Thursday, 8 March 2012

Is that new season Thierry Mugler?

Just over a week ago, Tatty Devine, an independent jewellery brand based in London, posted some images on their blog. Within hours, their website had crashed due to the number of people trying to comment beneath that post. The images were of their jewellery sitting next to pieces on sale at high street chain Claire’s Accessories. These pieces were suspiciously – audaciously you might say – similar to Tatty Devine’s. In some instances they were indistinguishable.



The comments published below Tatty’s post expressed heart felt support for an independent and innovative brand. Many people suggested that Tatty Devine look into taking legal action against the mega retailer Claire’s, who refused to publicly acknowledge the chorus of condemnation that chimed up on Twitter and across the web. This story has been on my mind and I want to explore a few aspects of it.

Tatty Devine are a small British business, built from scratch with love and hard labour and they are a great success story. People who buy their jewellery love them. People who work there love them. Their designs are playful, bold, light hearted and very popular. Tatty Devine are associated with the DIY and crafting community in London and the UK in general. This is because they are not a huge manufacturing giant, but – despite their widespread success – are hands on in their approach to design and physical creation. As one journalist blogging for The Independent newspaper noted, Tatty Devine have published a ‘How to make jewellery’ book and indeed they are active participants in this DIY world. Harriet and Rosie, the two friends who began the brand, still man the Tatty Devine stall at various events in London.

That journalist questions Tatty Devine’s right to call up Claire’s on their copying, when Tatty Devine themselves are encouraging people to have a go at making jewellery. This is the crux of the matter for me. There is a qualitative difference between mass market imitation and the individual hobbyist.

The DIY community has found a great home on the internet. Due to the ease of posting visual tutorials online, homemade has truly flourished in the digital age. I found two tutorials for necklaces that directly reference the Tatty Devine T-Rex piece that Claire's copied. One tutorial is featured on a pioneering craft tutorials forum called Cut Out + Keep. It is a simple, well explained tutorial and encourages people to use their creativity to create a dinosaur necklace that differs from Tatty Devine's.

The second tutorial is on a blog and the end result is remarkably similar to the Tatty Devine original. The author states that they decided to make their own dinosaur necklace as the original was not within their budget.


In response to the Claire’s incident, Tatty Devine co-founder Rosie Wolfenden asked "What's the impetus for small brands to start up if people can just take away their ideas?" Though it seems clear that the homemade replicas above did not stem form a desire to sell or make profit, Rosie's question points to a debate that is currently unfolding in the world of fashion, where large retail chains are in the habit of drawing their 'inspiration' directly from the catwalks. The majority of Britains are not luxoriously wealthy and a high street version of a high end garment often proves irresistable.

I began my own project, DIYcouture, because I hoped to help people find an affordable alternative to buying clothing in high street stores. To this end, I make a lot of clothing from fabric and photograph it to – hopefully – inspire people to create their own. When I run a photo shoot I try to style the outfits with clothing from charity shops, with other handmade items or with pieces borrowed from ethical companies. Perversely, I do tend to turn to the high street shops for staples such as tights and plain t-shirts. I also turn to them when I can’t find something specific that I am looking for and have time constraints. I was looking recently for a beige or pale blue patterned (ideally floral) blouse to go with a handmade pale yellow shrug and navy gingham skater skirt. I scoured charity shops high and low in the six week run up to the shoot but couldn’t find anything with the right colour scheme or in the right size. As a last resort I turned to my local Primark and behold, I saw a top I recognised. I recognised it from the cover of Elle magazine.

It is a Prada top with a very distinctive print of vintage cars, retailing probably at a price so lofty that I can't find it listed anywhere on the internet. Yet there was a very similar top in Primark in Hackney for £4.00. Here it is with the distinctive Primark label (which can now be seen on at least 30% of garments in British charity shops!).

