Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Imitation: the Sincerest Form of Flattery? Or Just Copying?

The Museum at FIT is currently showing a provocative exhibition entitled Faking It: Originals, Copies and Counterfeits, in which they raise a number of interesting questions.  (Sorry, everyone - no picture of us this time, but we have a marvelous representative in this hat.  More about the hat soon.)

The exhibition opens with this pair of Chanel suits - an original and a licensed copy.  Can you guess which is which?

Right away, everyone will say 'workmanship', but if Chanel has licensed the material, what other clues are there?  If you guessed that the left is the original because it has more pockets, you'd be right - more details cost more money.  The back of the original has two panels; the licensed copy saves money by having only one panel across the whole back.  (Two panels = better tailoring.)  The accompanying text listed many other differences not detectable to the untrained eye.

The exhibition shows that the issue of copying commercial designs is not new.  Even Worth (1903) was copied.  The dress below is a close copy of a Madame Vionnet dress from the mid-1920s.  Vionnet believed she could prevent copiers with highly detailed beadwork, but the beadwork was copied, and savings were made at the hem of the dress, which the copyist simplified and shortened.

In 1947, Nettie Rosenstein made this unauthorized copy of a Dior New Look dress.  The text by the dress explains that Rosenstein's dress was made from seven yards of fabric, compared to Dior's fifteen.

Coco Chanel saw copies as a form of free advertising, but hers was a minority view.  Below, pictures of Dior's 1950 designs were released to the press, but with parallel black lines through the dresses in an attempt to protect the designs from copyists as long as possible.

After Yves St. Laurent showed his Mondrian dress in 1965, numerous unauthorized imitations followed.  (The YSLs were pieced together; the imitations were dresses with patchwork pieces sewn on to them.)

But in 1962, milliner Sally Victor produced this hat, so who is copying whom?  Can anyone lay claim to originating a design that follows Mondrian so closely?

Campbell's Soup, far from considering suing Andy Warhol for his soup can paintings, harnessed the publicity the paintings stirred up by creating the now iconic paper soup can dresses.  The text next to the dress noted that the dresses could be bought by mailing in one dollar and two soup can labels.  (Antiques Road Show valued one such dress now at $2,000 - 3,000.  Is it time to take a look in your attic?)

The Moschino suit below is a copy of Roy Lichtenstein's Girl with Ribbon Hair.  Moschino avoided any infringement issues by securing the painter's permission first.

Brian Lichtenberg's Homies suit is a direct reference to, and play on, luxury brand Hermes in color, font, and imagery.  The label says the "collection has raised debate among lawyers, scholars and the press regarding trademark infringement and parody as a protected form of speech."

The exhibition is enriched by several illuminating videos that detail the issues broached by the pieces shown.  In one, a series of photos show how designers draw (oh, let's just say it - COPY) from one another.  Below, a 1997 Givenchy and a 2015 Balmain are juxtaposed.

In another, Susan Scafidi, founder and director of the Fashion Law Institute, talks about fashion and design issues that can (and cannot) be pursued legally.  Below, she points out the differences between fake and real Chanel bags, and explains the economic and other consequences of buying knock offs.  (Behind her are a genuine Roland Mouret dress, and an imitation.)

The Museum at FIT gives a very thorough look at this exhibition on its website.  If you'd like to delve further into Faking It: Originals, Copies and Counterfeits, start here, and work your way through the various options.  Want to see it up close and personal?  April 25 is the last day.


  1. Ah, sorry to miss this show (I arrive in Mid-May). I am fascinated with the concept of copy-vs-inspiration. Wish I had a soup can dress in the trunk! xo

  2. This looks like such an interesting exhibit, I wish I could see it! Where do you draw the line between a copy and a piece "inspired" by the original?