THE IMITATION GAME

Following legal disputes by Adidas and Burberry over copycat designs, Rachel Parker considers the issue of counterfeit fashion and its impact on small businesses.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but when it comes to copying clothing designs, few brands take the compliment gladly. The past few weeks have seen two cases of legal disputes between high profile brands, each claiming that their trademark designs have been stolen by rival companies.

At the beginning of May, fashion house Burberry filed a lawsuit against US high-street retailer Target for producing ‘‘unauthorized copies’’ of their iconic check print on a number of their products. Burberry assert that Target’s reputation for collaborating with luxury brands may lead to ‘‘consumer confusion’’, adding that ‘‘although Target’s copycat scarves are of inferior quality, they are superficially indistinguishable from genuine Burberry scarves’’.

Meanwhile there have been further developments in an ongoing dispute between Adidas and Skechers. Adidas filed a case against the rival activewear brand back in September 2015, alleging that Skechers had copied their trademark Stan Smith tennis shoe. Earlier this month, a US court of appeals upheld an injunction preventing Skechers from selling the similar design, which Adidas claim may damage their brand reputation.

Designer rip-offs are nothing new, with fake Louis Vuitton handbags and counterfeit Gucci T-Shirts on seemingly every market stall and street corner. With the advent of social media, it is becoming increasingly difficult for high fashion brands to police imitations of their designs, with runway shows immediately available to view online and copies produced almost instantly.

For those who can only dream of owning a luxury label, these reproductions represent fashion democratisation: giving consumers an opportunity to purchase a designer item, albeit a knock-off. But brands such as Adidas and Burberry claim that these cheaper alternatives are confusing and damaging, undercutting their reputation for premium quality.

It’s not just big name brands who have been affected by imitations of their designs. Smaller businesses and artists are also feeling demoralised by creative copycatting, particularly when their work is replicated by more established companies. Earlier this year, George at Asda were slated across social media after independent children’s clothing brand Scamp & Dude posted a complaint on their Instagram feed, claiming that the supermarket giant had used their trademark slogan without permission.

‘‘Please note that this top by @georgeatasda is in no way associated with Scamp & Dude’’ wrote founder and designer Jo Tutchener-Sharp. ‘‘It does sadly feature our slogan ‘a Superhero has my back’ (even though we own the Trademark) but it is in no way associated with our brand. It’s so upsetting when this happens.’’

The designer went on to explain the story behind their logo, writing that she was inspired to create a brand to help children feel secure when apart from their carers after she was forced to leave her own children during a hospital stay. For Jo, the Asda imitation was upsetting on an emotional as well as a professional level.

Luckily, the backlash against George at Asda from members of the public and other independent businesses led to the supermarket agreeing to remove their garment from sale. Scamp & Dude wrote on their Instagram that ‘‘we have now agreed full terms of compromise, including compensation. We are happy with the way this has been resolved.’’ In fact, the exposure resulting from the internet storm has only served to raise the profile of the brand.

As Fanny Barlow of makeup brand Mermaid Salon explained when we caught up with her at the London Edge trade show earlier this year, design imitation can be a double-edged sword. The Australian company saw their now cult range of Chubby Mermaid Multipurpose Brushes sell out in just six minutes after the brand went viral, but the exposure spawned a wave of copycat designs. A factory even contacted Fanny to ask if Mermaid Salon would like to purchase the imitation brushes. ‘‘I said no- well, I said something worse than that!’’ says Fanny. ‘‘They flooded the market about three days after we went viral. They popped up really quick. It was a little bit heart-breaking, but at the same time, I can’t complain because that brush put us in Vogue.’’

This is a sentiment echoed by Melbourne-based milliner Liza Georgia. Each of her hats are unique and created to suit the individual client. Although she has never personally had designs taken by other brands, she tells me that ‘‘it sure would be devastating if this ever happened.’’ As she points out, the costs of developing ideas and the skills to bring them to fruition are much higher for smaller designers than big-name brands. ‘‘I design and make hats because I love and enjoy making them. I also enrolled and paid to develop my art at college and then for your work to be copied, it would be heart-breaking. An artist always has lots of ideas developing in their head and thinking outside the box and spends so much time creating and perfecting techniques with materials for their next collection.’’

While independent fashion brands speak of the emotional impact of seeing their designs copied, most are unable to face getting embroiled in a legal dispute. Despite cases of Instagram artists having their work used on garments in several well-known high-street stores in recent years, the costs of challenging a multinational corporation are impossible for most to take on.

For Liza Georgia, the imitation game comes down to a question of ethics. ‘‘If people can’t come up with their own ideas then maybe they should rethink a different area to go into. It’s just not fair for big companies to go off-shore and have your product copied for a cheaper version and mass produce it.’’ Fanny Barlow is more pragmatic in her approach: ‘‘I think I’m desensitised at this stage to copies. You just have to take it in your stride, it’s not worth the heartache. Just make something else.’’

“There is not much I can do to protect my designs. Like everyone else, I massively use social media for my promotion, so everything is out, available to everyone to see,” says milliner Giulia Mio.  “There is copying and copying. Everyone looks at the big masters of their craft for inspirations… blunt copy, to me, is theft. I mean, if you use the same fabric, the same shape and the same trims on a hat and then you sell it half price, you are not being “inspired” by my designs, you are just stealing my ideas to sell them for a cheaper price. Shame on you! ”

Whether or not there truly is no such thing as a new idea, it’s clear that when it comes to creative copycatting larger designers have the financial upper-hand. But cases such as the clash between Scamp & Dude and George at Asda show how smaller brands can harness the power of social media to speak out. Meanwhile, the advantages of going viral like Mermaid Salon can outweigh the issue of imitators. But seeing hours of creative development and carefully honed skill ripped-off by a rival company can be devastating for any artist. From big names like Burberry and Adidas to smaller designers such as Liza and Fanny, the question of fashion counterfeits is not just business: it’s personal.

Find Rachel on social media with @rachelfrances_ 

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