Jeffrey Campbell is a knockoff artist. Anyone paying any attention to the contemporary fashion market knows this. This spring season, the mid-range LA-LA-land shoe brand has knocked off, to list a few, Maison Martin Margiela, Acne Studios, Marques’Almeida, and Alexander Wang. The most outlandish rip-offs have probably been their copy of an iconic 1938 Salvatore Ferragamo platform and their plastic imitation of young British designer Simone Rocha’s “floating” brogues. The mimesis is so obvious, the only question is how is the brand getting away with it?
Convincing responses to that question can be found in Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman’s recent book The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation. The simplest answer the authors offer is that fashion relies on trends, which rely on copying. “Think of copying as a turbocharger that spins the fashion cycle faster,” Raustiala suggests. It is in the industry’s interest to have things come in and out of fashion quickly. Novelty and competition are what keeps designers “innovating” and consumers buying. So it’s a mistake to think that a trendy designer like Alexander Wang would necessarily want to stop the likes of Jeffrey Campbell from reproducing his shoes. Wang and Campbell are after the same—making more and selling more—and Campbell’s knockoffs will serve to further Wang’s sales.
That’s not to say that no designers are hurt by knockoffs. Small and independent designers, ones without the means to challenge the copycat, may feel like their intellectual property has been stolen, while luxury brands may feel like the integrity of their brand has been damaged. But, in either case, as Raustiala and Sprigman explain, neither the local nor the luxury designer can do much about it, as American copyright law doesn’t extend to things that are considered useful, like clothing. Fashion design may be protectable under copyright law, “only if, and only to the extent that, such design incorporates pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features that can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.”
Even if the law is on the side of the knocked-off, like it may be with Simone Rocha and her decidedly non-utilitarian surreal heels, pursuing such a case may be prohibitively expensive or just not worth it. Although team Simone Rocha declined to comment, I would gather that the up-and-coming designer gained more than she lost from Campbell’s copy: that it did not affect sales of her original, highly-exclusive design (which were priced at 10 times that of the Campbells), and that, in fact, the press around the copy was free publicity for the then relatively unknown designer.
Some important rapid amendments: 1. Jeffrey Campbell is not alone in copying. If you stumble across the right Asian market online retailer, one can find reproduction everything, even Margiela Tabi boots. On the white market, stores like Zara can have a look delivered to shop floor within two weeks of runway “inspiration.” Steve Madden, Topshop, and Forever 21, everyone borrows from higher markets. 2. The designs that Jeffrey Campbell and the like are reinterpreting are often not original in and of themselves. High end brands also take from existing designs all the time, sometimes quite blatantly. 3. Even Jeffrey Campbell gets knocked-off. One of the brand’s more original (and highly blogged) designs, the ‘Lita’ platform boot, has been reproduced several times over. ‘Lita’ replicas will sell at cheap retails like Gojane for as low as $15 or $30. To synthesize: trend-based fashion, whether it’s low (Gojane), mid (J. Campbell), or high (Balenciaga), is all part of the same system of mechanical reproduction.
I judge Jeffrey Campbell not because they copy, but because they make embarrassing copies, more often than not taking a decent design and tweaking it uglier. JC shoes are disposable in that they’re trendy but also in that they’re not well made. It’s hard to say what will bring them to the trash heap first: their expiration as trend, or their falling apart. The hypocrisy of their claimed ethos only devalues the brand more in my mind:
Jeffrey Campbell operates today on those same principles, retaining the small-company ideals and mentality upon which it was founded. Rare commodities in the conglomerated, incorporated world we live in.
Inspiration and design ideas come from everywhere. The “JC design team” isn’t a group of 6th Avenue, corner office executives… it’s you. It’s the JC Girl bloggers. It’s the interns, the assistants, boyfriends, girlfriends and boutique owners around the world, all trading ideas with the JC Team.
…Because you are Jeffrey Campbell.
You are what you buy, and if you buy Jeffrey Campbell, “you are Jeffrey Campbell,” a consumer of trends, an agent of the fast fashion economy.
The most amusing fashion copyright case I’ve read of late involves the New York skate company Supreme, contemporary artist Barbara Kruger, and Leah McSweeney of Married to the MOB. Supreme is taking McSweeney to court over her line of “Supreme Bitch” products, which mimic the format of Supreme’s red and white letter logo. Supreme is claiming copyright infringement, but, as McSweeney explained, her “design has always been to make fun of the misogynistic vibe of Supreme and the boys who wear it.” It’s parody, not counterfeit. The greater counterargument is that Supreme’s logo itself isn’t original, but derives from the work of Barbara Kruger, who ironically-for-Supreme made a career of challenging Western consumerism and sexism out of appropriated images. Asked by Complex to comment on the debacle, Kruger composed a blank email with a single attachment, a document entitled “fools” that reads:
What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers. I make my work about this kind of sadly foolish farce. I’m waiting for all of them to sue me for copyright infringement.
Kruger’s work is remixed—just as McSweeney’s is, just as Jeffrey Campbell does—but decades still in fashion, Kruger’s art proves that, borrowed or not, when something’s good, it can’t be compromised. And when something’s compromised from the beginning, it can only be made a fool.