In the spirit of copying, I donned the top and created my own pseudo Elle magazine cover. It is a lot of fun reproducing something. However, I found it almost impossible to mimic the bone-defying pose of Dakota Fanning. This look of confusion on my face springs directly from my limbs. But look how naturally Dakota's fingers drape above her ears! I can only assume that she had a production team physically moving her parts into the desired location.

There are reams of blogs and printed magazines that encourage people to 'get the look' through buying. These blogs often have an underlying theme of thriftiness or an awareness of shopping on a budget.  The online magazine Fabulous creates collages that show people where to shop for catwalk copies, advising that this will help to avoid 'designer level debt.'  From this kind of blog it is quite clear that we are not looking at multiple instances of 'great minds think alike.' The big retailers are not simply inspired by the catwalks, they are directly referencing them. You could say ripping them off.

Running parallel to the get-the-look-through-buying blogs are some brilliant blogs by keen, creative DIYers who look to catwalks and sometimes celebrities for inspiration. My favourite is A Pair And a Spare, run by a girl called Geneva who is so productive I wonder if she has found a way to fit an extra day into her week. The candy pink Jason Wu skirt that is featured in the Fabulous article is also sited by Geneva as inspiration for her 'DIY peplum skirt' tutorial.

The fashion industry itself appears to be in a quandry about whether copyright is a good or bad thing. There is an eloquent case made on the Freakonomics website for the continued freedom to copy in fashion. The writers believe that widespread copying causes trend cycles to spin faster, generating more demand for new designs. They call this the piracy paradox.

The picture they paint is one of trend fatigue. Again, I find Prada an illuminating example here. Up until last year I would never have imagined that stripes could be owned. Prada put big chunky stripes all over their Spring/Summer show and all major retailers leapt to do the same.  This can be instantly recognised and dated. Particularly, orange, pink and deep blue stripes now feel sooooo last year. (Whether or not most of us care that something is 'in' or 'last season' is a different matter.) Prada now 'own' the stripe, though obviously they didn't invent it and certainly haven't coprighted it.
Prada's SS2011 catwalk show. Images from Vogue.co.uk
In  "Lessons from fashion's free culture," an entertaining TED lecture, Johanna Blakely begins with a story about Miuccia Prada picking up a vintage jacket and announcing to her friend that she would produce the exact same thing. As Johanna says, "to many of you... that sounds like plagiarism." The picture she wishes to paint however is one of freedom, with fashion designers like unrestrained DJs able to sample any element of fashion design, from any garment from any era. Her theory is that because of this freedom, good designers establish a certain look so that it is instantly recognisable.

This theory reminds me of a couple of real life stories. The first comes from my sister, who was wearing a top I had made for her in a fancy department store in LA when the sales assistant asked her, "Is that new season Thierry Mugler?" I found this hilarious, as something homemade and low-end was being mistaken for a big, international brand. That in turn reminds me of a funny anecdote I once saw underneath a 'How to make a Tatty Devine necklace' tutorial. The comment is by CharlottePatricia  and says "I once put a red pencil in my hair to hold it up. Later, someone said to me, 'Oh wow, is that Tatty Devine? I really want one of those.'"

8 comments:

  1. Great post! Really thought-provoking and timely. I'm going to think about this some more!

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  2. Fantastic article. It's interesting to think that most handmade/homemade clothing is made from an existing dress pattern, which is literally copying a ready made design.
    Thanks, food for thought

    Francesca

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  3. Glad to hear the article is being enjoyed : ). Yes sewing patterns are interesting as they are in a way giving people the means to copy/reproduce. I looked into this and apparently if you plan to sell a garment made from a pattern you must have bought one pattern per piece of clothing you sell. I.e. the pattern is a license to make just one version of the garment. xx

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  4. Hahaha! I love the magazine cover, you're fantastic!

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  5. Alright, you're into DIY and you listen to Ted talks. And you're funny. I'm following your blog.

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  6. Hahaha! You are too kind. I'm following yours : ) xx

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  7. haha the cover you did made me chuckle! :)

    I think there is taking inspiration and ripping off completely... many brands are treading a fine line.


    following you now ! love you blog.

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