The four main fashion weeks, or more so “fashion month”, occur biannually as a whirlwind of clothes, shoes, bags and walking mannequins (models) in marvellous creations slinking down the runways. The top designers showcase their visions and we (as the consumers) soak it up, often subconsciously. Essentially what the designers show in February and September, a mere matter of months later the masses will be wearing. High street stores often recreate entire outfits that are seen on the runway and sell them for a tiny fraction of the price, making them available to the general public who cannot afford the immensely priced originals. Isn’t it unethical to copy someone else’s work for profit? Should we be thankful for the reasonably priced copies? It’s all a battle between what we, as the mass market, want and what we would want if we were the designers.
Firstly, the high street stores themselves are not solely responsible for copying the ideas. Designers are often exposed to the same influences in relation to art exhibitions, films, books and events and often draw inspiration from these. For this reason, coincidentally, designers may produce collections which have similar elements in them as others. Trend forecasting agencies such as WGSN are hired by the companies to help them to decide what is in and what is out for the upcoming season. For example, WGSN’s clients include River Island and Primark. What you see on the runway is then filtered into River Island and Primark at a lesser price hence why so many high street shops all appear to carry the same clothes, sometimes even in the exact same fabrics. Magazines and forecasting agencies then pick up on these and project them onto the public. The high street stores are told what to produce and the public is told what to buy. Just like that, a trend is formed. To further understand this, I fully advise you to watch the Devil Wears Prada. You may be thinking, “it’s just a film????” but really, there are so many snippets of truth in it. Take Miranda Priestly’s rant about how the two belts (photographed further down) are very much different, and how the designers’ collections made that colour very important, so much so that it had filtered all the way down into the bargain section of the department stores so that her dowdy assistant, Andy, could wear it. I have linked the video on youtube, it is hilarious and very apt (but an awful quality video, I do apologise).
However, just because the high street stores are buying into a trend does not mean that they can make blatant copies of items. In France, you can face up to three years of jail or a maximum fine of £250000 for buying counterfeit goods; for buying an “inspired” item none of these charges occur. Different copyright laws exist for fashion than what exists in literature, art and music, hence making the lines as to what is copying and what is actually allowed a little hazy. Regardless, it is different buying a counterfeit item to an “inspired” item. At least with the latter, it is not falsely claiming to be a designer item unlike the counterfeit offenders. The troublesome part occurs when trying to decide when “inspired” is too close to borderline plagiarism. Christian Louboutin and his infamous red soled shoes are often subject to copies with numerous lawsuits against the culprits. A court case occurred against high street store Zara which Louboutin lost, even with the little copyright protection he was entitled to on his designs. With many high street stores such as H&M, Zara and Forever 21 becoming almost synonymous with designer “inspired” copies that are a little too similar to the originals, you are often left wondering how they manage to get away with it? If somebody copied a book, a poem, a song melody, a movie script would they get away with it? Highly unlikely. If you copy a clothing item, even down to the smallest detail, you can somehow escape unscathed. How? Simply because clothing isn’t entitled to the same protection as other art forms so it is relatively easy to win a case. It all comes down to the fact that fashion is thought of as a lesser art form than the rest: many people don’t even think of it as that. Fashion is the poor-mans art, some may think. Unworthy of the same rights and protections as classical art forms like painting and sculptures but often with a price tag to match. Fashion is just as collectable, and often just as valuable, as other creative outlets yet gets very little respect. Fashion is still thought of as frivolous, unimportant: mere fluff. Getting back to the law part, sometimes cases are even settled outside of court. A simple pay off and agreement seems sufficient to allow the high street chains to keep mass producing the copies. Is this wrong?
On the other hand, if it were not for these high street stores where would we shop? Only a small margin of people can afford to buy designer goods due to the excessive prices and the amount of small family run stores is ever decreasing. At least with our trusty high street items, we can afford to get a little mucky, the items are replaceable. Nobody wants to be in their “Sunday best” seven days a week. With the lower priced items of the high street, you know better than to expect something you paid a small price for to last you a lifetime. You do know, however, that it will last you the amount of time you want it for. With the ever changing cycle of fashion, what is the point in spending staggering amounts of money on clothing that in a year’s time you may not still like? Even the magazines advise this – in November 2014 Elle, they advise you to turn to the high street for trend pieces and only invest in designer goods if you see it becoming a classic or a wardrobe staple. By allowing high street imitations of the designer goods, it makes fashion accessible for a wider audience. Actually, I have started making my “Shopping Find” posts as a result of this. I am enjoying finding cheaper, designer inspired options out there on the high street, although some of what I have found really has been a little bit too similar.
In spite of this, designer goods are usually so expensive for a reason. You are paying for quality that cannot be rivalled by the high street stores. The price is often a reflection of the materials used to make them. Bags cost a small fortune due to what is used to create them; the ponyskin, the calfskin, the snakeskin. Designers will rarely use faux leather and if they do prices will be lowered dramatically to echo this (unless you are Stella McCartney…). Luxurious fur coats can cost you more than a brand new car, but increasingly even dresses can cost multiple thousands. The vast prices are also due to the fair wages and working conditions in which the actual makers of the clothes are given. Unlike in fast fashion where sweatshops are commonplace, the luxury designers take pride in their humane treatment of workers, something that is not afforded to fast fashion. The designers also do research in abundance when creating their collections and the money to cover that needs to come from somewhere. However, a huge mark-up does exist. This is to further the illusion of luxury. As the rich are getting richer, designers are able to charge much more for their products as their target market can afford to pay the obscene prices.
Money may not be the only object in the way of buying the designer goods. Since the designers are charging such high prices, logically, they must use the highest quality materials. They cannot charge such steep rates without that. But what if using the highest quality means using real fur, real leather, and real animal products? Many people have objections to this due to what they perceive to be the cruelty to animals. Many fashion shows are even targeted by groups such as PETA who have made famous the slogan “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” which has also been endorsed by many celebrities. Due to this, high street stores may be a better option as they are more likely to stock the faux versions for the same look as what is offered by the real thing but without the moral objections.
Now, we could all lie and pretend that we are completely against the imitation designs that we see all across our beloved high street stores, that would be a falsity so what’s the point? As consumers we want value for our money and also products which we actually like. While it may be nice to be able to walk into a Prada boutique and buy a whole wardrobe worth of clothes, it is unlikely that the majority of us are ever in a financial situation where that’s viable. Most people are aware that counterfeit goods are wrong yet people still buy into them frequently so it’s improbable that people will ever object to the high street imitations of the designer goods. Some people simply don’t care and others are just unaware. Until copyright laws are changed universally in the favour of designers, the dupes will still crop up. As consumers we should revel in this; out of appreciation to the art form we should sympathise.