Ever since the debacle between Unique Vintage and Trashy Diva, I’ve been thinking more and more about the boundaries between designing & knock-offs, and what it means to the world at large.
In the previously mentioned offense, I think Unique Vintage took it too far, by not only directly copying Trashy Diva’s design, but selling it alongside their knock-offs in new prints and in the original Trashy Diva offerings (and for the same price, no less!).
In my mind, this is somewhat different from Nine West knocking off Dior’s gladiator sandal or Steve Madden reproducing Balenciaga’s lego-esque heels (though perhaps it is morally almost as questionable). If you were to search within the walls of Etsy for something as fun as “Tiny Top Hat,” you would see half a dozen different designers using the same doll hat base with various embellishments (and all being sold for different price points). While there is some argument made in favor for high-end and couture designers protecting their designs, there are few buyers that will not admit to purchasing a designer imposter piece.
Perhaps this has to do with a couple of words that we love to toss around in the Arts Administration world: Accessibility & Price Discrimination.
Within the arts, one of the constant struggles that the community faces is making the arts accessible to all people, and since I personally consider fashion to be within the realm of the arts, I consider it to be an issue for consideration there as well.
When I consider a company like Steve Madden closely (but not identically) replicating a designer shoe, I consider the ways in which is it opening up the walls of high fashion to more people, and therefore making it more accessible to others.
With low and high-end designers both, we become vessels of a certain degree of price discrimination– “Take 40% off Fall Styles!” “Nordstrom’s Summer Shoe Sale!” By waiting for a discounted time, both high end and low end buyers are putting themselves at risk in an effort to take advantage of a more affordable price (we risk our size selling out and not being able to buy the shoe, for example).
Perhaps that is part of the goal for high-end designers though; to narrow accessibility and highlight price discrimination.
The case between Unique Vintage’s infringement on Trashy Diva is not a matter of accessibility: Trashy Diva’s dress is available to anyone with internet access, whether through the Unique Vintage site or through the designer’s site. Nor is the case a matter of price discrimination: Unique Vintage was selling their garments for an identical price alongside the original dress. (Though in the wake of the aftermath, both of these things are present: Trashy Diva’s accessibility has been limited to only through their website, and they have offered a lower price to their shoppers, at a significantly lower price than Unique Vintage.)
Another issue that comes to mind: what about style & construction within independent designers? When does it become okay for me to replicate another independent designer’s construction process? Does it become okay if my final outcome becomes a visually different style?
If you think of a simple garment such as a peg skirt, you will find many fashion designers who use the cut and the style within their collections. The final product varies because of fabric and the silhouette it creates or the pattern it has and embellishments found on the garment. The construction of this skirt may vary little between a couture house and your grandmother’s sewing.
With so simple and timeless a design, do designers deserve a right in protecting their design? At what point is it we determine that? Do we try to respect the final product, and allow restrict its accessibility? What if the design they use has been extensively modified by the designer so that while it visually may evoke an image or time, there are distinct individual design elements?
With all of these things to consider, where do we draw the line? Where do your own morals say it is okay to purchase an influenced-by piece and when it is not? How far do we go in considering and favoring the needs, feelings, and artistic integrity of a design house as opposed to an independent designer? Should we regard them differently, or shouldn’t we– and why is that?
Editor’s Note: Please note that this article deliberately does not deal with the implications of designer knock-offs as related to sweatshop production, organized crime, drugs, and more. The implications of designer imposter pieces are far more outreaching; rather, this is intended to focus on the debate between accessibility, pricing, and design protection as related to the aforementioned points.