Most would agree that 2016 was a year that was particularly full of bad news and disappointment. This wasn't solely due to the election cycle; in general, we couldn't log on to Twitter without being bombarded by really somber headlines. As for the fashion conversation, the discussion of shameless knockoffs cropped up again and again.
Social media has allowed designers to speak out when they see their work re-appropriated. And that doesn't just mean in the form of those fake designer handbags you're used to spotting on Canal Street in New York, either: The majority of newsworthy knockoffs came from fast fashion haunts like Zara and Forever 21. And it wasn't just high-end labels that got cribbed. Indie designers got hit with a few uncomfortable (and unfortunate) déjà-vus while shopping this year, too. And while very faithful fast fashion riffs on higher-priced items aren't a completely new occurrence, but they do seem to be happening more lately than ever before.
"There's a sizable market for copies, Julie Zerbo, founder and editor-in-chief of The Fashion Law, told Refinery29. "Fast-fashion retailers are extremely profitable multi-national businesses that depend almost entirely on the sale of runway copies for extremely low costs." As long as there's consumer demand, she says, there'll be companies trying to feed into it. The second reason Zerbo believes knockoffs are so pervasive nowadays is that, despite the fact that there are legal protections in place for fashion companies in the U.S., fast-fashion retailers and contemporary brands have found the loopholes that make it technically okay (if frowned-upon) to mimic the work of other designers.
While it may feel really blatant these days, Zerbo points out that knockoffs are nothing new. "When couturiers began making original designs in the 1700s (or even earlier), they were copied," she noted. The groundwork for what we now consider fast fashion started after the Industrial Revolution, as new manufacturing techniques allowed for more expedient production, she explains. What has changed recently is the "accuracy of copies," per Zerbo, since technology and the free flow of information allows for more attention to detail during the copy process.
There is an "increased awareness about copying — especially as designers are launching social-shaming campaigns on social media and sites write about them at length," according to Zerbo, although she says she hasn't noticed any vast improvements because of it. Social media has allowed creators to take back the narrative to some extent, and has ushered in more press coverage on the topic. "In the past, the publication of articles devoted to intellectual property and other legal matters was largely limited to law review journals and other legal profession-specific publications, and, of course, traditional news sources," she said.
More talk about fashion knockoffs has led to conversations on accountability (and legal repercussions). Still, copyright law is incredibly nuanced, and it actually doesn't protect fashion. Instead, it offers limited protection for "useful items," such as apparel and accessories, Zerbo explains, which means only "separable creative elements" are covered. "How helpful is protection of just one part of a dress, as opposed to the whole thing?" Zerbo said.
That doesn't mean designers are totally helpless when it comes to knock-offs, though: Trademark and patent law can help creators protect their work. Zerbo points to trade dress under trademark law, which refers to both "the design and shape of the materials in which a product is packaged" and "the design and shape of the product itself," according to the Legal Information Institute. There are limitations to both of these, though: Zerbo notes that patents are not only expensive, but they also take much longer than a season to issue — costs that, as we've seen in this year's various incidents, independent designers might not be able to weather. (For a comprehensive breakdown on copyright, patents, trademarks, and more, check out Fashionista's thorough explainer.)
The concerns surrounding fashion's tendency to mimic — or, often, overtly rip off — the work of others really rose to the top of the industry-wide conversation in 2016. Some of these "nods" were just too uncanny. Click on for the copies that made our jaws drop in the past year; here's to hoping we won't see nearly as much copycat action come 2017.