Sunday, March 30, 2008

Knock (it) off?

This post on Liebemarlene Vintage got me thinking about knock offs in the fashion industry. The blog's author, Rhiannon, was happy to find a dress at Forever21 which strongly resembled an item by Marc by Marc Jacobs. She was a bit torn about how she should feel about knock-offs...should we be upset or excited about the opportunity to own an affordable copy of a designer item? I got to thinking about the morality behind inexpensive knock-offs.

Indeed, it is hardly news that Forever21 has a penchant for aping catwalk looks and turning them around fast by creating almost indistinguishable pieces for a much, much lower price. Legal action has been taken against them by several designers, including Gwen Stefani and Diane von Furstenberg. (DVF has since settled with the chain.) It is true that the similarities are striking. Behold:

Left: DVF, Right: F21

Stefani's "Harajuku" logo

Print on a handbag sold at F21

Clearly, these designers have a point. It is more than obvious that the resemblance the Forever21 items bear to the high-end originals cannot be written off as sheer coincidence. And yet, I can hardly believe that the Forever21 copies are eating into the profits of the high end designs. The idea that a woman used to shopping at Neiman Marcus or Barney's is about to ditch those stores in favor of Forever21 is almost laughable. For her, the special part about owning an original DVF isn't only about the cut, pattern and color of the dress. Thus, in some way, I think that the concern over lower-end retailers getting their mitts on coveted exclusive designs has something to do with the elitist idea that an item is only special if it is kept away from the bargain shoppers. How else could a $30-something dollar DVF copy be threatening? If it is not deterring customers from the original, it must be because the "wrong kind of customers" now have access to a similar product. Am I being unfair, or could Diane von Furstenburg possibly have a vested interest in making sure that middle America doesn't end up looking like her richer clients?

Don't get me wrong, I drool over designer duds. Someday, I can definitely see myself shelling out for an item I really love that will last me forever. Likewise, I know that not everyone who owns designer items are status-conscious bourgeois pinheads. The message sent by a designer piece is instead determined by the attitude and intent of the person wearing it. If a woman falls for a Zac Posen dress because it fits her beautifully, is exactly her style and makes her feel like Miss America, then I will be the first to high-five her and tell her it was worth the money spent. If, however, a woman buys a handbag littered with Chanel logos in order to prove to her next-door neighbor that she is a.) fabulous and b.) isn't at all jealous of the neighbor's new poolhouse and nose, then we are in different territory all together. The effort to equate fashion with status is bogus to me. I consider style to be a very positive thing - it is a way to have fun with what we wear and express who we are. Using fashion as a status symbol turns it into a very negative thing. Instead of making a comment about you as an individual, it makes a comment about you as a social class. Not very fabulous.

Thus, I can't condemn knock-offs because I think in a small way they erode the line between the haves and have nots. Still, buying a knock-off for the sense of status isn't too commendable either. A fake Chanel handbag masquerading as a real one still feeds into a culture that celebrates the value of a label and logo. It makes me sad that women who cannot afford the original want convincing knock-offs to validate themselves.

This post by the Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law Review discusses the issue of fashion knock-offs from a legal standpoint and raises some fascinating points. As it stands now, the foundation upon which legal action can be taken against copyright violation in fashion is flimsy at best - though logos and very distinguished elements are protected, more subtle things like cut, color and usually pattern are not. Furthermore, the development of trends (ie, the entire essence of the fashion industry,) are based on lower-end replicas of designer items. Without lower-end retail aping the designs of the higher-end designers, the cycles and motion within the fashion industry would be severely disturbed. Ultimately, the article argues that knock-offs feed hunger for the originals and not the other way around, by creating a younger market excited to eventually own the "real deal."

Thus, I am all for buying knock-offs if you love the item. It is a victimless pleasure, and it allows women with thinner wallets to own pretty things they love within their budgets.

What do you think? How should knock-offs be considered or dealt with? Are they a moral outrage or commendable fashion strategy?


Kathi said...

