Over Christmas vacation, my cousin and I drove to Charlotte to visit the Mint Museum. By sheer coincidence, the primary exhibit at the time was an haute couture exhibit, entitled The Art of Affluence: Haute Couture and Luxury Fashions.
While the entire exhibit was fascinating (as was the footwear exhibit downstairs), for me, the most interesting part was a small glass case in the center of the room.
The exhibit-within-an-exhibit displayed a series of three different black-and-white spectator shoes, all strikingly similar. Spectator shoes are shoes that are made of two contrasting fabrics (they were originally constructed of willow calf leather and white buck or reverse calf suede). The first pair of spectator shoes was designed by John Lobb, the famous British boot-maker, in 1868 as a cricket shoe. In previous generations, spectator shoes functioned primarily as a casual summer shoe. When the Duke of Windsor adopted them, in the 1940s, they became a pop culture phenomenon and became the men’s go-to shoe for “sports dressy” occasions (sports jacket attire). Women’s spectator shoes have always been extremely popular in Britain, often considered the epitome of high class fashion (not be be confused with progressive fashion), but have experienced surges of popularity in the 1950s (prior to the invention, and subsequent popularity, of the sling-back), and then again in the 1980s, when the two-tone shoes matched the popular polka dot ensembles of the decade. You might recognize spectator shoes from Julia Robert’s polo match outfit in Pretty Woman. I recognize them from the stacks of Ferragamo’s in my grandmother’s closet.
The mini-exhibit was sort of a brief example of the trickle-down effect, from haute couture to department store racks.
“Knock, knock,” the exhibit asks. “Hoodia? Hoodia who? Who do ya think designed which shoe first?”
“Couture designs inspire imitation, and this is often the case with fashionable footwear,” the exhibit continues. The exhibit then exhorted the viewer to determine which shoe came first (without reading the descriptions, I’m assuming.)
The exhibit is based around an Yves St. Laurent black-and-white stiletto spectator shoe, with cut-outs (below). While the exhibit says this shoe is from circa fall, 2002, this is incorrect. The shoe actually is from his Spring 2004 ready-to-wear collection. (I’m not a huge nerd, promise. This can very easily be discovered by going to Vogue’s website, where they have a photograph for every look from all the collections of the main designers for the past 10 years. If you are a fashion buff, but cannot afford a ticket to Fashion Week, this is, I suppose, an adequate replacement.)
Here is the shoe, in action at the show. Also, okay, not to be a stickler, but prête-à-porter does not equal haute couture. This is a ready-to-wear shoe, distributed to all of Yves St. Laurent’s Rive Gauche boutiques. So, it isn’t exactly a one-of-a-kind haute couture masterpiece that the museum is claiming.
I do find it interesting, however, that the museum labels this shoe as being a full two years (decades in the fashion industry) older than it actually is. Especially in an exhibit on which shoe came first! I’m surprised the museum didn’t just do a little bit of research…since it took me all of 5 seconds to find the correct collection. (But then, I did know where to go.)
The next two shoes are “knock-offs.” The first is an Anne Michelle shoe, that does have a somewhat different toe (with the white cut-outs). Anne Michelle is known for blatant replication of the products of others. Example: they produced a zippered bootie, for $53, when the original, a Giuseppe Zanotti for Balmain zippered bootie, was retailing for $1,685. And this is just one instance.
Now, this shoe says, circa 2002-2003. My guess is, the museum didn’t bother to look up the shoes at all (or just call up the manufacturer and ask what year the shoe began production), because this would mean that this shoe actually was on the market prior to the Yves St. Laurent shoe.
And here we have the Pleaser “Seduce” Spectator Shoe, retailing at about $30, depending on where you get it. Pleaser makes shoes that appear in stores like Charlotte Russe or Wet Seal. (Do they even have either of those stores in Florida?) This shoe costs about 1/20th the price of the Yves St. Laurent version.
