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How the high street gets away with fashion robbery

Fast-fashion retailers are churning out runway rip-offs faster and cheaper than ever – but should designers be worried, and why aren’t they taking legal action?

While the luxury fashion industry has been struggling to post any significant amount of revenue growth for some time now, fast-fashion retailers are thriving. As high-fashion houses are closing stores and slowing expansion, high-street brands like H&M and Zara continue to increase their footprint, a sure sign that they are weathering the economic storm quite well. In fact, just last month, Amancio Ortega, the owner of Inditex, Zara’s parent company, briefly took Bill Gates’s spot as the world’s richest man. So, what is it that fast-fashion brands, the ones known for rapidly translating high fashion designs into low-priced garments and accessories, are doing so well? And how come they only rarely get hauled into court for their copycat ways?

Fast fashion retailers are doing something right, and if we look at their general business model (and forget the negative side effects, like exploitative labour), it is innovative. Primarily, there is the turnaround time. Brands such have become adept at watching designer collections go down the runway, identifying key garments and accessories, manufacturing them and having them on their e-shelves in a matter of weeks – for a low retail price. The designers, however, take longer to deliver such items to stores. This is unfavorable because today’s consumer – particularly millennials and those of Generation Z – has come to expect instant gratification. As such, six months is too long to wait for a dress that just went down the runway, and several thousand dollars is too much to pay.  

“Today’s consumer – particularly millennials and those of Generation Z – has come to expect instant gratification. As such, six months is too long to wait for a dress that just went down the runway, and several thousand dollars is too much to pay”

There is also the quantity element, which many fast fashion brands appear to have down to a science. Utilising a model pioneered largely by Zara, fast-fashion retailers – and now, many non-fast-fashion startups alike – are doing away with very large runs of any single garment or accessory. Instead, they produce many smaller quantities, gauge consumer demand and reproduce accordingly. This is all accomplished in a timely manner, and comes with a number of benefits. Primarily, it creates a false sense of limited availability and thus covetability, thereby enticing consumers to buy on the spot and to buy often – which is particularly tempting when retailers introduce new and directly on-trend styles every week or so. Moreover, this method mitigates risk of over-production of any one style and ensures that these retailers do not have to sell off a significant amount of goods at a discount, which amounts to a loss of profit for them.

In short, these brands are definitely doing things right.

As for why fast-fashion retailers are not constantly being sued by the brands they copy, there are a few potential reasons. First and foremost, in the US, copyright laws are not much of a friend to fashion designers. The Copyright Act, the governing law in the US, does not protect useful articles, such as clothing and shoes. As a result, it does not serve as a significant source of protection for original fashion designs or as a noteworthy deterrent against fast fashion retailers. This explains why stores can get away with selling line-for-line copies in the US, but what about elsewhere? In the UK, Italy and France, there are laws in place that outlaw such copying. So, why does it still happen there? How did department store Debenhams get away with selling a very close copy of one of Alber Elbaz’s AW13 collection Lanvin dresses?

There is the argument that high-fashion houses simply can’t be bothered, that the threat posed by the Zaras and Debenhams of the world is minimal, and that those shopping high street are not in a position to shop high fashion. And for many years, this argument was entirely appropriate. However, as the shopping habits of consumers continue to evolve, this argument is becoming increasingly weak. In previous generations, the mixing of high fashion and more mainstream fashion was largely considered taboo. A woman would not be caught dead shopping for clothing at both JC Penney and Bergdorf Goodman. We know this from the way that Bergdorf Goodman sales executives responded to late designer Halston’s foray into the designer x mass-market collaboration. In the 1970s, Halston teamed up with JC Penney to design an affordable fashion line. The minute Bergdorfs got wind of the partnership, they dropped Halston’s main collection from their store. The thought of a mainstream collection was scandalous!

“Filing lawsuits is not cheap, and for most designers the legal fees associated with filing a lawsuit against a copycat retailer every time they copy are simply too expensive”

As we saw from the chaos surrounding the recent Balmain x H&M collaboration and the many that preceded it, the industry and consumer trends have evolved significantly since Halston’s day. Consumers are simply not as brand-loyal as they once were – wearing head-to-toe Chanel and only Chanel is no longer a ‘thing’, for instance. Consumers want a diversified wardrobe, and for many, this means basics (at least) from more mainstream retailers. And as a result, the very distinct line between high fashion shoppers and fast-fashion shoppers has become rather grey.

As you can see, the ‘fast fashion does not hurt our high-fashion business’ argument provides a rather incomplete explanation for why designers are not lawyering up and filing suit against fast-fashion retailers every time they copy their work. Maybe a better explanation is this: filing lawsuits is not cheap, and for most designers – apart from the big design houses – the legal fees associated with filing a lawsuit against a copycat retailer every time they copy are simply too expensive. And it is very common for the copied garment or accessory to come from smaller brands like Altuzarra or Sibling London. For brands like these, the costs of manufacturing alone are significant, and legal fees are simply not in their budget. Fast-fashion retailers know this.

So, even with anti-copying laws in place in many countries, the prospect of filing a lawsuit against a fast-fashion giant like Zara is not feasible for the vast majority of brands. This fact – coupled with unprecedented demand from impatient consumers for cheap Prada lookalikes – is why we will continue to see line-for-line copies of garments just weeks after they make their runway debuts.