Under the Influence: High Street Copying Designers

It's an age old problem, but where do we as consumers draw the line?


Words by Síomha Connolly
November 14th, 2016

It won’t come as a surprise to many that fast fashion brands often imitate designer clothing to the point that it’s difficult to distinguish between the two. It’s how the fashion industry works, isn’t it? It’s how most of the population can afford to wear the latest trends without having to shell out for designer goods. But is this practice having a negative effect on the industry? And where should we, as consumers, draw the line when it comes to purchasing these designer knock-offs?

By rapidly translating high fashion designs in a cheap, quick and effective manner fast fashion retailers can produce knock-offs of luxury designer styles and sell them for a fraction of the price. These strikingly similar designs are produced in bulk making them extremely viable mass-market options, so while luxury fashion house sales are slowing, high street brands are booming. By reproducing the latest catwalk creations at a fraction of the price, high street favourites such as Zara, H&M and Mango have developed this process of imitation that has, in ways, become normal in the industry among brands (both the originals and the imitators).

Part of the reason this imitation game exists is because consumers who have come to expect everything to be instant (due to the growing need for instant gratification present in our society) no longer have the willingness or patience to wait six months for a design to be turned around from catwalk to shop floor. Fast fashion brands carefully watch what comes down the runways during Fashion Week and can in some cases have their designs copied, mocked up and in stores within a number of weeks. For many consumers, six months is too long to wait for designs to come into store and as well, often more importantly, prices in the high hundreds or thousands is too much to pay.

Balenciaga AW16

Another major factor in this process is the mixing of high and low. Where once there was a taboo around mixing high fashion and high street, now it has almost become the norm especially since many of the popular designers of our time have become more casual and “street ready” in design. A designer outfit no longer means a matching tweed suit from Chanel, it can now be anything from an oversized puffer jacket by Balenciaga to a pair of punk-style ballet flats by Miu Miu which opens up this once elitist group to another section of society. If high street brands see wearable designs coming down the runway this quickly translates to a marketable product in their eyes and by bringing these designer inspired styles to consumers at a fraction of the cost, high street brands are attracting new consumers at a larger rate than ever.

Brand loyalty has also diminished over the years and if a customer can get an item for significantly cheaper they usually will, especially with trend pieces that will only last a season or two anyway. While there are still designer devotees who wouldn’t often stray from high end goods, the danger for luxury brands is whether consumers will be put off if a luxury product dupe is available on the high street as often products will lose their desirability if they are too accessible which can understandably result in a lack of customer interest.

Chloé SS16

While it’s never OK to completely copy someone else’s design or ideas, where this practice is causing major concern is when it comes to small independent designers being ripped off. A number of independent designers who are often discovered through Instagram and other social media platforms have a very high risk of being copied by high street brands and a very low chance of being able to do anything about it. The platforms on which they are discovered often become the platforms they use to reproach big brands taking advantage of them and their craft.

Considering the cost of taking out a lawsuit against a big brand would most likely bankrupt a fledgling brand these designers have been known to use social media in order to call big brands out. Copyright, trademarks and design patents are extremely expensive, especially for young designers and so social media platforms like Instagram and Tumblr have given these designers a voice to share their concerns and call out big brands taking advantage of them, while at the same time making their fans aware of these injustices. Unfortunately, this often goes unnoticed by both the brands and consumers who continue to buy these products oblivious to the damage it is doing to the young designer.

Most recently it was Brother Vellies, an independent locally crafted shoe and accessory company produced in Africa and run by Aurora James who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Earlier this year, James shockingly realised that Zara had made knock-offs of some of her shoes. Her ethically produced Dhara sandals retail for $715 and are handcrafted in Ethiopia while Zara’s extremely similar pair cost a mere $59.90. The designer took to Instagram to call Zara out, sharing a picture of the knock-off shoes with a caption that read: “Stolen from Africa 🙁 #Dharasandals”. Considering how difficult it is for emerging designers to make it anyway, these blatant imitations from high street stores only knock them back further.

Brother Vellies

On the other side of the spectrum, some industry folk believe that copying is vital for both the success and stamina of the fashion industry. If catwalk trends were not copied by high street stores they would more than likely fizzle out without gaining massive speed. Only a small population of people can afford to buy into luxury designer labels and so if it weren’t for the high street brands copying these products for the masses they would essentially have a very limited scope outside the fashion world. High street stores can help to popularise certain designs and in turn, popularise a designer by associating them with certain trends. In ways this imitation game also helps to spread the democratisation of fashion by giving more people access to a wide range of trends.

It’s clear that the issue isn’t black and white. Fashion at its essence is about inspiration. So much of what is in fashion now has been done before and there is a constant resurgence of trends over the years. There’s a lot of grey areas when it comes to designs, imitation and copyright, and there is a fine line between inspiration and imitation. It’s when something appears as a near identical replica, or when a young designer’s reputation and label is at risk of being damaged that it becomes more than worrying. What’s utterly clear is that creative design must be recognised and rewarded. Cloaking an imitation in anything other than that is unethical and only misleads consumers and damages the original creator.