By Rav De Castro
Is there still such thing as a fashion design original? What warrants an accusation of being a ‘copycat?’ And what makes something tiptoe the fine, gray lines of ‘inspiration?’
The little black dress. So simple, so straightforward. Yet so Coco Chanel—everyone knows that it was her who designed it. But to be painstakingly accurate, Coco Chanel was not its original creator; she was merely the one who made it ubiquitous.
It is hard to wrap one’s head around the fact the Coco Chanel might indeed be the first designer to ever think about creating a short-skirted black dress. And as it turns out, the ‘LBD’ is not her original idea. Like many other designers, she was inspired by what she has seen on the streets.
The structure and the overall look of the little black dress has already been going around for quite a time, but it was her version that was published in an issue of Vogue magazine in 1926 that officially crowned her as the official purveyor of the classy and sophisticated women’s uniform. And as years went by, the world saw many iterations of the LBD from countless designers from all over the world. Yet on top of our heads, the LBD is quintessentially a Chanel creation.
To this day, many designers, both couture and retail, are still selling their own versions of the LBD, with their logos sewn on it, of course. And women love the LBD. In fact, it was a general consensus that the LBD is a must-have in every fashionably discerning woman’s closet. Coco Chanel seems to have started a movement.
But if Coco Chanel was not, by the strictest sense of the word, the original designer of this garment, then what made it acceptable for us to crown her as the LBD’s creator? And how come it’s okay that other designers are creating their own versions of it without Chanel spewing out cries of infringing copyright laws?
We picked the brains of several international Filipino fashion designers to get their insights on the creative process that goes behind the runway curtains of their respective field, an industry that was touted to have a rampant ‘culture of copying,’ as proclaimed by one Johanna Blakley, the Deputy Director of the Norman Lear Center, a media-focused think tank at the University of Southern California, whose TED Talk discussed the free culture of copying in the fashion industry.
Design aesthetic and signature look
If the wrap dress is synonymous to Diane von Furstenberg, what kind of design or style is embedded in the public’s collective minds that will instantly attribute a certain piece to a particular designer? We asked designers about their design aesthetic, or that je ne sais quoi that differentiates their style from the rest of the pack. In this post-modern age of recycle, reuse, and repurpose, they have learned the importance of imprinting their signature on each of the designs that they put out on the runway.
Tell us about your design aesthetic and describe your signature look.
Michael Cinco: I would like to think that my design aesthetics lean towards modern classics with just the right amount of edginess. That being said, I endeavor to create clean, beautiful clothes that are timeless. A Michael Cinco dress is oftentimes described as very rich in details yet stunning in its light weight; it floats, even. Adroit cutting, precision tailoring, and exquisite embellishments are hallmarks of the Michael Cinco brand.
Avel Bacudio: My aesthetic has evolved over the years. Today, I favor clean lines and fine details that evoke wealth. It could be some beading here and there for women, or sportif accents for men. My designs are always well-tailored and polished. I like my women to look feminine, even if they are wearing a sharp jacket. And I like the men to look very urban and modern. I always look forward.
Joseph Domingo: My design aesthetic consists of wearability, comfort and longevity. My signature style is modern yet classic.
Yen AB: Textured, backless and body-hugging silhouettes. Fusion of luxury fabric and elements with recycled plastic and rubber artwork.
Jun Ricaforte: I enjoy taking the phrase ‘pop of color’ to the extreme. I love bold patterns and graphic elements in my simple but elegant designs, which has a Middle Eastern touch and an Asian influence. My signature design is modern and contemporary abaya with matching pants. Now, the trend is colored abaya that Arab women wear when they travel.
Inspiration, imitation, or a sly mixture of both?
How much of inspiration is considered copying, and how much of copying is stealing?
According to an urban legend, Miuccia Prada once went inside a Balenciaga store and picked out a jacket from a rack, and shamelessly told her friends that the reason she’s is buying it is because she is going to copy it.
