When I was nine, one of my best friends copied my work. I had been copied for a long time before that, but when her work received acclaim I couldn’t emotionally handle that. I shed some tears. Her Mum comforted me and told me it was a form of flattery and so, I have spent 23 years convincing myself that this is true. I was angry, I didn’t want peoples’ stupid flattery when it felt like theft! But what’s interesting is that nowadays the anger is gone. I understand copying. To learn new techniques (not for profit, for learning, in the privacy of my studio) I have copied other artists. I have carefully studied Mary Blair and tried to replicate her work or watched YouTube videos on Manga drawing. I have copied.
I have also had big businesses ask me to copy other peoples’ work. And. I have had sweet, innocent, little businesses ask me to copy other designers’ work. I’ve been sent screenshots from other companies and asked to do ‘basically exactly this’ or given a small swatch and been asked for ‘this style’. When I try and stray, try to add some Ellie-flavour or create something more in-line with their brand or trends they direct me back to the original brief, ‘no, we just want it like this one’. I don’t need outrage about the ethical quandary this puts me in. I’m not even angry. I get it, it’s life. I’m not writing another copycat post full of anger (because I get it, I do, I have felt the anger). But instead, I want to move past the emotion and perhaps, maybe, suggest a systematic sickness and the antidote. An antidote in the form of 5, possibly difficult, tablets to swallow!
1. Recognise that fashion is copy. (Ironic, no? That the first step to changing is acceptance?! What is this, Ellie? AA?! But seriously.) It can be sad. It can be frustrating. But it can also be freeing. I highly recommend Johanna Blakley’s popular 15-minute TED talk, “Lessons from Fashion’s Free Culture” (or here’s the transcript). In it, Blakley talks about the legality of copyright and how the fashion industry is unique:
“Unlike their creative brothers and sisters, who are sculptors or photographers or filmmakers or musicians, fashion designers can sample from all their peers’ designs. They can take any element from any garment from the history of fashion and incorporate it into their own design…”
Blakley asserts that it is this permitted ‘sampling’ that forms the lifeblood of the fashion industry. Making decisions about what trend from what era to revitalise and refresh and combine. After all, there is nothing new under the sun, it’s the ‘curation’ that is the art. Once we accept that a certain degree of copy is the lifeblood of our industry we can give ourself permission to perceive ourselves as curators rather than creators. But…
2. Look backwards. Instead of copying current trends, we could all dust off some patterns from our grandma’s sewing cabinet, dig out photos of our 90s parachute pants, grab a copy of the Sound of Music and feast our eyes on clothes made from drapery. Find fashion that makes our hearts sing (excuse the Sound of Music pun) and do something of the same vibe (because even copying old fabrics is copying). We would start nostalgia-based fan clubs! We are turning clothing into landfill simply because it doesn’t fit the current ‘trend’. If we can create more timeless items or items that hit an emotional chord rather than a current fad, perhaps we can hold onto our pieces for longer and love them harder.
3. Look forwards. Instead of looking around, we can look for future trends – not in the kids’ fashion industry, not even in fashion, but more broadly…. The art of trend forecasting can be a bit mystifying and confusing and we get scared and look sideways instead – we stay safe by checking what other brands are doing – but if we try and de-mystify this art of ‘trend forecasting’ it gives us confidence to go boldly in new directions. So let me try a little, from my fledgling knowledge: trends are forecast in response to cultural, political, scientific etc shifts and developments. Obviously, one of the top sources for what’s happening is the news headlines. Some picks from today that would catch my eye, for example:
* Ali Baba revenue surges to 10b
* Study reveals mums’ media habits
* Michelle Bridges slams food industry
* How to Insta the hell out of a festival
* Star Wars : Episode VIII title revealed
From this I would do my own research: what are Chinese buying online? Are they interested in Australiana? Considering our obsession with social media what snapchat filters could be amplified as textile designs? What superfoods would make a cool pattern? What is festival fashion from the past? What were women wearing to Woodstock? How did the hippie culture evolve and what is the ideological difference between a hipster and a hippie? Where is the next Star Wars being set and what would that look like? There are galactic trends, 70s influences, earthy tones…but these are all based on bigger social changes and THOSE are glimpsed at in the news. So many questions to explore artistically! Imagine a whole range based around a question rather than an aesthetic?!
