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Are fashion rip-offs ever OK?

What’s the line between logo flips and flat out theft – and should some fashion fakes get a free pass?

“Talent borrows, genius steals.” It is a quote which, in some form and quite fittingly, has been attributed to Oscar Wilde, T.S Eliot, Pablo Picasso and Steve Jobs. And yet, it could very well be the definitive quote to sum up the state of fashion in 2016: from a New York teenager creating bootlegs of Kanye’s Life of Pablo merchandise (only for Mr West’s associates to then begin selling the bootlegs from within the official pop-up), to Zara’s blatant copies of LA based artist Tuesday Bassen. With even Gucci releasing what would seem to be a bootleg-inspired t-shirt, it looks like flipping and ripping artwork is officially on-trend.

Bootlegging and appropriation is something of a morally grey area within fashion. As consumers, we are essentially hypocrites: when Gosha Rubchinskiy riffs, in a less than subtle manner, on Tommy Hilfiger’s iconic two-tone motif it’s hailed as brilliant – a wonderful play on the late-Soviet phenomena of Western brands like Hilfiger and Levi’s taking on countercultural significance beyond the Iron Curtain. (Plus, it looked pretty cool). Yet, we were justifiably outraged when we learned of Bassen’s work being ripped off by a corporate multi-national, who subsequently informed the artist that she lacked the cultural clout (or Instagram following) to challenge the Spanish-based company. Both of these reactions were reasonable, albeit counterintuitive on the surface – how can one form of plagiarism be seen as permissible, brilliant in the eyes of some, and the other beyond the pale?

In response to Zara’s appropriation of her work without any remuneration, Bassen said she felt “bullied and belittled,” adding that it had directly impacted on her livelihood as an artist. There are few beyond the shiny headquarters of Zara – which is the kind of huge and absolutely lovely place that working at would probably make you think, ‘hey, maybe Capitalism isn’t so bad after all, exploit my labour, benevolent fashion overlord’ – who would argue against Bassen’s case. There are perhaps even fewer who would object to the principle here: that no multi-million pound company should be exploiting independent artists who make a living through their work. Case closed, right? 

“How can one form of plagiarism be seen as permissible, brilliant in the eyes of some, and the other beyond the pale?”

On the same day as Bassen’s story came to light, however, Canadian-retailer SSENSE released their latest interview with another L.A-based artist, Cali Thornhill Dewitt. He is the man responsible for Kanye West’s aforementioned merchandise, which he says plays on the tradition within LA’s Mexican communities of memorialising friends and family who have recently died by printing tributes on shirts. The style, favoured both by the city’s Latino population and by Dewitt, has also recently been copied by Forever 21 and other high street retailers. In a brilliant example of things coming full-circle move, it’s now also been copied by the Latino market stall holders back in LA where it originated. Yet, the artist remains unperturbed: “I love bootlegs. I love the idea of making a shirt or something that two years later you could see on an old Chinese woman in the subway. To me, that’s the reason to make a shirt… I think it’s fine. I don’t really claim ownership of it. You know, you can hold on to something really tight, and scream about it, or you can just let it go. I prefer to just let it go.”

That one artist would be ostensibly fine with being copied by one fast-fashion retailer, whilst another would be justifiably outraged, is telling about the different fashion structures in operation within the industry. And neither artist is in the wrong. Rather, it is about each one’s contextual background – Dewitt has long operated within different strands of DIY counter-culture, his work does not share innocent, kitsch aesthetic of Bassen’s, and it’s likely why he could embrace being plagiarised by Forever 21. If anything, it strengthens his cultural capital – as an anti-establishment artist, this sort of mass-dissemination of his work becomes something of an in-joke amongst his peers. And in wholly more practical terms, he’s already made his money from this facet of his work, via Kanye West. After all, why would he bother fighting for a design he borrowed in the first place?

The concept of creative appropriation is, of course, nothing new – it was the origin of the whole genre of hip hop, a not too foreign concept within the bricolage style of punk, and it underpinned much of the stylistic output of Guy Debord’s leftist revolutionary Letterist International and subsequent Situationist International movement in the 50s and 60s, inspiring a student-fuelled uprising which nearly toppled the French state through a mixture of art, film and political writing. At the time, The French called it “detournement,” the practice of “hijacking” existing facets of culture and subverting them to your own ends. Technically (or tenuously, depending on where you stand), that movement went on to influence some of streetwear’s founding figures, like Erik Brunetti, who cited Debord’s student movement as an influence in one of his early ads, and whose Ford-turned-Fuct motif was as classic an example of detournement as you’ll find, albeit within the context of corporate America and not Charles de Gaulle’s France. Similarly, Malcolm McLaren was another who drew inspiration from Debord’s output and has had a tremendously powerful influence on what we have come to know as streetwear.

