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Consumers Benefit at Designers’ Cost

By Kristie T. La, Crimson Staff Writer

Printed zippers that do not work, pockets that cannot hold anything, collars that neither fold down nor sit upright, the expected utilitarian aspects of garments rendered useless­—Isaac Mizrahi’s Spring 2011 collection was filled with this tromp l’oeil detailing that seemed printed off the office copier minutes before its recent debut at New York Fashion Week. What seems at first glance gimmicky—restaging a tactic from Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, Andy Warhol’s silk-screening, or Minimalism’s seriality for the sake of pointless and playful citation—is Mizrahi contemplating and commenting on this recent explosion of copying in fashion and the industry’s inability to confront and contain it. Though this development allows the majority of consumers access to designs that otherwise would be unavailable due to the extravagant costs of high-end designers, it also exploits a gaffe in the fashion system and cheapens the originality of the designer’s products.

The borrowing from high to low fashion has always existed, but the speed, scale, and extent to which this occurs now is multiplied, disrupting the exclusivity and confidentiality that have characterized high fashion. The fashion show, which used to be limited to the eyes of buyers, editors, and a handful of privileged guests, now debuts on the Internet on the same day, if not live. Monthly publications, which once dominated the flow of information and images to the public, are now scrambling with their own websites to compete with the constantly updated musings and photographs of low-tech Tumblrs, chronic Tweeters, increasingly sophisticated blogs, and online-only magazines.

The fashion calendar, which places Spring collection debuts in September/October and Fall collection debuts in February/March, now undermines rather than facilitates the industry. During the time between runway and storefront, buyers decide which collections and which pieces will be stocked and thus which items the designers will put into larger production than the samples worn by models, while magazines start looking at what pieces to utilize for their editorial shoots. But with images of the designs now accessible months before they arrive in stores, other companies and individuals have templates to work with and time to tweak and translate costly and labor-intensive designs for mass production and lower prices. This is how H&M manages to carry a metallic military peak-shouldered shirt the same season as Balmain; how Topshop can offer a faux-shearling aviator jacket now when the original $5000 jacket is labeled Burberry Prorsum Fall 2010; or how similar bargain stores can keep pace with seasonal trends more effectively than ever before. With these stores, it is now possible to buy these creative products at a dramatically lowered and more appealing price point. Unfortunately it also allows the average consumer to make these purchases without knowing where the original design came from, undermining the creative role of the designer in the process.

Realizing the danger posed to the industry, high fashion is only now starting to react and reject these new developments. This Summer, Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, introduced the Innovative Design and Piracy Prevention Act. The bill provides a three-year protection to “new and original designs”—a difficult label to achieve. It also only restricts nearly identical copying, leaving the loophole of very similar borrowed designs intact. The legislation, which has yet to pass, is not enough to reclaim the control that high fashion once had over its products, but it would protect the industry from the most overt offenses.

Christopher Bailey, the chief creative director of Burberry, is taking matters into his own hands. Instead of waiting for buyers to put in orders, the brand live-streamed its show and simultaneously allowed viewers to pre-order coats and bags, though they will not ship for at least another month. The latest collection reflects the need for items that can be worn across all seasons and, more importantly, purchased now even when technically slated as a Spring and Summer collection. Thus Bailey is able to undercut the imitators’ strategies, protecting the novelty of his designs better than any legislation can. But ironically, the tactic is also self-limiting, as it shifts shopping from a tangible experience to a visual one, requires photographic pop and sheen rather than the subtlety and intricacy of inspection, and necessitates clothing independent from any specific season.

Despite how aesthetically different the Burberry and Mizarhi Spring collections may look, I think both are reckoning with the same pressure, but with divergent perspectives. Bailey accepts and adapts to the changing industry, forcing the brand and the designs to conform to a new business model. Mizrahi is more hesitant and ambivalent. His seemingly photocopied garments declare themselves as products of replication, but without any sense of an original. In abdicating the expected role of the designer to conjure up innovation that can be mimicked and expanded upon, Mizrahi models himself in the role of copycat and paradoxically achieves originality.

—Columnist Kristie T. La can be reached at kla@college.harvard.edu.

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