The exhibit points out, “Compare how the Saint Laurent differs from the knock-offs. Can you identify how the lesser-priced shoes reduce the attention to quality of materials, attention to detail, and the originality of the design?” My question would be, did the St. Laurent shoe cost 20 times as much to make?
While I understand the point that exhibit is trying to make, in my own, personal, humble opinion, they completely failed in execution and delivery. The exhibit makes it sound as though reproducing high fashions for the masses is merely promoting lower quality, less original, hastily produced versions of what a true artiste has already produced. And while this may indeed be the case – spoken by someone who has ripped many a blistering wound in my feet from those $30 knock-offs – it also fails to explain the big picture. It doesn’t even implicate the role that this trickle-down, or “knock-off,” effect has on the industry, and the economy in general.
The reason I finally put these pictures up is because I was reading Perez Hilton’s fashion blog, Coco Perez, and he recently posted this photograph of Kim Kardashian, wearing a dress from her new collection for Bebe, and a model walking the runway in a Fendi show, from 2 seasons prior. Hilton was expressing outrage over the obvious “ripping off” of Fendi’s designs, and then also proceeded to trash talk Kim’s (not-so-eloquent) response that said, basically, it was ok to rip off couture garments because “that is what all retailers do.”
I think that Mr. Perezzers has spent too much time marking on celebrity photos when he could have been taking an economics class. Or at the very least, a fashion merchandising class! If he doesn’t want to do that, he could always just go watch The Devil Wears Prada, again.
I think Meryl Streep’s character says it best. “You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.”
The fact of the matter is, American law does not protect fashion designs. Counterfeit experts/law professors Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman explained on Coco Perez that copyright law views fashion designs not primarily as artistic works, but rather as “useful articles,” and useful things are not granted copyright protection. As a useful article, this would fall under the jurisdiction of patent law (not copyright). But clothing designs virtually never qualify for patent protection, because they are rarely, rarely ever “novel” in the way that patent law requires. (This is why I think it is funny the exhibit is entitled, The Art of Affluence…apparently the law doesn’t consider it an art, after all!) Take these spectator shoes, below, for example. While the Yves St. Laurent originals may incorporate newer trends (laces, cut-outs, etc.), his shoes clearly owe some amount of inspiration to shoes such as these vintage Lady Maguire spectator pumps (1960). His shoes themselves are hardly “novel.”
Raustiala and Sprigman continue to explain that replicating fashions is beneficial, if not necessary, to the fashion industry. “Copying helps to create trends. It then helps to destroy them: as more and more designers hop on to a trend, the look becomes overdone, and the most fashion-forward consumers hop off. Copying, in other words, accelerates the fashion cycle.” I’m confused as to why this comes as a surprise to people, especially someone like Perez Hilton, who considers himself a fashion connoisseur. All fashion is cyclical. Why do you think our parents laughed when bell-bottoms came back into style in the ’90s? But this phenomenon is hardly limited to the fashion world. Take baby names from the early 1900s, for example. The upper class named their children certain names, until the middle, then lower classes adopted those names for their own children, in an attempt to emulate the upper class and gain status by association, until the upper class moved on to a new collection of names, because they did not want to give their children “lower-class” names. The same concept applies to fashion. Too much of the same over-saturates the market. (Somewhere, Pat Kuzyk, my beloved economics professor, is clapping her hands with jubiliation…) Every time there is a new fad, a new “color,” a new “It” shoe or bag, that item creates, or at the very least maintains, design jobs, color forecasting jobs (no joke, color forecasting agencies exist as well as wield considerable influence), manufacturing jobs, fabric production jobs. It’s all about the moulah, folks.
Disclaimer: this post really has nothing to do with my life in Florida. I just found those pictures earlier this week on my external hard drive, and then read the article on Coco Perez. I find the whole debate fascinating, particularly the arguments from designers who create extreme avant-garde looks that perhaps are novel. Or, what about the lawsuits (that often win) from X chain store suing Y chain store for copying designs? Aren’t they both imitating the patterns from higher up the food chain, anyway? Where does the law draw the line?
P.S. Sorry to everyone who just wanted more pretty pictures of the beach…