Trends are vital to the success of the fashion industry. They keep ideas evolving and changing to reflect the state of society at that moment in time. Trends often come in waves as designers are inspired by high culture (such as fine art and film), vintage designs, subculture (like the grunge scene and Harajuku girls), and social movements (the Youthquake in the 60s, hippies in 70s). Styles seem to flow organically and grow from season to season because designers are still dependent on selling their designs. It would be difficult to sell embellished, tea-length skirts while simple mini skirts are overwhelmingly popular.
Fashion trends generally take a few seasons to develop as designers iterate on a similar idea. We’ve seen this with all sorts of ideas such as fringe, gladiator sandals, androgyny, to name a few. While this process seems like it would drive all trends, there are more than a few instances of designers showing the same idea at the same time. How is that possible when design houses are fiercely secretive about their plans? More likely is the fact that all these creative teams are exposed to the same regional cultural and visual constructs at the same time. In Fall 2013, roughly 70% of the designers who showed during fashion month used fur in at least one piece. It may have been a coincidence or creative theft but more likely, the designers collectively recognized the resurgence of luxury items after the recession.
After these designs are exposed at fashion week, major department stores like Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue buy the saleable designs for their stores and fast fashion retailers such as Forever 21 and Zara quickly copy the popular designs with less expensive labor and fabrics. This trickle down effect quickly brings the latest creative innovations to all levels of society (as explained in the famous Devil Wears Prada scene). Back in the 1960s, fashion “pirates” brought unauthorized sketches and photographs of top-secret fashion designs from France to the United States. These people infiltrated couture shows, hiding cameras and sketch pads under their jackets, and sent their illegally obtained designs back to the United States to create copies of Paris originals. Nowadays, fast fashion retailers can see the new designs the moment they come out on the runway and begin production on “inspired” garments.
Even if designers came up with the similar concepts independently, it seems natural that they would still argue over who came up with an idea first. The courts in the United States, however, have decided that fashion is “too utilitarian” to be protected by traditional copyright law. The lack of intellectual property for fashion designs in the United States may seem unfair for designers who spend thousands to millions of dollars developing a collection, but it’s actually a major cause of trends in America. Without stores like Zara and Forever 21 shamelessly copying the newest styles, trends wouldn’t permeate every socioeconomic class like they do today. The culture of copying forces artists, designers and makers to innovate and dream up something new. Not only does copying create an economic boon, it creates an intellectual boon too -- according to Johanna Blakley (see her great TED talk on this topic here). The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) has been trying to combat this policy for years now and have just recently finalized a bill to give copyright protection to fashion designs beyond textiles (which are already copyrighted). This bill is called the Innovative Design Protection Act (IDPA) and many are afraid that this will create a larger gap between the haves and the have-nots if the styles they wear become drastically different.
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