“I love bootlegs. I love the idea of making a shirt or something that two years later you could see on an old Chinese woman in the subway” – Cali Thornhill Dewitt

If bootlegging and flipping logos is a grey area within fashion, it is at its greyest and most murky within the realm of streetwear. It is a subgenre where the appropriation of the logos of others’ is actively encouraged, and where its protagonists seem to have little problem when they themselves fall victim to bootleggers. Wander down a bustling street in Taipei or Bangkok, you’ll quickly see knock-offs from a number of Western brands – Louis Vuitton, Prada, Chanel, all of whom have been fond of a cease and desist over the years – but also, increasingly, Supreme and Palace. It was a Taiwanese bootlegger whose incorrect spelling of the word Palace led to one of the more humorously meta t-shirts of this past 12 months. And it was not without a certain self-aware irony that Palace released their own bootleg of the Taiwanese bootleg (a Tri-Ferg logo t-shirt emblazoned with “Placae”) – after all, they themselves have profited greatly from their brash use of Chanel and Versace’s iconic branding. For the London-based streetwear brand, it was merely part of the game.

“I don’t really think that anything, in terms of a visual, belongs to anyone – it’s all up for grabs to be played with. And that’s probably one of the most fun things you can do with the T-shirt medium,” Fergus Purcell, the man behind the graphics at Palace, explained in an interview earlier this year. “That kind of interplay is endlessly interesting, and having a background in skateboarding culture… Skateboarding has been rabid in its consumption of anything outside itself, any imagery: fashion, corporate, industrial, American candy bars – you name, they’ve nicked it.”

It would seem that it is largely streetwear brands that relish operating in this grey area – logo flips have built much of the rich visual history of this subculture. Supreme’s have perhaps been the boldest and most prolific in their borrowing of other brand’s logos and motifs – including Louis Vuitton’s Monogram pattern which saw the label hit with two cease and desists, first by Playboy for incorporating their renowned rabbit into the print and then by Louis Vuitton themselves. But in the eyes of Supreme and their fans, these are merely an homage to people and brands they respect. They are produced in such limited numbers that any potential harm to a brand is negligible – typically, they will have sold out before the offended brand has even had a chance to call their lawyer.

“Skateboarding has been rabid in its consumption of anything outside itself, any imagery: fashion, corporate, industrial, American candy bars – you name, they’ve nicked it” – Fergus Purcell

“Supreme doesn't owe anyone anything,” says the anonymous figure behind @Supreme_Copies, and Instagram account documenting the many ingenious references that the brand works into each collection. “Many of the pieces are made with intentions to pay homage to the designers and other figures they look up to and respect. Anything past that is streetwear's foundations. Their ethics are perfectly acceptable when designing what they do.” And conversely, the are decidedly nonplussed by the thousands of fake box logo tees that flood eBay. “I don’t mind if others make a quick buck off Supreme,” the brand’s founder, James Jebbia, is quoted as saying in David Shapiro’s recent book dedicated to the brand.

To claim that it is permissible for small independent brands to copy and borrow at will, but that it was morally reprehensible for large, corporate organisations to do the same – while often true – would be to oversimplify and staggeringly complex issue. Jebbia, whose brand is estimated to be worth in excess of $30 million, has built his empire off these singular acts of recontextualisation, yet few would compare him to the likes of Zara or Forever 21. To do so would imply that fashion is one, singular, homogenous structure, ignoring the nuances of respective niches and subcultures. The agency of respective artists is largely determined by how and with what facets of fashion they choose to engage – it’s why someone like Fergus Purcell can Photoshop Palace over a Versace logo and, equally, shrug when someone borrows from his own work. To him, it’s all part of the game. And streetwear has always been as much about being the quickest and smartest – knowing when to strike when the iron is hot with the perfect reference – as it has been about sheer design talent. If you’re part of that, those are the rules you play by; a sort of honour amongst thieves, so to speak.

“Supreme doesn't owe anyone anything. Many of the pieces are made with intentions to pay homage to the designers and other figures they look up to and respect” – @supreme_copies

There is perhaps no exact science as to why some bootlegs or logo-flips get a pass, whilst others feel wrong or exploitative. The vast and varied nature of fashion will likely ensure that this continues to be the case. But the importance of understanding the context of each design, and the place that it comes from, remains. Bassen is an artist who shows no desire to engage with flipping logos or borrowing ideas should also be treated as such –her  originality is her most powerful asset and she has, over time, crafted a unique identity and body of work. That structure within which she has chosen to operate is one far removed from the Dewitts or Purcells of this world – and that’s a decision which should certainly be respected.