Wednesday, July 13, 2011

FFB: Fashion and Class and Copyright

(Image via The Shophound; the top row is Forever 21; the bottom -- Trovata).

This is a part of Feminist Fashion Bloggers monthly themed post; the roundup is here.

So sure, I wrote about copyright and how horrible current intellectual property laws are before. And now the Congress is considering a bill that will push the whole ridiculousness further: fashion designs will be considered copyrightable, and explicitly prohibit “deliberate copies that are substantially identical to the protected designs”.

There are many reasons why it's a horrible idea: copying, after all, is how trends are created, disseminated, and abandoned -- that is, this is the process driving fashion innovation forward. Secondly, what "substantially identical" actually means is of course subject to debate. Placement of a ruffle? Color? Overall silhouette? The court will decide!

But I want to get off the anti-copyright thing for a while, and talk about the strong undercurrent of class contempt permeating the discussion. First we have the trend-setters, the original designers, the luxe goods crowd -- Chanels, Vuittons, Lanvins, etc. I can understand their annoyance at copying of logos. I mean, when I see someone with a Chanel bag, I just assume it's a fake. So this brand devaluation has to be upsetting even though it increases brand recognition and doesn't actually cut into sales. (It's not like if you deprive people from fake double C's they'll start feverishly saving every penny to afford the real $3,000 bag.) But I get the logo thing.

Moreover, fake branding betrays aspirational mindset: because really, one can get a great quality vintage leather quilted bag on a chain without the double C's for a fraction of a price on Etsy or ebay. And it will last longer and look better than anything sold by street vendors. All you have to do is to let go of your aspiration to a luxe brand, and the esthetics can be yours.

Well, not if the new bill can help it. If it passes, no more nice unbranded cheap bags. Because really, do we want the plebs to wear stuff that looks identical to the latest runway?
There are of course plenty of reasons to not shop at Forever 21 and H&M and other fast fashion places. Knockoffs isn't one of them.

Luxury designers too are finding themselves in a bind: quality is slipping due to their increasing reliance on dubious labor practices and weakening of unions, the economic downturn is forcing people to bargain-shop, and the internet with its blogs and instant dissemination is certainly doing away with the whiff of exclusivity and special access of fashion shows. The very phrase "democratization of fashion" has an undercurrent of regret about it, so it's no wonder that many are willing to find ways to restrict access and enforce the boundaries of who is allowed into fashion and who is not.

But what does it all have to do with feminism? I often complain that capitalism made citizens into consumers, that voting with our wallets is the only sort of influence we're allowed to have (and we should not be satisfied with it); fashion is the demand for consumption targeted mostly at women. And we expand feminism to include intersectionality of oppression, if we allow ourselves to talk not only about the patriarchy but racial oppression and unfair labor practices, the power differential between different groups, then we have to recognize that the new bill will do nothing to limit the injustices of the world; it will only enforce aspirational consumption, without the no-brand-name loophole. Will it make Forever 21 go away? No; it will only make the difference between the luxe and the cheap more obvious. It won't reduce the unfair labor practices; it will only make visual class ID easier.

So ultimately the bill isn't about the protection of IP: Chanel and Forever 21 have ridiculously different consumer bases, so claims of financial harm are at best exaggerated. It's about keeping consumers in their place -- preoccupied with consumption. And of course about being able to see who has latest runway access.


Anonymous said...

Is it possible that this copying might also work in reverse. Let's say some Etsy crafts-person comes up with a great idea worthy of influencing a top designer. Wouldn't the copyright have value as intellectual property then?

poet said...

I don't think there's any way to keep people from making and buying knockoffs of the big brands, but I do think that a legislation against copying fashion designs could help small independent designers - there've been quite a few scandals that involved fast fashion folks stealing their designs that were relatively affordable in the first place, then mass-producing them and selling them even cheaper... that is seriously not okay either. And it's also a class issue right there: Knockoffs may not harm the big, unaffordable brands, but they might prove a serious problem for an aspiring middle-class designer who doesn't have big capital to build on, but a lot to lose.

Eve Maria said...

great points in the last two paragraphs.

Poet also makes a good point about how some brands have taken independant designers' designs and copied them. I've seen this multiple times with the UK store New Look taking original art of the internet and printing on their tshirts without permission or compensation to the artist.

In response to Terri's point, I'd say that if I were that 'top designer' I'd invite the Etsy crafter to come and work with me in collaberation which avoids copying/copywrite issues.

Fish Monkey said...

Terri, Poet -- good points. However, as IP legislation in other areas showed, such laws really do tend to benefit larger corporations only, since they have the resources to take violators to court. Etsy designer? Maybe not so much. So an aspiring designer with not a lot of capital still won't be able to take a large corporation to court since legal fees etc might be significant enough to sink it -- just like with copyright violation in arts, we see that it is Disney who relentlessly pursues the violators, while regular writers post pleas on their blogs to please not steal their work (I do talk more about that in the post linked in the beginning.)

Another point is that for Etsy craftspeople/up-and-comers stealing is not the biggest issue. Just like for writers, obscurity is.

Maria -- use of art without permission is already within current IP laws. We don't need another piece of legislation, we already have it -- the issue there is enforcement, which once again comes down to who has money/time for courts.

Fish Monkey said...

Apologies to Franca ( your comment landed in my mailbox but not on Blogger comments. So I'm posting it here from email:

"Very interesting the link you make to class! I completely agree with you, if this is interpreted broadly and things like quilted bags become out of bounds to low/middle level designers, that would be extremely worrying indeed. I can see it from the other side of the small designer having their design nicked, but as you say, the costs of actually suing someone are prohibitively high."