Moments after seeing Kate Middleton emerge from the limousine on her wedding day last Friday, fashion designers all over the world pulled out their sketchbooks and got to work copying the dress. The usual celebrity dress copy-artists came out of the woodwork: a version of the gown by A.B.S. by Allen Schwartz is already finished and will be in stores by June 30; New York fashion house Faviana also has a version that will head to production soon; and the Chinese Muyi Wedding Dress Company already has a $320 version for sale in Suzhou.
But that’s only the beginning. Everything from her earrings, to the reception dress, to her sister’s gown has been replicated with cheaper materials to be sold to the masses. Some may scream piracy and argue that it’s not fair to the original designer, Alexander McQueen Creative Director Sarah Burton. But this is exactly the way the fashion world is supposed to work. It is likely that high-end designers will also look to the McQueen for inspiration, just as the “original” McQueen gown is itself a copy, hearkening back to Grace Kelly’s famous wedding dress.
Fashion comes full circle: Grace Kelly’s wedding gown designed by Helen Rose, Kate Middleton’s wedding gown designed by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, and a “knockoff” by Faviana.
The vast amount of copying in the fashion industry allows all designers and consumers to capitalize on what’s hot, without breaking the bank. Just as quickly, trends fade away because they become ubiquitous, because they have been copied too many times; this, in turn, stimulates new innovation and design and the process starts all over. This is the “piracy paradox” that law professors Chris Sprigman and Kal Raustiala talk about in their paper by the same name, addressing the possibility that copying does not deter innovation but may actually promote it.
The original McQueen gown, worth more than $66,000, was impeccably constructed, featuring hand-made lace by the Royal School of Needlework, where the masterful embroidery artists washed their hands every 30 minutes to ensure that the lace remained pure white. That level of detail, which is characteristic of McQueen, doesn’t come cheap and isn’t easily replicated.
There is no market loss here: the bride who will buy the David’s Bridal knock off is not the same bride who will/can buy the McQueen. If anything, the McQueen label benefits—no matter how close a replica gets, the original will still surpass it in quality, beauty, and authenticity, but the design is repeatedly talked about and emulated.
Now imagine if Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen were able to copyright her design and prevent a New York fashion house from recreating it, even with low-quality materials, fewer buttons, a shorter train, and significantly less lace. This is the vision a few policymakers and fashion industry lobbyists have for the future of copyright in fashion.
The freedom to riff on other designers’ work, past and present, and to work within trends is what makes the fashion industry so vibrant. The mindset that because some copyright protection is good for creativity, more of it must be better, is repeatedly proven wrong by the thriving ecology of copying in fashion.
One of my favorite arguments against fashion copyright, which is especially appropriate for this scenario, comes from renowned designer and artist Ruben Toledo (husband and manager of Isabel Toledo, popularly known for designing Michelle Obama’s green inauguration dress, and known throughout the fashion world for her incredible talent), who said, “A woman knows when she’s buying champagne and when she’s buying soda pop. It’s two different markets. But why shouldn’t a woman have the right to drink Coca-Cola when she feels like it and champagne when she wants to? That’s the American way.”