Copy That

12.24.14 10:45 AM ET

The Big Business of Fashion Counterfeits

Popular fashion designs have been copied throughout history—and a new exhibition reveals the blurred line between stealing an idea and celebratory homage.

Today, counterfeit fashion evokes heaving piles of fake designer bags on Canal Street. Or fast-fashion chains like Zara and H&M churning out runway imitations.

But the phenomenon of counterfeiting is as old as couture itself. In the early 1900s, fashion forgers often sketched designs they saw in Paris shows and sold reproductions in France and overseas. By 1914, more than two million fake couture labels had been sewn into garments, several of which are currently on view in New York City at the Museum at FIT’s exhibition, “Faking It: Originals, Copies and Counterfeits.

Spanning more than 150 years, the exhibit exhaustively distinguishes designer pieces from licensed copies, adaptations, and fakes. “I wanted to dive deeper into the illegal industry of counterfeit fashion, to see where and how these pieces are made,” curator Ariele Elia told the Daily Beast of her initial inspiration for the exhibit. “Then I became fascinated by this idea that, no matter what, any garment or product that is in high demand will be copied. And we’ve seen this happen throughout history.”

The show opens with two tweed suits, one by Coco Chanel from 1966 and the other a licensed copy, demonstrating how difficult it can be to differentiate a replica from the real thing. (The pieces are near-identical, excepting the signature buttons on the Chanel suit and a few small tailoring details.)

Chanel’s iconic three-piece suit is arguably the most copied style in fashion history (several other versions are interspersed throughout the exhibit’s 100 pieces), and the designer was notoriously proud to provoke so many imitations.

Emilio Pucci dress, circa 1960, Italy; Pierre Cardin skirt, circa 1960, France; Andre Courrèges dress and jacket, 1965, France; Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Safari jacket, 1968, France.

The Museum at FIT

Emilio Pucci dress, circa 1960, Italy; Pierre Cardin skirt, circa 1960, France; Andre Courrèges dress and jacket, 1965, France; Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Safari jacket, 1968, France.

“If mine are copied, so much the better. Ideas are made to be communicated,” she once said, viewing all replicas of her designs (including unlicensed ones) as good publicity.

But she was less comfortable with it before she was an established name in fashion. Early in her career, she and designer Madeleine Vionnet sued a woman in Paris for copying some 20,000 sketches of their designs.

Designers like Christian Dior went to great lengths to ensure that his pieces weren’t copied, marking his final sketches with invisible ink that could only be seen under a black light.

And Dior had good reason to be paranoid: copiers frequently posed as buyers when they attended fashion shows, collaborating on elaborate forging schemes.

“Five of them would attend a show and each one would memorize a certain part of a garment,” said Elia. “Then they would go to a hotel afterwards and combine the parts they had remembered in one sketch.”

In 1956, Balenciaga and Givenchy banned the press from viewing their collections for a month to prevent counterfeiting. By this time, many European couturiers had licensed their names and designs to American manufacturers and department stores, but they remained leery of unlicensed copiers.

“Balenciaga was very open about how he didn’t like the press,” said Elia. “It’s interesting that both designers decided to ban the press together, but Givenchy was also very influenced by Balenciaga.”

Indeed, designers frequently reference each other in their shows—and the press never fails to notice. Designer Olivier Rousteing’s Spring 2015 collection for Balmain included a white suit that was seemingly lifted from Alexander McQueen’s Spring 1997 collection for Givenchy.

Mondrian inspired boots, circa 1966, USA; unauthorized copy of Yves Saint Laurent’s “Mondrian” dress, circa 1966, USA; Yves Saint Laurent “Mondrian” dress, 1965, France; Phil Jacobs, unauthorized copy of Yves Saint Laurent’s

The Museum at FIT

Mondrian inspired boots, circa 1966, USA; unauthorized copy of Yves Saint Laurent’s “Mondrian” dress, circa 1966, USA; Yves Saint Laurent “Mondrian” dress, 1965, France; Phil Jacobs, unauthorized copy of Yves Saint Laurent’s

The media made a fuss over the Balmain suit, but there was no resulting controversy between the two fashion houses, perhaps because it was clearly an homage to McQueen. (The exhibit also includes examples of designers borrowing from fine art, as Yves Saint Laurent did with his Mondrian dress.)

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Incidentally, Rousteing has no qualms with fast-fashion brands appropriating his designs either. “I love seeing a Zara window with my clothes mixed with Céline and Proenza [Schouler]! I think that’s genius,” he told The Independent last summer.

“I’m really happy that Balmain is copied—when I did my Miami collection and we did the black and white checks, I knew they would be in Zara and H&M. But they did it in a clever way—they mixed a Céline shape with my Balmain print!”

The press also went wild when designer Yohji Yamamoto debuted a “YY” logo that featured prominently on many pieces in his Fall 2007 collection—and looked very similar to Louis Vuitton’s monogram.

Marc Jacobs, who was then head designer for Louis Vuitton, had “pretty much ripped off one of Yohji’s collections,” according to Elia. Yamamoto’s flippant response danced with trademark infringement, but the YY logo was too unique—and too tongue-in-cheek—to provoke a legal battle.

One of the final entries in the exhibition is an ensemble from Los Angeles designer Brian Lichtenberg’s “Homies” collection, a clever parody of the Hermès logo that references hip hop culture in Los Angeles’ South Central neighborhood, with a low rider truck replacing the Hermès horse and carriage.

But the stuffy French fashion house was not amused. “Something like this dilutes the brand, and their legal counsel argued that Lichtenberg could be making money off their logo, rather than a parody of the logo,” said Elia.

Fashion lawyers are still debating whether the Homies logo qualifies as trademark infringement, though for now it’s protected as free speech.