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Last week I had the opportunity to sit in on a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on copyrighting fashion design. Copyright? Fashion design? How is this supposed to work for a $335 billion-a-year industry (that's how much money Americans spend on clothing) that has been built on a copyright-free model for decades?
Designers present the argument that the Internet and digital technologies have put their very creation and distribution methodologies at risk; that designers are being copied--before they have the chance to get to their creations in to the marketplace; that three years of copyright protection they ask for in the bill (HR 5055)will guard their substantial monetary and sweat equity investments; and that the very essence of the fashion creation to market system is in jeopardy and Congress needs to step in.
Let me preface what I am about to say with a tribute to what I believe is one of the coolest, most innovative industries thriving in the world today. Yes, I love the clothes and I will take one of anything offered. More so, I love the designers who have the vision, determination, artistry and guts to take material and thread, and weave what the law says are :utilitarian garments," but what in truth are so much more.
I want designers to thrive and grow and keep titillating my senses. But I want them to abandon the idea that their creations would be better served by being protected under the copyright regime. Just the opposite is true; it will serve them poorly. It is because I am such a fan that I believe that their current collective action is folly and poised to ruin one of the most successful consumer industries of our time and, eventually, put the industry's leaders at risk for suing each other.
My father was a ragman. My mother was a former women's wear buyer for Alexanders. My formative years were spent shopping. By age 10, I could feel the hem of a coat and tell you if it had an interlining; by 15, I could spot a Pauline Trigere dress from across the room. I have closets filled with now vintage couturier and classic ready to wear pieces, elements of which re-appear in today's fashion lines again and again.
Fashion is derivative and appropriative to its core. Coco Channel, who has inspired the designs of everybody and their brother, declared it so when she said, "Fashion is the air, born upon the wind. One intuits it. It is in the sky and on the road." Designers borrow from history, art, the street and each other. It is constantly changing being redefined, repurposed, retooled and reimposed. How can you copyright that?
What if every designer had to get clearances before they could begin the arduous task of launching a collection? Think about it. The fashion industry would come to a grinding halt. There would be no innovation and perhaps little production. It would kill an industry that turns over its product lines several times a year. Every designer would be looking over his or her shoulder muttering to himself or herself, "Where have I seen that look before? Was it in Gallagher's, the famous vintage magazine store? Or the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute library where design teams spend hours researching. Was it in the little boutique in LA where that 20 year old designer was making and selling her designs one at a time?"
Walking down the streets of New York City is a feast for the eyes. New York women are better dressed and have a greater sense of style than women anywhere in the country and they are not all wearing clothes from the 4th floor of Bloomingdales or the 3rd floor of Saks. They can't afford to.
But they can afford the reinterpretation of the designs by the likes of ABS by Allen B Schwartz, Zara, H&M, Macy's signature collection, Target, and MeXX. These knock-offs are not only an homage to the designers who most recently presented them but, in truth, they are an homage to the entire history of fashion that is built upon a perpetual re-interpretation of one style or another.
Fashion is one hell of a cut-throat game. While it makes the shenanigans of the entertainment industry look like child's play, the apparel and accessory business also generate more revenue than the music and film industries combined. It is possible for designers to present product lines at several different price points from couture to bridge collections to mass market retailers. It is also possible for them to license their name and brands to appear on everything from eyeglasses to dinner glasses. The danger that a big name designer is losing revenue to the knock-off culture is not as great as the unknown designer whose work is easily assimilated into the work of an already known designer.
The fashion industry isn't perfect, but it is operational and successful because of a great notion-Creativity, more often than not, is built on a culture of borrowing. What an interesting concept? And, perhaps something to be revered, not legislated out of existence.
The American fashion designers aggressively lobbying to extend copyright protection to garment design need to carefully back down the Capitol steps and take several deep breaths, lest they run the risk of turning Fashion Avenue into Lawsuit Lane.