As ‘fast fashion’ takes a stronghold as one of the world’s most profitable industries, creativity has subsequently diluted and this has left independent designers feeling that they have been unjustly treated.
It has been dubbed the ‘Zara Effect’: retail giants exercising an intense hyper-acceleration of the design process which sees looks emulated from the catwalk onto the high-street in just days. The sheer scale of retailers such as Zara, Forever 21, Topshop and Urban Outfitters, who collectively employ tens of thousands across the globe, enables an incredibly fast response to marketplace demands as well as a unique ability to keep up with the short rise and fall of trends.
But at what cost? Figuratively, one can purchase a ‘Gucci-esque’ bag on the high street for $80 – a modest price-tag in comparison to the original luxury brand’s handbag retail price of thousands of dollars. With the average Australian millennial spending $980 on fashion a year according to a recent Australian Bureau of Statistics study, one can understand why fast-fashion is appetising to the pursuit by the general demographic of the latest trends, while keeping to a budget.
However, another less visible cost concerns creative intellectual property – with independent designers at the receiving end of financial and emotional hardship. With the demand for new items resulting in fortnightly ‘collections’, major retailers’ sourcing of inspiration has migrated from traditional research practices to a far too canny appropriation of existing designs.
“Over the past year, Zara has been copying my artwork,” wrote the independent designer Tuesday Bassen on Instagram in 2016, “I had my lawyer contact Zara and they literally said I have no base because I’m an indie artist and they’re a major corporation and that not enough people even know about me for it to matter. I plan to further press charges, but even to have a lawyer get this LETTER has cost me $2k so far… It sucks and it’s super disheartening to have to spend basically all of my money, just to defend what is legally mine”.
The artworks in question are a series of pins that share a strong resemblance to embroidery detailing on garments produced by Zara. The claims made by Bassen, an LA artist who operates as an e-boutique sole trader, were dismissed by Zara which claimed that her brand was not well known enough for the general public to associate her products as being distinctively exclusive.
Copyrighting of intellectual property operates in a grey area within the fashion industry. Although luxury brands such as Gucci are able to afford the expense of patents and strong legal resources, the ability for independent designers to challenge potential infringements are limited by both finances and legal loopholes.
A common legal citation that has run prevalent throughout fashion intellectual property cases contends that unless the accused replica possesses the exact same dimensions, suggesting the garment pattern was physically taken from the original, as well as colour, print and stitching, there is little basis for legal action unless the original design was patented. For an Australian designer to protect each design within a collection, it would cost approximately $350 per style. Therefore, to use the example of a collection featuring 15 designs, which is a relatively small collection, this would cost $5250 – and with designers typically releasing four collections a year, just obtaining patents would amass an annual cost of $21 000; a large capital amount to take out of an independent designer’s budget.
However, an alternative platform to voice out against intellectual property infringements has materialised on Instagram, lending independent designers the ability to both confront and garner public advocacy against design imitations. Instagram account Diet Prada has paved the way in fashion intellectual property advocacy; each of its posts operate as an expose of brands purportedly lifting creativity from another.
In the case of Sydney-based emerging label Daisy Daisy, whose team consists purely of a husband-wife duo, attention was recently drawn to a similar style sold by I Am Gia, a child company under fast-fashion retailer Tiger Mist. The post was met with agreement by the majority of its 15,000 users; however, there were particular comments made which offer some insight into understanding the attitudes and behaviours that motivate fast-fashion consumers.
“Not everyone can afford $410 dollar dresses so I think it’s cool [that] girls can get similar styles cheaper,” one Instagram user comments.
“If Daisy Daisy wasn’t poached and was able to grow to a more sizeable brand they would probably have the drive and funds to create a diffusion line or lower prices,” comments another in reference to Daisy Daisy’s retail prices ranging from $200 to $450 AUD.
Yet as global consumers have increasingly expressed support for intellectual property, how do these fast fashion imitation cases still arise? Coinciding with the previously mentioned study of fashion expenditure of the average Australian and the attitudes expressed within the Daisy Daisy post, it comes down to the dollar.
An individual survey conducted amongst Australian young adults revealed that although they are ethically aligned in upholding intellectual property when it comes to fashion, financial accessibility to trendy clothes is prioritised in their buying behaviours. In addition to this, they are also often unaware of when a design is potentially infringing another; this is due to a lack of engagement beyond the mainstream market which, to summarise, is the same point designer Tuesday Bassen made when stating she was told her brand was not well-known enough to the public for them to care.
Amelia, a 24-year-old Australian student, offered insight into the internal dilemna for, and also what is probably a common rationalisation process by, many consumers: “I’ve come across independent designers who produce some cool yet niche stuff – but a price tag in the hundreds acts as a deterrent especially if it seems the piece’s cool factor will expire shortly. You feel a little ripped off trying to understand why they’re charging so much – for a cotton dress you’d expect it to be less than $100”.
The same survey revealed that consumers are often misinformed about the production expenses which are incurred by independent brands in the manufacturing of apparel and how these expenses justify their higher prices. “Fast fashion” is based upon mass-produced garments typically manufactured overseas, with units of a single style usually over a thousand minimum, meaning that the comparative cost per piece is significantly less expensive than for garments produced for independent brands.
On the other hand, independent designers typically do small runs of garments, increasing the cost-per-unit to almost triple the amount incurred by their fast-fashion counterparts. A mass-produced simple cotton blouse for instance can cost anywhere between $2 to $10, whereas the exact same style produced in a quantity under 100 increases the unit cost to $25-30.
So what’s left for a designer to do? Success has been found through collaborations with large retailers, such as Stone Cold Fox for Urban Outfitters, Kenzo for H&M and Missoni for Target. In a market where it is tough to fight the “Goliaths” in fashion, this route is proving successful because it makes the designer’s aesthetic accessible to a larger consumer base whilst still maintaining creative integrity and the protection of its designs.
A persistently important factor within the battle between independent design and “fast fashion” which seems to emerge throughout all media platforms is the need for public education and advocacy. Close examination of the many outlets for social media shows a trend where these powers of education and advocacy appear to be coming back to the ‘Davids’ of the fashion world, therefore encouraging the development of a more informed and conscious consumer in identifying the existence, and then evaluating the ‘pros and cons’, of “fast fashion”.