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Does Copying In Fashion Keep It Fresh?

Jun 27, 2014
Originally published on April 8, 2016 9:19 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode What Is Original?

About Johanna Blakley's TEDTalk

Copyright law barely touches fashion — and the industry benefits in innovation and sales, says Johanna Blakley. She explains what all creative industries can learn from fashion's free culture.

About Johanna Blakley

Johanna Blakley is managing director and director of research of the Norman Lear Center focusing on how entertainment interacts with our political, commercial and social habits. She especially interested in the impact of intellectual property rights on innovation, organizing conferences around the lack of creative ownership in fashion, and technology's role in ownership of creative content. She is a lecturer at USC who helped develop their masters program in public diplomacy.

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GUY RAZ, BYLINE: So one of the places where you find some of the most innovative work is a place where copying is the rule, not the exception. And that place is the fashion industry.

JOHANNA BLAKLEY: A lot of fashion designers think, well, I can knock off somebody else's work, but I can't make an exact copy, right? Well, it turns out you can.

RAZ: This is Johanna Blakely. She does research on copyright and fashion. And she thinks the industry actually thrives because designers borrow and steal from each other all the time. Here's Johanna from the TED stage.


BLAKLEY: I heard this amazing story about Miuccia Prada. She's an Italian fashion designer. She goes to this vintage store in Paris with a friend of hers. She's rooting around. She finds this one jacket by Balenciaga. She loves it. She's turning it inside-out, she's looking at the seams, she's looking at the construction. Her friend says, buy it already. She said, I'll buy it, but I'm also going to replicate it. Now, the academics in this audience may think, well, that sounds like plagiarism. But to a fashionista, what it really is is a sign of Prada's genius, that she can root through the history of fashion and pick the one jacket that doesn't need to be changed by one iota and to be current and to be now. You might also be asking whether it's possible that this is illegal for her to do this. Well, it turns out that it's actually not illegal. In the fashion industry, there's very little intellectual property protection. And so it means that anybody could copy any garment on any person in this room and sell it as their own design.

The only thing that you can't copy is the label. You can't pretend like you're Donna Karan when you're not. That's illegal.

RAZ: But why is that? I mean, why are there so few protections for fashion, why do people accept that?

BLAKLEY: Well, the courts decided long ago that fashion designs are utilitarian designs, right? They are three-dimensional objects created in order to cover naked human bodies. And therefore, they are not to be treated as artwork. However, just to show you how complicated this is, if Karl Lagerfeld draws a dress, he automatically owns the copyright to that drawing because it's a two-dimensional work of art. But once he turns it into a three-dimensional design, anybody can rip it off.


BLAKLEY: Because there's no copyright protection in this industry, fashion designers can sample from all their peers' designs. They can take any element from any garments and incorporate it into their own design. So one of the magical side effects of having a culture of copying, which is really what it is, is the establishment of trends. Some people believe that there are a few people at the top of the fashion food chain who sort of dictate to us what we're all going to wear. But if you talk to any designer at any level, including these high-end designers, they always say their main inspiration comes from the street where people like you and remix and match our own fashion looks. So it's both a top-down and a bottom-up kind of industry.

RAZ: So I've been asking this question to everyone on the show, which is humans really value things that are new, right?


RAZ: But, I mean, it's almost like there really isn't anything that's original.

BLAKLEY: Well, I think what's fascinating and what you see in the fashion industry all the time is that the genius is really in curating things from the past and reviving them in the present. So selecting from that massive archive of history - a certain button, a certain sleeve, a certain hem length, a certain color, a pattern, a design - and putting them all together in the present moment is its own kind of original genius, right? You were the first one to curate the past in this way.

RAZ: OK, but when is that kind of thing, like, done well and when is it just, like, kind of cheap?

BLAKLEY: Well, you do see some very bizarre knockoffs that sort of introduce new styles. Like, for a while, the Kelly bag was popularized on Canal Street in a plastic version. So they didn't even pretend to make it leather. It wasn't even vinyl. It was see-through plastic, and they were called jelly bags. And it started a whole craze where the rich girls even wanted a jelly bag. So you can see how this cycle of cultural reference can reinvigorate actually an interest in an old and respected brand.

BLAKLEY: Now, of course there's a bunch of effects that this culture of copying has on the creative process. And Stuart Weitzman is a very successful shoe designer. He has complained a lot about people copying him. But in one interview I read, he said, you know, it's really forced him to up his game. He had to come up with new ideas, new things that would be hard to copy. He came up with this Bowden-wedge heel that has to be made out of steel or titanium; if you make it from some sort of cheaper material, it'll actually crack in two. It forced him to be a little more innovative. And that actually reminded me of jazz great, Charlie Parker. I don't know if you've heard this anecdote, but I have. He said that one of the reasons he invented bebop was that he was pretty sure that white musicians wouldn't be able to replicate the sound.


BLAKLEY: He wanted to make it too difficult to copy.

RAZ: You know, there's this word, like, these words that we use about copying, like knockoff or its derivative. And we have this, like, instinctive, negative reaction to the idea of copying. But I wonder why, like, why are we so wary of it, especially when it comes to fashion, like, when everyone seems to be doing it.

BLAKLEY: Well, I think there's an instinct, especially within fashion, people want to appear as if they understand what the trends are, but they want to be able to differentiate themselves. They want to feel like they are their own original. And so there is this anxiety around copying other people's looks and copying other kinds of aesthetics, but as humans we also want to be part of that in-group. But we also want to be differentiated. We want all of it. We want everything.

RAZ: Johanna Blakley, she runs the Norman Lear Center at USC's Annenberg School for Communication. Check out her entire talk at ted.com. More on what's original in a moment. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.