by Emily Coogan

Fashion is predicated on remaining ahead of the curve, yet as one of the world's most wasteful industries the future seems dire for emerging designers.

Every single one of us engages with fashion on some level, as we dress each day and use clothing to either subconsciously or overtly express our identity. The sheer scale of the fashion industry reflects this universal practice, resulting in growth aided by advancing technology and the rise of fast fashion. Amidst the uptick of apparel production we find brands grappling with the thin, blurry line between plagiarism and inspiration. The complex and mesmerising beast of fashion begs the question: where creative integrity is at stake, is imitation truly the sincerest form of flattery?

 Missguided fashion copycatting



Fashion is inherently cyclical, dependent on looking to other designers, consumers, and style eras for inspiration. As a result, the laundry list of fashion brands blatantly copying the work of emerging designers is endless. From high street to high fashion, brands ripping off the work of other designers is not new however it is becoming increasingly more common due to the commercial appeal of social media, expedited production processes, and inconsistent legislation. 

Copyright and intellectual property law vary from country to country, however there is a running theme between Western jurisdictions: the current legal landscape does not prohibit brands from copying one another. Antiquated legal doctrines fail to protect fashion as a form of artistic expression, leaving the door open for brands to steal and copy other designs.

Globalisation and the rise of e-commerce have allowed the fashion industry to step beyond geographic and jurisdictional bounds, however a lack of harmonisation between design legislation across the world means it is difficult and costly for designers to protect their creations across markets. The waters are only made murkier where design and manufacturing are split between countries, and no global copyright register exists to serve these circumstances.

Generally, a knockoff is the unlicensed copying of something intended to be sold at a lower price than the original item. The fashion industry as it exists currently operates as a knockoff ecosystem, abetting design thieves and large retailers with cash to splash and legal muscles to flex. Inequality in terms of resources means protecting designs is an uphill battle for independent brands with no legal leg to stand on.

Even where there may be a case to deliver, big brands and retail outlets can afford top-quality legal representation and drawn-out proceedings while small businesses generally cannot. Legal intervention is financially inaccessible to a huge portion of copycat victims, establishing a power imbalance between large corporations and independent designers. Registering copyright, trade marks, patents, and intellectual property in multiple countries is unpredictably expensive, and no option is suitably robust or abreast with the current industry landscape to deal with fashion designs and copycats. The inability to streamline design legislation across jurisdictions means there are loopholes galore, and brands can get away with capitalising on those inconsistencies.

Where legal options are lacking, there is a reliance on the good nature, honesty, and ethical practice of other brands, in particular giant ultra-fast fashion outlets. The integrity of fashion design rests on moral obligation rather than legal regulation, and the industry is consequently failing emerging designers in that sense.



Modern technology has created an incredibly fast-paced industry, meaning fast fashion outlets are able to copy designs with minimal delay. Fast fashion brands saturate the apparel market, engaging in the practice of mass production to send clothes to market as soon as possible at a low price point.

The question of what is legal as compared to what is ethical is secondary to commercial concerns. Fast fashion is extremely lucrative, meaning there are capitalist values at play. The victims of stolen designs are not the massive retailers driving the fashion economy, and there's an idea that added legal protections industry-wide may stunt that growth.

This notion is called the 'piracy paradox', coined by Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman in their book, 'The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation'. The authors argue that copycats actually work to help the fashion industry innovate, and there is a level of symbiosis between fast fashion retailers and their ultimate muses, high fashion houses and small designers. Under the piracy paradox, it is immaterial who reaps the commercial benefits of a product, provided there are commercial benefits present. 

Fast fashion copycatting


In a sense, fast fashion democratises the styles that grace runways and high fashion pages - but at what cost? The piracy paradox enables over-consumption, pushing consumers towards trend-centric ideals rather than concern for quality and longevity of clothing. Mass production of clothing involves cutting corners and poor working conditions, producing clothing that is not designed nor constructed to stand the test of time. More is not merrier, as speedy trend cycles mean more apparel ends up in landfill and adds to the environmental cost of the industry. They also mean copycatting can be even more rampant, allowing the general public to consume more and leaving designers vulnerable to the work of antagonistic large retailers and fashion pirates.

Jewellery designer Pamela Love contends that copycats condition consumers to undervalue the creative process, having faced concerns regarding her eponymous label. Following public outcry over similarity to Love's own bracelets, Chanel withdrew a line of jewellery in 2012. “Being copied by fast fashion designers really waters everything down," Love said. "It makes our ideas less special, which ultimately hurts our business and our authenticity."

Fast fashion retailers frequently punch upwards, creating imitations of luxury labels and designer fashion houses. As production technology advances in the name of speed and efficiency, fast fashion outlets are more frequently punching downwards and replicating the creations of small businesses and emerging designers. This is where a major problem lies, as major retailers often replicate the designs of a sustainable business. Copying an eco-conscious design under the conventions of mass production removes the original designer's intent and throws it back in their face, removing any autonomy that they have over their creations.


Pangaia copycat - fast fashion

Eco-conscious label Pangaia has frequently fallen victim to the wrath of fast fashion. Produced with intention and sustainable purpose, Pangaia garments are designed using new technology to create as little waste as possible and impact the environment as minimally as possible. The popularity of their designs inevitably led to cheaply reproduced versions by fast fashion giants such as Boohoo, Shein, Topshop, H&M, and Zara - each manufacturing recreated garments minus the original intention and sustainable concepts that underpin Pangaia. Neglecting the very purpose of the originators dilutes their creative efforts and conscious concern, thus diminishing the value of the original product. 

A fashion industry driven by sales rather than a concern for artistic integrity is not one that nurtures independent designers. Copycatting might drive the industry, however it hinders small businesses and encourages a market oligopoly by outlets contributing to the environmental crisis.



Observation sits at the heart of fashion, but when does it verge on copying? The onus should not lie on consumers to address this question; conversely, businesses need to do their part and the broader fashion industry has a moral obligation to uphold creative integrity. Reference is a primordial aspect of design and creation, which derives from an understanding of the values and intentions behind the original item. Copying a piece aesthetically without concern for the original purpose amounts to disrespect of the artist.

This is where social media is a double-edged sword for large retailers. While visual inspiration is now widely available, it also provides a platform for informal watchdogs to hold large businesses accountable. Referred to as "the most feared Instagram account" in the industry, Diet Prada resumes the role of accountability watchdog, committed to calling out brands knocking off other designers. The profile pleads for larger corporations to do better, igniting a cultural shift towards protecting emerging designers over fast fashion outlets.

 Diet Prada - fashion watchdog



Over 15 years later, the cerulean sweater monologue featured in The Devil Wears Prada retains more relevance than ever. The current state of the fashion industry engenders copycat concerns for independent designers and sustainable businesses who contest the idea that clothing is a commodity rather than creative expression. Plagiarism is not a form of flattery, and acknowledging that fact may be the saving grace for the fashion designers, our environment, and the very concept of originality.

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