Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Do Copycat Complaints Fall on Deaf Ears?



For New Yorkers, it's that time of year that most of the beauty and body-conscious look forward to during the sweltering hot months that involve beyond tropical subway platforms and scant clothing to deal with soaring temperatures: Fall Fashion Week.

Every year, there is a gossip-column worthy scandal: models weigh less than 90 pounds despite their 5'8" plus frames, there was a fall on the catwalk, a designer lost his temper backstage. This year, however, the battle against counterfeit designer goods is in the top spot for fashion controversy. For years, designers have been considering applying for patents and copyrights for their wares, and with the fierce competition of stores like H&M, Forever 21, and almost any street shop in Chinatown, the fashion district is feeling the pressure. According to the New York Times article "Before Models Can Turn Around, Knock-Offs Fly," the number one priority of the Council of Fashion Designers of America is the reproduction of their clothing for sale at much cheaper prices, and even the U.S. Senate has gotten involved.

Though I myself identify as a fashionista of sorts, I'm certainly one on a budget. I understand the desire to look good without breaking the bank. With that said, it's difficult for me to feel intense sympathy for designers who make clothing only in a few sizes and for prices that make even my monthly rent in NYC look measly. Sure, the quality may be worth the price, but at the end of the day, we're paying for the label, a designer's name in the back of a garment that was made for much less than for what it is being sold.

Another reason I found it really difficult to sympathize is, plain and simple, the copying issue seems small compared to other problems in the fashion world. I can think of two, for example, that affect me the most as a woman of color:

1. Why are there so few models of color on the runway and in print ads? Models of Middle Eastern, South Asian, African, and East Asian descent are missing in action on the catwalk, and while Latin-American, mainly Brazilian-born, models are en vogue for now, it's hard to ignore that they exhibit mainly European features. It's rare that you'd see a woman from Salvador, a city in northern Brazil with a considerably large population of African descendants, walking for Michael Kors. You'd also be hard-pressed to find a woman with very dark skin in an ad for Lancome.

And secondly:

2. The fashion industry has painted the counterfeit industry as one guilty of horrendous labor practices, including sweatshop and/or child labor, yet designers for both low end and high end merchandise are accused on a daily basis for exploiting the lower class of countries within the global south. Adults and children from Turkey, Southeast Asia, China, and throughout Latin America make clothes for Sean John in the same conditions they do for H&M. There is no denying that the people most greatly affected by such occupational abuse in countries that are not faring well economically just so happen to be of color and usually women.

The industry would also like you to believe that counterfeit goods fund terrorism. There have been several ad campaigns geared toward discouraging consumers from buying counterfeit goods, but very few commercials and print ads about the ends designers may go to acquire jewels, animal skins and fur for their products. The poaching and warfare that continue in countries rich in natural resources are undeniably linked to our hunger to look good by dressing well.

So while I don't agree with the downright copying of designer clothes and fully understand the need to protect patterns, I think we all have to take a moment to step back and look at the whole picture in order to see the truth.

For more information about the fashion industry's war on counterfeiting, please check out: The Council of Fashion Designers of America's site

To learn more about sweatshop labor in the fashion industry and how you can take action against it, click here.


-Wendi Muse

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