The story did not tell about the reactions of her friends, but if we were to make any educated response to this story, we must know that in fashion, there are no copyright laws that protect a designer’s intellectual property. Sure, there is trademark protection in the fashion industry—the very reason why designers and style houses splatter their products with labels—but there is no copyright protection and no patent protection to speak of.
Perhaps, this is why designers do not get catty when they see their designs so obviously copied by another designer. At the end of the day, it all comes down to which designer was able to get the most recall—and respect—out of the garment that they put out on display.
Please tell us about your design inspirations, and whether you get inspired by the work of your fellow designers. And are there any designers in particular that you can say influenced your work?
Michael Cinco: I am inspired by what is beautiful in my eyes, be it a building I see on my way to the office, or a wild flower, or a designer’s trunk show that did not merit Anna Wintour’s attendance. I fall in love, too, get hurt maybe, move on and get inspired. Influenced is rather a strong word. Get inspired, maybe, or just simply admired a designer’s collection. I love the works of Christian Dior, Alexander McQueen, and John Galliano.
Avel Bacudio: I like Alexander Wang. I also admire the greats: Valentino, McQueen and Versace. I admire the business sense and longevity of Ralph Lauren. That inspires me. I have learned that being smart and being business-savvy are as important as being creative. I have loved fashion for a very long time, so of course I have been influenced in some way. Still, I try my best to make my collection original.
Joseph Domingo: I mostly get inspired through my travels, architecture, history and people from different cultural backgrounds. Of course, contemporary designers are inspirational if they put an effort with the thought process that they put in their work, and they were not lazy about it. There are three designers that, for me, are influential: Valentino, Armani and Gianfranco Ferre.
Yen AB: Anime, manga, reading Chekhov, Brinton Wolbarst or Tolkien, listening to death metal, playing DOTA 2, and most recently, the provenance of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Starry night’ inspire me. As an artist, you get inspired by art in all its languages and expressions. So when you’re in an airport or somewhere banal killing time and you flick open a magazine, all of a sudden, you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s a cool design!’ It’s like a light bulb moment—it just strikes you. Back when I was starting in 2008, I fell in love with the classic Dior, but these days, I see myself gravitating on the Lego wedding dress designed by Rie Hosokai, and I am currently obsessing over Takashi Nishiyama.
Jun Ricaforte: Yes, I get inspired by the works of other designers. I love the way they play with colors, mix and match materials in a way that it comes out differently. Sometimes, when I mix materials, I discover new patterns and new ideas and I become ecstatic because it’s so fresh! It’s something I’ve never seen before! And the abayas I design usually have the kimono sleeves, so I would say Japanese-inspired abayas. Some of my inspirations are DVF’s wrap, Alber Elbaz’s draping, Dior’s classics, Valentino’s romance, Cavalli’s animal prints, and Anna Sui’s orientalia, and many more.
The post-modern era and the irrelevance of being ‘original’
Our generation has seen the comeuppance of many forms of artwork and innovation that coming up with an original idea is not as viable anymore as it was before. Many things have been there, and many people have done that, so to speak. Today, it is about making an already existing idea fresh once again, be it through adding a little bit of novelty, or by mixing and matching known and proven ways to instill beauty in the beholder’s eye.
So how do designers claim their stake at a certain design? And are they constantly conscious to come up with something that has never been seen before? We ask these designers about how they view originality and its importance in their creative process.
What is originality for you? And how important do you think it is in your craft?
Michael Cinco: Originality in fashion is always a point of contention. Pointless, as a matter of fact. I think originality doesn’t exist anymore at this time. The challenge these days is to be able to give a fresher take on what’s out there, and a sincere interpretation of one’s inspiration.
Avel Bacudio: Originality is about being true to myself. And doing a collection is to express a point of view, not just to impress an audience. There is a big difference.
Joseph Domingo: [Originality] It’s very important to me. I think every designer is proud of his or her craft, and it’s a matter of standard and execution.
