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Appropriation as Brand Piracy
Even though authorities are trying to combat brand piracy, it seems that there is also another form of style imitation that is currently being neglected.
28 March, 2021

With influencers posting daily ‘outfit of the day’ pictures and with overwhelmingly present pop culture, people notice certain similarities in the products they consume, especially in the fashion industry. The originality and authenticity of clothing designs are put under question as we face massive reproduction of well-known garments through imitation of their name and logo. Even though authorities are trying to combat brand piracy, it seems that there is also another form of style imitation that is currently being neglected. Commonly known as appropriation, the concept implies using an idea or style without permission. Even though appropriation is ubiquitous, its practice seems to pass unnoticed. But is appropriation less harmful than other forms of piracy or does it also produce unethical outcomes?

Brand Piracy between Salvation and Immorality

While Guatemala is primarily associated with poverty and economic inequalities, the image of the country and the Maya people is illustrated by Kendron Thomas through the concept of brand piracy. After several years of armed war, clothing manufacturing became one of the principal activities for inhabitants, offering them a source of income and a chance for a stable future. Maya people reproduce well-known garments for a reasonable price, adjusting them according to personal preferences. Due to the financial difficulties that manufacturers encounter, they also try to reduce the production costs, imitating pieces that require less material, opting, for instance, for brands with shorter names as there are fewer letters to be replicated. Even though brand piracy is prohibited by law, local manufacturers still practice it to overcome a barrier between social classes.

Laws have been implemented to fight against counterfeit products, whereas, unfairly, in my opinion, appropriation is not necessarily considered a threat for intellectual property, therefore not regulated. The reproduction of a design is probably more complicated to be punished since it is a global phenomenon practised by mass-market fashion brands such as Zara or Topshop. Trends are set by remarkable designers who usually work for high-end brands. Thus, we associate certain items with a specific fashion house: the double pearl earrings with the famous Dior Tribales, or the popular equestrian prints with Hermes scarves. Mass-market brands recreate, with less costly materials, famous clothes, adding a personal touch or minimal modifications. In this way, people that cannot afford exclusive brands still have access to fashionable garments. The similitude between mass-market lines and Maya people imitating famous fashion houses’ designs, is the desire to create up-to-date clothing for a reasonable price. However, in Guatemala, manufacturers counterfeit or slightly change the logo, in contrast to mass brands that simply appropriate famous designs.

Appropriation versus Brand Piracy

While brand piracy is a problem encountered especially in the less-developed economies, appropriation does not always relate to financial aspects as high-end brands have also been guilty of this practice. A controversial case is the Ikea bag and its more expensive imitation created by Balenciaga. The similarities between the $0.99 blue bag and the costly updated version are striking: ‘With its trapezoidal shape, giant size and colour – a vibrant shade of EU-flag blue – the similarities are impossible to ignore. The double strap feature, with one long set of handles to hoist over the shoulder, one short to be held in the hand, cinches it.’. Ikea’s response was a guide for identifying the real bag by the following characteristics: ‘if it rustles, it’s real; it costs $0.99 (40p in the UK); it’s easily cleaned with a hose.’. Even though it seems odd for a famous fashion house to imitate the design of a bag used by a well-known furniture company, there are also other examples such as the Louis Vuitton’s tote bag inspired by the plastic laundry bags designed for the Spring 2007 Ready-to-Wear Collection.

Cultural Appropriation: ‘Bihor, not Dior’

Extending the discussion, one can also include the concept of cultural appropriation such as the imitation of Romanian traditional clothing, specifically from the Bihor area, which inspired Dior for its Pre-Fall 2017 Collection. The similarities could not pass unnoticed, thus a campaign entitled ‘Bihor, not Dior’ aimed to ask for credits and to encourage the purchase of the traditional garments. Even though Romania may culturally and economically benefit from Dior’s appropriation, the fashion house has never admitted copying the traditional clothing, making the situation even more morally questionable.

The Concept of Authenticity 

Therefore, the concept of ‘authenticity’ may become misleading. We identify true designer products as being authentic, manufactured with high-quality materials. However, simultaneously, authenticity refers to the status of not being a copy. We might assume that the bag is an original Balenciaga when comparing it to another one fabricated by an unauthorised manufacturer. In this case, the bag is authentic. On the other hand, even if it is produced by Balenciaga, we cannot consider the product as being original if we point out the primary source. The concept of originality refers to creating something that brings novelty in the domain, which innovates and does not represent a copy of an item already existing. Certainly, Balenciaga did not prove creativity in terms of design, although we might applaud the idea of improving an ordinary shopping bag and adapting it to an everyday style outfit. The concept of uplifting an unremarkable item by improving its quality features should perhaps receive credits.

However, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, there is less variety among mass culture products, including fashion designs. People tend to choose between similar garments, imitation is the fundamental characteristic of mass culture. Therefore, we might assume that it has become difficult to create original clothes and pieces that were never seen before. Thus, making imitation a common practice in the fashion domain.

All in all, brand piracy and appropriation represent a fundamental problem in a domain where ingenuity should stand out. Even though design imitation may be a source of income in areas confronting financial constraints, brand piracy and appropriation should not be permitted. Fortunately, in the fashion domain, the creation of visuals and the more superficial materialisation of one’s ideas, ease the process of identifying the original source.

Digital Culture, Year 2

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