One of the most talked about presentations at New York Fashion Week this season was by a newish Californian brand called Stan, designed by photogenic surfer dude Tristan Detwiler. The label is centred around patchwork and quilting, and scored a write up in the New York Times. But days later, GQ accused Stan of copying American menswear darling Emily Bode, saying a number of Stan’s pieces and lookbook “bore a striking resemblance to Bode’s.”
Describing Bode’s work, GQ said: “Her jackets, pants, and shirts — made from antique fabrics like quilts, towels, and grain sacks — epitomised a new era in menswear, marked by an appreciation for handcrafted textiles and a buy-less and buy-better ethos.”
The problem is, these very words could be applied to a niche London Brand you’ve probably never heard of called By Walid, designed by the British-Iraqi designer Walid Damirji, which debuted its first collection of one-off garments made from old fabrics Damirji bought at antique markets in Asia five years before Bode. Damirji himself is clearly inspired by traditional quilting and patchwork techniques, elevating them and making them modern. So do other brands, such as Kapital and Kuon, with their take on the traditional Japanese boro patching method. In the title of its article, GQ asked “Who Owns Quilted Clothing?” The answer is, clearly, no one.
Young designers should be free to work with influences gleaned from others.
I have stayed silent about Bode being a bit too close to By Walid for quite some time. But it is telling that Bode, who after attending Parson’s has assiduously cultivated the right network of New York fashion people, has been hailed as an innovator, while Damirji prefers to remain under the radar, working with a handful of stores. (Bode did not return a request for comment, while Damirji declined to discuss the matter.)
To be fair, Bode’s late work has somewhat moved away from those first collections that seemed to borrow from Damirji’s aesthetic, and that is the point. Here is a young designer who was likely inspired by someone else and eventually found her own voice. Why not extend the same courtesy to Stan? (Tristan Detwiler, through a publicist, stated, “It was never my intention to co-opt another brand’s aesthetic. I believe that my brand’s identity will always be rooted in the Southern California surf culture that I’m a product of.”)
Which brings me to my main point, that copying is not always bad. To be sure, copying should be condemned when a big brand shamelessly steals from the work of an independent designer. But young designers should be free to work with influences gleaned from others.
We live in a thoroughly postmodernist world. So much has been done that influences are blurring, and a copy of a copy of a copy has become routine. Recently, an Instagram account I follow posted a black-and-red mohair sweater by the defunct iconic Japanese label Number (N)ine, which was inspired by the one worn by Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, which was, in turn, inspired by ones Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren sold at their seminal punk boutique Seditionaries. No accusations of copying were made; instead there was acknowledgement of influence and a geeky interest from fashion enthusiasts in how fashion travels through time.
In a 2002 New York Times article, “Fashion Replay: Imitation Is the Mother of Invention,” Guy Trebay wrote about major designers, such as Prada and Marc Jacobs, literally copying existing clothing. And why not? Why not resurrect old clothes that a designer deems worthy of a new life? The undisputed master of this was Martin Margiela, who scoured vintage clothing markets all over Europe and copied garments one for one. Not only did Margiela not hide it, he made a point of it by adding a “Replica” tag to each piece, explaining each garment’s provenance.
A more tolerant approach to copying is what we need.
Sartorial resurrection was part of Margiela’s narrative. He was part cosmetic surgeon, part master butcher, elegantly disemboweling clothes to reveal tailoring secrets and reshaping them just so when it suited his vision. Not only has Margiela never been accused of copying, but he is still hailed as one of the true fashion revolutionaries whose shadow hangs over much of today’s fashion, in part thanks to Vetements using many of his ideas in their debut collection, which in turn launched them to stardom and reshaped the fashion vernacular of recent years.
We all cheer for those brands we like and are wary of those we think encroach on their turf. This is natural, since we all carry a bias, fashion professionals included. But as the fashion world gets bigger and its history longer, it’s increasingly hard to produce something completely new.
As Trebay noted, “Half of fashion, in fact, seems to owe its professional existence to a single truism: one is as original as the obscurity of one’s source.” This is a telling state of affairs and important to remember in today’s shoot-first-ask-questions-later culture.
Perhaps a more tolerant approach to copying is what we need. And if designers do copy or are influenced by another’s work, they should acknowledge this, the way Margiela did.
Eugene Rabkin is the editor of StyleZeitgeist magazine. His latest book is Stone Island: Storia.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.
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