The High Price of Copy Cat Fashion


July 19, 2016

Coco Chanel once deemed knockoffs of fashion to be an inevitable and unavoidable aspect of designing clothes, branding copycats as “the ransom of success,” the bounty by which the industry keeps a label on its toes. Whether you consider knockoffs copying or borrowing, the act is as old as fashion itself. In the present day, knockoffs are more prevalent (and profitable) than ever before. A rocky world economy has given fast fashion companies such as Forever 21, Zara and H&M the power to build multi-billion dollar businesses around copying catwalk creations.

The question is, do these fast fashion brands damage designers and the credibility of the fashion powerhouses? Or is this simply a way to keep consumers interested in a realm of style that would otherwise be unreachable?

The Democratization of Fashion

For the average person, spending thousands of dollars on a single item seems an absurd luxury. Class should not necessarily determine style and yet in many ways salary is the greatest determining factor in a person’s wardrobe. Copycat fashion has taken outrageous prices out of the mix, allowing every income level access to the same stylish looks designers take down the runway. While this may be a positive thing for those finally able to get their hands on a trend, the cost of democratizing fashion is quite high.

Insiders cite that fast fashion has eradicated a great deal of brand loyalty to luxury designers, as customers are less inclined to buy high priced items that they will only wear for a season or two. Instead, consumers are opting to spend less for the same look, especially if it is a “throwaway” piece that won’t stand the test of time. The existence of near identical copies of luxury fashion designs, dilutes the validity and brand equity related to a high end label. More than that, their products become less desirable, their ideas feel less special to the average buyer.

While it is difficult to quantify the exact loss of sales due to knockoff products, it is wholeheartedly believed within the market that the advent of cheap, fast, copycat fashion has unquestionably affected the bottom line of luxury designers. Long before fast fashion was even relevent, Narcisso Rodriguez saw first hand the cost of copycats. When the brand designed Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s wedding gown in 1996, he sold an additional 45 units of the same dress. By comparison, a brand that copied his design and priced it much lower, sold 80,000 units.

For fledgling designers, the cost is even higher. While established brands have a customer base to support and drive sales, emerging designers lack the reputation and industry recognition that can protect their brand from being vanquished under the weight of cheaper knockoffs. When a young designer is copied, most consumers aren’t even aware that the design isn’t original. Since most fledgling brands aren’t widely known, their work is unrecognizable to the average fashion buyer.

In the current economy, most shoppers do not understand that they’re buying copycat goods. Fast fashion has in many ways become the hallmark of street style looks.

The Need for Protection

Like any artist, fashion designers deserve some degree of protection. Existing laws do not protect designers in an adequate way. Other art forms are often valued higher than clothing pieces, which are deemed “functional items” and therefore can’t be quantified simply as art, which exempts them from the protection of copyright laws. When it comes to copyright laws in fashion, the law only covers the creative elements of a product rather than the total package. For example a dress design is not covered, but the unique print on the dress is protected. Though brands like Forever 21 have gotten away with stealing prints on more than one occasion, proving that the laws are about as solid as cheesecloth. In terms of intellectual property protections, trademark law only protects items where the copyrighted brand logo is visible. Unfortunately for luxury brands, items that are covered in logos and labels, are less desirable amongst consumers.

While many countries have introduced legislation to protect designers in the fashion industry, the lack of harmony amongst laws in different countries makes it almost impossible for brands to protect their designs across a wide range of global markets. Europe has the European Designs Directive which protects new designs for three to five years; but in the US, there are no such regulations.

Copycats Prevail

Copycat fashion houses like Forever 21 and H&M aren’t going anywhere soon. So long as there is a market for these goods, the brands will continue to supply them, and consumers will continue to buy them. Some industry insiders argue that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing and in many ways drives the fashion industry as a whole. Proponents argue that unlike industries such as technology where there is a constant stream of innovation and advancement that can render old items useless and create demand for new items, there is no real ebb in flow and fashion.

Consumers buy clothes out of desire. Humans need clothing, but they do not need fashion. Functionality is necessary, dressing like Chael Iman is a luxury. The average consumer buys a trend item for one season. After that season, they are unsatisfied with it and move onto purchasing something new. Luxury items don’t make such haphazard practices easy or affordable, but copycat fashion does.

The system is in many ways broken. While consumers respect and understand a designer’s art, as well as their need for protection, they also crave to look runway ready on a budget. Conscious gets kicked to the curb in favor of fashion.

Craftsmanship and The Web to Trump Copycats

So what can a designer do to protect themselves if the law won’t step up and protect them? The solution: make designs that are more difficult to emulate. Designers have begun using technical fabrics and complicated designs which prove difficult to reproduce. For example, British designer Mary Katrantzou has stopped using the digital prints that establishing her career by focusing on custom designs featuring embroidered details and lace. Her decision has made it almost impossible for mass chains to create anything with the same level of craftsmanship or detail at an affordable price.

Designers are also taking to the web en masse to create a dialogue with their customer base in order to protect themselves. Social media has proved an invaluable tool that has allowed designers to call out knockoff designs and even get items pulled from fast fashion sites.

The End is Not Nigh

Unfortunately for designers, there is no real end in site when it comes to copycat connoisseurs. As long as there is a market for copycat goods and an economy that supports cheap over chic, the industry of throwaway fast fashion will continue to thrive.

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