I couldn't agree more with you that fashion is about having fun not status symbols. I though would never buy a completely identical knock-off, even if it's just for the beauty of a dress not the status symbol, because I would always feel bad about the 'stolen idea' of the designer which rather deserves support for being original than the copycats. But I'm alright with clothes that are 'inspired' by a catwalk look or incorporate single elements of a designer's garment.

jayne said...

wow first time reading your blog and i love it all! the title alone is genius, i too am a whimsical nerd hehe and your profile pic- i love pugs! what are their names?

good post. i've read a lot of commentary on forever 21, but your post was well researched and well written. as kathi said above, there is a BIG difference between copying and taking inspiraton, one is flattery to a designer and one is downright rude and clearly shows no respect for the industry. I mean what does it say to the designers that not only are people not buying their clothes, but buying knockoffs that will fall apart after 2 washes- they spent so much time & effort to create flawless dresses, clearly they were well crafted, yet 21 undoes all of that. and creates an entire generation who doesn't respect orginality and quality.

would you like to trade links?

Hailey @ said...

It's a tough subjet for sure. I don't see why F21 needs to rip them off 100%, why not be inspired by elements of a design and make something new and different? Of course, I am sure they do a lot of that too.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is such a well written post. I appreciate it.
I don't know very much about the fashion industry but I do know that to some degree (like you said referring to the concept of trends) that all mass-marketed clothes are knock-offs in one way or another.
So I would say F21 is a bit more tacky and shameless with their knock-offs than say, target. But what they are doing isn't profoundly different; just more obvious.

I wonder why there are never issues with high fashion designers copying each other. they obviously do it too. And that is why your comment on social and economic class was excellent.
Furthermore, it seems as if designers take "inspiration" from vintage and street style a whole lot recently. So it's not like their stuff is so incredibly original (of course it is sometimes).
For example, Vivien Westwood is notorious for copying ideas from, like, anthropology textbooks or her "travels" or whatever.
I think the high fashion designers copy "the people" more often than we copy their designs. perhaps this aggression toward knock-offs shows a bit of their anxiety about their originality.
Thanks for the interesting post!

Bee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kim said...

Great post! I tend to think clothes are more disposable (most of my stuff is consignment or thrift); very few things I have are styles that will last for years. In my view, it seems wasteful to spend soooo much money on a piece that maybe will last you two to three years. I AM middle America and will never buy a $700 bag, simply because of the logo. Only very recently (the last few months) have I even started paying attention what has been on the runway. It seems to me that everything gets knocked off, because that is what people want to buy.

the iron chic said...

This is one of those issues I'm always torn over.
Because I'm not rich, I of course love a cheap item.
Seems like fabric design and pattern making is one of the only creative processes that can be ripped off without consequences. If you plagarize a song or book, you can be sued. I've worked in the fashion industry for many years and I know that EVERYONE rips off EVERYONE else-it is almost an excepted industry practice. It would be impossible to police the global industry for copyright infringement. That being said, I make clothes and would probably be really pissed if I saw someone copying them exactly.
AT LEAST try to change it up a little!!!!!!

saircut said...

I have trouble understanding how a woman can purchase a designer bag with a cheesy label plastered all over it. Even further, I can not fathom why one would buy a replication of such. Buying an expensive purse is not a statement of style. It's just a desperate attempt at implied wealth. At the same time though, I don't view clothing the same way. A person that purchases a knock off from f21 will wear it a few times before it disintegrates. The quality isn't there and the kind of customer that is debating over getting that marc jacobs dress isn't going to satisfy her want with an f21 knock off. Ripping off a designers logo is bad, copying a dress isn't the same.

softspoken said...

well as far as it being a "victimless pleasure" - i can't be so sure. forever21 was in the news not too long ago for their awful treatment of the workers who make their clothes. not just low wages, but terrible working conditions, extremely long hours among other things. so that cheap tag certainly does come with another sort of price.

there's a documentary on this called made in la ( and i, too, wrote a post on this question not too long ago (

maebetonight said...

My thoughts exactly. On one hand, it is intellectual property, but it definitely isn't affecting designer profit margins. Are people who frequently wear designer clothing likely to suddenly stock up on cheap knockoffs? Doubtful.

And as far as the unfair worker treatment arguments go, it's not as though cheap clothing manufacturers are the only perpetrators. Unfortunately many high priced items carry the same burden - but with a larger profit margin for the retailer. Unfair labor is an issue for everyone... except for I guess thrift stores.