Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal: Fashion and Plagiarism

Virgil Abloh is a fashion mogul in all senses of the word. Not only is he the artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear, but he is also the founder and CEO of hyper-successful streetwear brand Off-White. He has been described by The New Yorker as “Menswear’s biggest star”, graced the cover of GQ Style, and lectured at the Harvard School of Design. He is not, however, free from controversy: Abloh was accused of copying designs in his 2019 Louis Vuitton and Off-White collection.

‘Similarity’ was noticed between the yellow graffitied anorak suit shown by the German brand ‘Colrsbaby by punkzec’ at ARISE fashion week in Lagos, Nigeria in AW18 and a similar piece from Abloh’s AW19 Off-White collection. Voluminous American flag scarfs over neutral tailoring were featured in both Kerby Jean-Raymond’s AW18 collection for Pyer Moss and Abloh’s AW19 for Louis Vuitton.

Abloh is a DJ- by many accounts a pretty good one, and DJs sample; taking bits and pieces from all around and creating something different. In Abloh’s words, from an interview with The New Yorker, “I take James Brown, I chop it up, I make a new song”. Abloh also cites some of the most referential of artists as examples of his approach, such as Duchamp and Warhol who offer up simple objects as art. He calls this new game ’Streetwear 10.0’, and like all good games- it has cheat codes.

One such cheat code is the ‘three per cent of change’, the idea that something only needs to be changed by three per cent to create a new thing. Abloh’s collaboration with Nike is a particularly good example of this approach, especially the Jordan 1 from ‘The Ten’ collection. Based on the classic ‘Chicago’ colour-way, Abloh’s design changes a few key details (like an oversized, poorly stitched swoosh) to create what is, in my opinion, a really fresh and interesting shoe despite the inclusion of Abloh’s trademark “quotation”, which can be corny.

However, this 3 per cent approach works in cases where the sample is so well known and that it has come into the ‘cultural commons’. That space in the zeitgeist which contains such a well-known design that it has become fair game to use. The Air Jordan 1 firmly sits on the commons (see versions from Saint Lauren, Fear of God, and Off- White). The principle clearly doesn’t work when designers have already made the deliberate decision to alter a piece from the ‘cultural commons’. Take the punkzec example: they had already altered the basic piece by incorporating graffiti techniques. So, when Abloh looks for his three per cent by slightly changing the jacket shape and the content of the graffiti, it just seems like he is copying.

But, it could be argued that the outcry at Abloh is exceptionalism because copying seems rife in fashion. Recently valued at $1 billion, the skate-behemoth Supreme is, as its valuation suggests, incredibly hyped. Although perhaps past its peak, spotty faced teenagers and their mums continue to line up, without fail, each Thursday to cop up. But, looking past the enormous lines blocking up Lafeytte Street and Soho, we find that the red sign which so many would kill to adorn their chests with is a rip-off of the artist Barbara Kruger. The bold red and stark white Futara lettering was used by Kruger in her anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist collage pieces and now by Supreme to create some the most hyped garments in the sartorial history of our time. No wonder then that Kruger once referred to Supreme as a “ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers”. But, like it or not those jokers have built the largest streetwear brand ever and have largely gotten away with every time they’ve co-opted designs. Funnily enough, one famous time they didn’t was on a design that was actually quite unique: the NCAA Varsity jacket from 2007. It was deemed to be too close and the release was pulled. Nowadays, Supreme is more collaborator than copier but a box logo is still produced every year, and Kruger’s stark white and red motif adorns its stores from Shibuya to the Rue Barbette.

“One such cheat code is the ‘three per cent of change’, the idea that something only needs to be changed by three per cent to create a new thing.”

It does seem strange that some brands, like Supreme or Vetements, get away with copying designs while others do not. We have already discussed Abloh and LV, but another large, established house, Gucci, has also been accused of knocking off designs; such as those of famed Harlem tailor Dapper Dan. What’s strange about this particular case is that Dapper Dan was famous for producing bootlegs himself! Although undoubtedly creating unique silhouettes, Dan was producing screen-printed copies of fashion houses fabrics in his apartment and was sued multiple times by Gucci, LV, Fendi, and others. Stranger still, Gucci now have a long-term collaboration deal with the man they were trying to sue out of business.

So, how can we make sense of this: some designers and brands having free reign and others not. This phrase by Picasso, beloved by Steve Jobs, comes to mind: “good artists copy, great artists steal”. But, I don’t think this trite phrase is quite a good enough explanation. After all, Abloh of LV and Alessandro Michele of Gucci are great designers, there is a reason why they work where they do, and stealing designs is seen as a sin in the fashion world. Perhaps, what we have here is a classic underdog story. We don’t mind when hip, subversive brands and designers co-opt designs and logos because they are sticking it to the man or are just joking around; I don’t think anyone is firmly anti-Warhol due to being extremely pro Campbell’s Soup, for example. But, the larger houses can’t get away with such behaviour. I suppose, then, the question I leave you with is: should we be more consistent, or is all fair in love, war, and fashion?

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