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Dapper Dan vs. Gucci

2017 was the year copying went out of style

Or should that be paying homage?

Any accusation of design theft in fashion can be traced back to patient zero: the moodboard. One of the most important tools in a fashion designer’s arsenal, it maps their constellation of references until it all comes together in the creative eureka moment that sparks each new collection. So what happens when – among the torn pages from magazines, movie stills and fabric swatches – the designers have an off-day, and their eye goes astray to a slightly closer-to-home reference?

For decades this wasn’t a problem. Surely, it would only be the most devout fashionista or critic who might recall that SS93 Margiela look, they thought. We’ll just... borrow from it. Nobody will ever know. Right? 

Wrong. In the age of Instagram, where the collective knowledge of fashion fanatics can be pooled, designers must be breaking out in a cold sweat and pining for those more innocent times.

No take on call-out culture in 2017 could go without mentioning Diet Prada, the Instagram account that had everyone talking this year thanks to its air of mystery and razor-sharp humour. Its sheer gravitational pull speaks for itself: amassing over 150k followers, it’s clear that people are fed up of seeing designers being plagiarised, and are ready to make their voices heard. A combination of high profile fans, like Naomi Campbell and Business of Fashion’s Tim Blanks, and high profile targets, like its recent objections to Kim Kardashian’s Kids Supply line that earned a response from Kim herself, has seen its follow count rise exponentially – 120k new followers in the past two months alone.

The critical mass of thousands of fashion fans on Instagram lobbying for the original sources of inspiration to be recognised is an impressive and important force: the account’s call-outs have led to countless designers being fairly acknowledged for their creations. In the various cases of huge, conglomerate-owned brands (high street and high end alike) ripping off young and independent designers, watching people be at least recognised for their hard work is cheering.

Take, for example, Dapper Dan. In a twist of irony, the bootlegger saw his own knock-off high-end designs from the 80s paraphrased by Alessandro Michele in Gucci’s Cruise 2018 collection. Cue internet outrage, which led to Dan modelling Gucci’s tailoring campaign and the brand financially supporting the relaunch of his iconic Harlem boutique. 

Vocal about everything from a lack of diversity to sexual assault in the industry, Diet Prada also has a sharp eye for instances of cultural appropriation. Recently calling out a Loewe collection that copied patterns from Ecuadorian indigenous craftspeople verbatim, it even prompted Jonathan Anderson himself to reaffirm the brand’s commitment to preserving traditional craft traditions and techniques. Diet Prada has single, (or, if stories about the people behind the account are to be believed, double) handedly achieved a position that forces brands to take notice.

Sometimes a little too much notice, in the unfortunate case of Stefano Gabbana. When confronted with a store window that bore a close resemblance to Gucci’s visual merchandising, Gabbana lost his cool, leaving an (unintentionally) hilarious jumbled series of messages riddled with expletives. Given Gabbana’s long history of problematic behaviour, I felt a warm glow of satisfaction when Diet Prada released a t-shirt with his retort: “Please say sorry to me!” and donated 20% of the profits to an organisation that helps LGBT parents fun in-vitro fertilisation. Brilliant.

There are moments, however, when what has the potential to be a positive, productive conscience for the fashion industry veers dangerously close to the gotcha! spirit of the smug school bully – posts by Diet Prada often result in leering intimidation by its legion of followers, who are ready to bombard the comments section of those targeted with endless messages.

A few months ago, the relatively upstart New York-based Vaquera fell into Diet Prada’s crosshairs – an independent brand that functions more as an art project than a commercially viable label. The accusations of copying here seemed bizarre when one of its breakout pieces was a giant Tiffany blue jewellery bag reading Vaquera & Co, with the model wearing nothing else but a thong. As Vaquera’s comments section was flooded by hysterical accusations of theft from the mob, the situation began to smack more of bitterness than genuine concern for the preservation of intellectual property. At what point does this cross the line?

What I’m asking is less to do with what’s actually being challenged, and more with the tone – is the stereotype of fashion as a cruel, bitchy industry really something we want to perpetuate? I agree with Diet Prada that traditional media is too reliant on brand advertising to ever offer genuinely unbiased criticism, but at the same time, the role of a critic isn’t to be unrelentingly negative.

Of course, it’s tedious to see fashion recycle ideas, or watch a faux-Céline or faux-Vetements collection go down the runway. Plagiarism is a crime, and there are important debates to be had within all the creative industries, parameters to be drawn, grey areas to be ironed out. It’s reassuring to know that major designers and brands can be held accountable for plundering the work of the young and unestablished, and that social media can provide an effective means of safeguarding against that. Trying to take down small-scale or independent designers who are still subject to the fickle whims of whether or not they’re fashion’s flavour of the month, however, gets us nowhere. So in 2018, let’s pick our targets a little more carefully?

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