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Inspiration, Homage, and Copying: The work of Marc Jacobs

Page history last edited by lamson@... 15 years, 7 months ago


There is a fine line between inspiration, homage, and mere copying.  The evolution of fashion styles, similar to other fine arts, relies on appropriation and re-interpretation.  One the one hand, intellectual property laws must prevent copying to incentivize creative production.  At the same time, the laws must be carefully drafted to avoid suppressing artistic creativity.  In the United States, there has been legislation proposed to strengthen intellectual property rights in fashion design.  The proposed legislation, the Design Piracy Prohibition Act, would protect the appearance of registered fashion designs as a whole, rather than the piecemeal protection currently provided under United States law. Copyright protection of fashion design would still recognize the normal defenses to copyright infringement, including the concept of independent creation.  Independent creation of two substantially similar novels or songs seems unlikely, but may be a more common-place happening in the world of fashion.  In the 1992 documentary Unzipped, the camera captures the design process of Issac Mizrahi.  Mizrahi draws inspiration from the 1922 Robert Flaherty documentary Nanook of the North to develop his new line.  Much to Mizrahi’s surprise, designer Jean-Paul Gaultier completes a similar line inspired by Nanook of the North before Mizrahi completes his line. Aside from allegations of theft of the concept, it is possible for two similar fashion lines to be independently inspired by an identical concept.


Despite the lack of strong protection of fashion design under the current American intellectual property regime, there has recently been an increase in the number of suits brought by fashion designers to prevent copying of their creations.  Most of these lawsuits have been targeted at discount retail chains like Forever 21, Zara, H&M, and Topshop.  Forever 21 is a favorite target of the ire of fashion designers.  In 2007 alone, Forever 21 was named as defendant in nineteen lawsuits alleging copyright and/or trademark infringement.  The suits accuse Forever 21 of stealing designs from established designers.  Both Diane von Fürstenberg and Anna Sui have filed lawsuits (complaints available here and here) against Forever 21 for copying designs. Singer/designer Gwen Stefani also filed a lawsuit against Forever 21 claiming that the store copied her Harajuku Lovers designs.  Ironically, Stefani’s line is named after an area in Japan famous for its fashion and style which she attempts to mimic through her designs.  Forever 21 has also been the target of other retailers such as Bebe and Anthropologie, stores which are often accused of copying designs.


Instances of copying have not been limited to complaints about the tactics of the discount retail chains. Allegations of copying between and against established high-end designers have also been increasing.  In 1994, Ralph Lauren was ordered by a French court to apologize to Yves Saint Laurent and pay damages for copying of a black tuxedo dress.  More recently, John Galliano was found guilty of appropriating the work of artist William Klein for a series of print advertisements.  American designer Marc Jacobs has often been accused of copying others designs and wholesale appropriation of styles from vintage clothing.  Early in his career, Marc Jacobs was accused by Oscar de la Renta of stealing a design for a black sequined dress.  Other critics have lauded Marc Jacobs for his willingness to reference and re-invent past designs.  New York Times Critic Guy Trebay noted that "unlike the many brand-name designers who promote the illusion that their output results from a single prodigious creativity, Mr. Jacobs makes no pretense that fashion emerges full blown from the head of one solitary genius".  Other critics continue to take Marc Jacobs to task for his lack of originality.  In her review of Jacobs 2008 Spring/Summer fashion show, influential critic Suzy Menkes noted that Jacobs borrowed heavily from Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo, Martin Margiela, and John Galliano.  Menkes wrote that the collection was only “ vaguely comprehensive to fashion buffs because it was an echo chamber of existing ideas . . . .” It is difficult to draw lines between inspiration, homage or re-interpretation, and design theft and for the law to respond to the complexities of the creative process.



