seven differences is a lawyer’s dream. The wrangling can go on for years and if you are small and straped for cash, what can you do? There does not seem to be a quick, fast, cheap and efficient way to tackle this. The big corporations and big names will continue to take design liberties, and the small guys will continue to suffer in silence. The only thing that seems to work is naming and shaming on the internet – perhaps this is the answer as the world becomes more tech savvy. Michele

    Michele from France
  8. i think it’s perfectly valid to use another designer’s look for ‘inspiration’ since these, usual significantly cheaper, versions allow people access to the look that otherwise would never get near it and therefore it in no way infringes on the original designer’s customer base. the only time i have a problem with copies are when they purport to be made by the actual designer in question. for instance, a balenciaga look-a-like bag, ok. a balenciaga look a-like that bears a faux designer label, emblem, etc (right down to a fake serial number) not okay.

  9. On the question of what constitutes a knock off is precisely where we run into trouble. According to the law, the standard for determining the innovation of a given design is not based on our (arguably) expert opinion -assuming we could arrive at one. Our idea of what consists of a copy differs from the legal definition. The legal definition is based on the opinion of a non-expert, what the *average Joe* thinks looks similar. No offense, but the average person just doesn’t notice that much. Half the population is below average intelligence. If your husband hasn’t noticed you’ve colored your hair but you expect him to notice the difference between a cap sleeve and an extended shoulder? Tucks from pleats? A-line from a half circle skirt? The problem with this proposed legislation is that it would STIFLE, not protect innovation. The reason is simple. Up and coming designers with barely the resources to produce their lines, would now need IP services to wade through applications and approvals. They’d need it because no sewing contractor, pattern maker or retailer would stake the viability of their business (we’d be liable since the designer doesn’t have any money) of what constitutes a copy if the litmus test is determined by John Q Public. So, every designer would need paper. No contractor or buyer would back a designer if they couldn’t prove ownership of their design concepts. Worse, large firms with the resources could lock up innovation by reserving rights to designs they may have no intention of producing. It’s already a problem in patent law, why would fashion be any different? Just imagine the costs of design copyright research. Researching patents and trademarks is already prohibitively expensive. Apparel designs could easily surmount those by a magnitude of a 100. Furthermore, consumers would lose. Prices would increase and selection would decrease. If it’s hard enough now to find options in colors that fit and flatter you at prices in your budget, it’ll be worse later.