I also pay particular interest to innovations in science and technology (what are the new space developments? Photographs? Is virtual reality upon us? What will those worlds look like?) as well as looking to movies being released in 2018 and what themes they follow, worlds they’re set in and the fashion that they might inspire.
I browse for trends in cooking magazines (how are they styling things?) as well as interiors, since it has been said that the furniture industry is both ahead of the fashion industry and more steady. My last source is the runway. To see what’s happening in adult fashion. I like to look outside my niche and see how it can be applied within.
The very favourite moodboards I receive from clients are boards with a vibe instead of a design. When a client says, ‘I love the feel of these images, let them inspire you’ I want to kiss their face. It can take more conversation and refining (what appeals to you about these? What kind of lines do you imagine? Organic or structured repeats?). It’s intellectually more taxing than ‘exactly this design, but with these elements’ and it’s more time-consuming but, in my commission scheme, it costs the same amount, the end result is so much more unique. Both the client and I can feel so proud of the new offering we’ve brought to the industry.
4. Know that people can copy products but they can’t copy your mind. A creative mind is always one step ahead, and being first is an honour. If not the Australian community, the Australian Instagram community is small and supportive. They know who was first, they support innovation and in lifting ourselves we lift one another. As a team, we are thriving because of the innovators consistently upping the game for one another. Because of those going first.
5. Find the right designer and respect them. I have been blessed with the most beautiful clients. Almost all of my clients come to me because they love my work and they respect my vibe. I’m incredibly honoured. My favourites, as I said, are those who say, ‘I’ve looked at your work, I love what you do, I trust you to do____’. When these marriages are made we work seamlessly. They respect me as an artist, I respect them as the creative visionary and financial risk-taker. They let me do my thing, I make sure I’m providing a product they love. Everyone’s happy. When designers are asked to ‘copy this’ it creates uninspired designers and adds very little, actually nothing, to the industry.
I’m not saying clients are always at fault. Designers need to say, ‘no, I can’t copy that’, even when it’s really hard (and trust me, it can be really hard). But we also need to learn to stop asking.
(Side note: one fast and cheap option, if you don’t have a really concrete vision, is to ask designers if they have existing designs that might work. The range of designs I have on my website, for example (shameless plug!) are often cheaper than commissions, even with a colour change included and I’m more than happy to negotiate bulk discounts via email. I’m super flattered by one of the ‘big guys’ in particular purchasing my designs – I feel like it’s a real win for the whole industry when designers are having their fresh art purchased.)
Finally. (Congrats if you’ve made it this far!)
A word for those who have been burned by the big guys (or the small guys…): I really do feel for you. For those of you who have poured your heart and soul and finances into your products, who have fairly paid every link of the chain only to see a replica a fraction of the price at a large retailer. I too have had my designs stolen. It smarts.
In Blakley’s talk she cites designer Tom Ford. He designed for Gucci and then the counterfeits boomed. After some research for Gucci they simply surmised that ‘the counterfeit customer was not our customer’.
The fashion-forward, the trend-savvy, the ethical-loving-hippies, whatever your target audience is, unless it’s the ‘Mums needing $4 clothing’, you’re not competing for the same customer as ‘the big guys’. Keep shooting for your niche, keep doing your thing, and, hard as it is, let the others go. Build your people and love them hard for loving your unique work.
I sure do. x
PS. One very last note. I do think it’s important to recognise that we do not live in a vacuum. Just last week Doo Wop Kids released this GORGEOUS design.
Image from their Instagram.
I was gobsmacked. Just the week before I had designed this fabric.
The minute they released their new fabric I sent them a message with my design saying, ‘THIS IS CRAZY! We’re on the same wavelength!!! So cool!” – I was not upset (and they weren’t, either!) not accusing or frustrated – there is no way that either of us saw each others’ designs – I was genuinely amused and excited to find like-minded people. I don’t work for Doo Wop (I just love them!) and I haven’t seen anything like this anywhere else. We just have a similar aesthetic and taste. Sometimes, when a few of us are drawing bananas, listening to Madonna and eating sherbet, those bananas end up looking similar 😉 Be kind and give the benefit of the doubt! It’s a small world.