Yen AB: Well, this is very tricky. The big brands are copying each other from couture to retail to maintain a particular look, or color per season, and to appeal to a broader spectrum of buyers. In my own point of view, rediscovering something new in fashion is comparable to the world of theoretical physics—nothing drastic or significant has been produced after the 50’s. It’s just the variation of cuts, but it’s the same silhouette.
In doing custom-made couture gowns and dresses, some designers just put their own spin on it just so as not to look completely identical. But some clients are different. If they say you have to photocopy a design, they would expect you to do so. And they pay good money for it. But this is made in full confidentiality between my client and me. I would never release nor publish it in social media, in print, etc., and I will never claim ownership; a simple courtesy and respect to the original designer.
Jun Ricaforte: Originality for me entails having the quality of being new and original and not deriving ideas from something else. However, most people generally have inspirations for their ideas, but does this mean that their ideas are not original? Inspiration initiates creativity, but originality means having the creativity in the first place. They both have different meanings, but can come together and create a sensation. Inspiration for me comes from my experiences. Inspiration can come from anything I can relate to. I get inspirations from my clients. I get to know their color preferences, the cutting they like and materials they love. I put my own touch on each design for it to become original. I have a story to tell for each design I create.
The copycat and the copied cat
If it is commonly believed that there is a ‘culture of copying’ in the fashion industry, then at what lengths do designers go in order to validate their authenticity? We hear stories, or even see for ourselves, how one fashion designer takes a sample from his or her peers’ designs, and just add a little something extra to make it especially his or her own. And because there are no actual laws that prevent them from doing so, they can take any element from any garment from the history of fashion and incorporate it into their own design.
We asked these designers their views on when getting inspired crosses the line, and when it becomes downright copying.
Do you think it’s fine for designers to get inspired by other designers’ ideas? What level of ‘inspiration’ would you consider as outright copying? How should designers limit themselves?
Michael Cinco: It’s a free world out there. Copyright is not even a guarantee. But a poor copy is a poor copy. Would it then justify the means if someone makes a copy that is better than the one copied whose originality is likewise suspect, and so on and so forth? A designer must not only have an eye but also a discernment to his limits.
Avel Bacudio: That’s a very sensitive topic. I think any good designer would know where to draw the line. If you’re honest to yourself and to your craft, you will know at which point when your work is already a copy.
Joseph Domingo: It’s totally fine to get inspired by others, but a verbatim copy or lack of respect to the original idea is outright unacceptable.
Yen AB: If it’s within the privacy of your paying client and your atelier, copy all you want. But if you’re going to make a collection or publish a piece, make sure to put your aesthetic spin on it. You can copy a sleeve from Lacroix, but put an artwork or use a different fabric, treatment or cut, in such a way that you are still discovering something new. Don’t photocopy a design, publish it and claim full rights. Major general no, no, no!
Jun Ricaforte: As a designer, I see to it that I’m only inspired, and not copy other’s designs; I should respect my colleagues. In the abaya business, a lot of people copy a lot. Most people have no designers, so what they do daily is go to Instagram and just search for ‘abaya,’ and lo and behold! They get free designs to copy! So, the branded abaya companies do not post their new collections online. Inspirations abound. I get inspired by everything I see, touch, and smell. So why copy?
The culture of copying and the amicable co-existence in the fashion world
We all heard about the case of a designer trying to sue another designer for copyright infringement, and we all heard the collective groan of those in the know: it’s futile. It’s the classic tale of the boy who cried wolf.
And since it has happened many times, designers have learned how to deal with it best: with chins up and their pinky finger flicked while calmly sipping tea.
Let’s say you see a design put out by another designer that resembles one of your previous works. What would your response be?
Michael Cinco: Being copied is the best form of flattery.
Avel Bacudio: I would laugh. It’s happened to me, but I just laughed it off. It’s flattering. But it also reminds me that I have to keep innovating. That’s the beauty of being an artist.
Joseph Domingo: I would feel flattered and vindicated.
Yen AB: Been there, done that.
Jun Ricaforte: I am flattered and happy! I’ll worry more if they don’t copy me anymore. It means I’m not a good and original designer anymore. It’s their problem, not mine.
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