The Work of Marc Jacobs





Marc Jacobs was born in 1963.  Jacobs attended college at the Parsons School of Design in New York City, where he won numerous awards as a student, including the Perry Ellis Gold Thimble Award in 1984 and the Design Student of the Year Award.  After graduating from Parsons, Jacobs began to design at Perry Ellis.  In 1986 Marc Jacobs designed his first line under the label bearing his name.  Jacobs continued to win accolades, notably from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) which awarded him the Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent and, in 1992, the Women's Designer of the Year Award.  In 1997, Jacobs was tapped by leather goods giant Louis Vuitton to design the first ready to wear clothing line for the company. Most recently, Jacobs was instrumental in bringing the artist Richard Prince to Louis Vuitton to collaborate on a line of accessories. Richard Prince is well known for his re-photographing of the Marlboro Man print ads and presenting the result in galleries and museums.





Marc Jacobs’ rise to prominence began with his "grunge" collection for Perry Ellis.  In 1992, Jacobs placed a Seattle-inspired mix and match look onto the runway.  The collection consisted of plaid flannels, thermals, multiple layers, and Doc Marten boots.  Jacobs drew inspiration from bands such as Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam and the underground Seattle-based music scene, mastering grunge tropes to create a new look for the runway. While directly influenced by the grunge scene, Jacobs vision transformed familiar looks into a new, independent fashion. The press praised Jacobs and the collection as liberating women from the constraints of high fashion, offering a downscale look (albeit at a high price).  The executives at Perry Ellis, however, were less than enthusiastic with Jacobs’ designs and Jacobs was  fired shortly after the collection appeared on the runway. 


Homage / Re-interpretation

In copyright law, one of the factors in a case for infringement is the quantity of transformation in the new work from the original. In Jacobs' Spring/Summer 2008 line, he presented a shoe with a "backwards" heel. The horizontal heel, however, was not a new concept. As noted in various fashion blogs, Jacob's shoe design combined elements from vintage 1950s shoes. In fact, the two shoes which likely served as his inspiration can be found on facing pages of the book Shoes: Fashion and Fantasy. Clearly, Jacobs incorporated the elements of the spiral front and the horizontal heel from the pictued shoes, but his re-interpretation and "mash-up" of these two styles creates a new, distinct shoe. Any change in the intellectual property laws governing fashion must be flexible to handle the constant borrowing and referencing of past design in the fashion industry.




For another example of minimal transformation, see the discussion of Marc Jacobs’ plaid Louis Vuitton bag and bags readily available in Chinatown in New York City at  http://fabsugar.com/267099.  In this instance, Marc Jacbos transformed a $5 utility bag into a new version retailing for in excess of $1000.  For further discussion of the origins of Marc Jacobs’ plaid bag design, read the comparison of Jacobs' design with the popular "Ghana must go" bag at http://koranteng.blogspot.com/2007/04/bags-and-stamps.html



Direct Copying

In February 2008, Jacobs was accused of stealing a design for a scarf from a Swedish artist named Gösta Olofsson.  The original scarf was created in the 1950s.  In early March of 2008, Jacobs reached a settlement with the son of Gösta Olofsson who claimed to hold the copyright to the original design. As is evident from the pictures below, Jacobs' scarf is close to identical to the original. There has been no re-interpretation or transformation of the original. The sole difference is the swapping of the names and dates on the top of the scarf.  This is a clear instance of design copying.






Fast, Cheap and Under Control The rise of Forever 21 and Downtown's wholesale economy, http://www.newangelesmonthly.com/article.php?id=91&IssueNum=7


Sui Generis? http://www.villagevoice.com/nyclife/0739,yaeger,77905,15.html


Ideas & Trends: Fashion Replay; Imitation Is the Mother of Invention, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D01E6DB1F31F934A35754C0A9649C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all


'Marc Jacobs plagiarized my dad's scarf' http://www.thelocal.se/10043/20080219/


Familiar, but Not: Marc Jacobs and the Borrower's Art, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B06E3DE133BF93BA15756C0A9649C8B63


Marc Jacobs disappoints with a freak show, http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/09/11/news/rsuzy12.php


A Ruling by French Court Finds Copyright in a Design, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C0DEFDB1538F93AA25756C0A962958260


Marc Jacobs: he is not about selling clothes... http://www.lookonline.com/editor.html


Who's Who: Marc Jacobs, http://www.vogue.co.uk/whos_who/marc_jacobs/default.html#

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