Less than a month ago Fair Isle-based knitwear designer Mati Ventrillon enthusiastically thanked the Shetland Arts and Crafts committee on her Facebook page for organising another successful Christmas Fair that showcased the local talent. The next messages on the designer's Facebook Diary weren't that enthusiastic, though: they showed indeed a comparison between two very similar designs, one created by her and one featured in Chanel's Metiers d'Art collection showcased on 1st December 2015 in Rome.
"Endorsement or plagiarism?" the designer asked her fans, explaining "Earlier this summer two Chanel staff visited Fair Isle and bought some of my stock garments with the understanding that the garments were for research, I specifically said that I was going to sell it to them for the reputation of Chanel house and because I would not expect them to copy my design."
The designer also replied to people asking her about the Fair Isle patterns that the latter are in the public domain, pointing out that "the black and white design and the pattern arrangement" was her own, stating she had designed the garment in the pictures for the Queen's Jubilee celebrations in 2012 as part of Oxford Street Fashion Flags Campaign.
As we know, Chanel's Metiers d'Art collections celebrate the craftsmanship of the artisanal companies working for the historical fashion house.
In the case of the Paris in Rome catwalk show that took place last week in one of the Cinecittà studios, the designs were mainly inspired by French actresses in Rome, and the event revolved aroun French elegance. Yet, while taking a Roman holiday, Lagerfeld's actresses took a detour to Scotland, since, between refined black lace and intricate farfalle pasta-shaped leather appliqued motifs (hand-embroidered by Lesage), there were also a few women's and men's sweaters that directly borrowed from Ventrillon's designs bought by Chanel's research team (actually some of the menswear looks also seemed styled after a picture of the Prince of Wales in a Fair Isles jumper on Ventrillon's site).
Somehow "borrowing" from Ventrillon's designs seemed rather silly when you consider that the fashion house bought the Hawick-based cashmere mill Barrie in 2012, so they could have copied their archives maybe if in need of ideas.
Anyway, Ventrillon actually managed to get an answer from the Paris-based design house. Chanel apologised yesterday stating that the fashion house will credit the original creator by including the words "Mati Ventrillon design" in its communication tools and recognised her as the source of inspiration for the knitwear models in the collection. The fashion house added: "Chanel recognizes that this situation resulted from a dysfunctionality within its teams and has presented its apologies. Chanel also recognises the heritage and know-how of Fair Isle. Chanel wishes to emphasise that the House is extremely vigilant in terms of its respect for creativity, whether its own or that of others."
So far so good, but the French fashion house is not new to this sort of incident: in 2012 Chanel was fined 200,000 euros for stealing a crocheted design from a small knitwear supplier called World Tricot. The problem is that this copyright infringing game is becoming more and more serious and should be studied at different levels.
Chanel's team bought the designs from Ventrillon and there has been a similar copyright infringement case this week: model-turned-actress Cara Delevingne was accused of copying sweats with the slogan "The Future is Female" (that she is selling via represent.com) from a Los Angeles-based design studio and feminist community centre called Otherwild. Delevingne's girlfriend, singer Annie Clark, bought two slogan tops from Otherwild. According to the latter, the original sweats were inspired by a 1975 photo portraying folk singer Alix Dobkin wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan (the photo was taken by Dobkin's then-girlfriend, photographer Liza Cowan) and produced to raise funds for Labyris Books, the first women's bookshop in New York City.
According to Otherwild's co-founder Rachel Berks, she obtained permission to recreate the T-shirt, but didn't expect Delevingne would put the same design up for sale (with some of the proceeds going to Girl Up, the United Nations Foundation's adolescent girl campaign) after she sold a couple of them to Clark. While the model admitted the design is recreated from the shirt donned by Dobkin in 1975, she didn't mention Otherwild (though in this case it is difficult to establish who detains the copyright as Dobkin was only wearing the shirt, but somebody else designed it and did not registered the shirt or the slogan with the U.S. Copyright Office...).
Apart from buying a piece to copy it (well, in a way this has always happened in fashion, even though not many people admitted it...), there is another clever tactic that is becoming a favourite fashion sport - blaming the creative team. In Chanel's case we know that people from the fashion house bought original work basically under false pretenses, and then put it on the runway. As stated above the fashion house highlighted in its apology that the "situation resulted from a dysfunctionality within its teams".
Moschino Creative Director Jeremy Scott was sued by street artist Joseph Tierney - also known as "Rime" - since he printed the 2012 mural, "Vandal Eyes" (signed with an asterisk-like symbol representing an artist's collective Tierney is part of called "The Seventh Letter") on a gown included in Moschino's A/W 2015 collection (singer Katy Perry wore the gown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala this year, while Scott donned a jacket with the same motif to accompany her). Rime's name was also added here and there on the clothing and ads in a style imitating his signature.
The artist filed his complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in August; Scott denied personal involvement in the copying, and filed a declaration in a California federal court claiming the graphics were "selected and created by a graphic artist at Moschino", completely independently of him.
Interestingly enough, the knitwear and print choices of "research teams" and "graphic artists" at Chanel or Moschino caused all these issues, which means that some of the people working in these prestigious houses never received any training about legal matters, or could it be that they are being used as scapegoats by lazy designers?
While this matter remains a bit of a mystery, the good thing about these cases is that, though you could blame the Internet for spreading images and ideas that get quickly copied, the same medium is also helping to tackle the problem as people who have been plagiarised often managed to make their voices heard via social media. What's utterly unconvincing in these copyright matters is the immoral behaviour of the fashion industry and the way greed and profit always seem to prevail: in all these cases famous and richer players seem to be carelessly damaging independent people, from a graffiti artist to a knitwear designer or a small feminist-owned business.
In a second post on her Facebook page, Ventrillon wrote: "All your knowledge, all your skills, all your understanding, all your history, all your heritage has no value when it comes to business, so what are we craft people going to do? How are skills and heritage going to be valued in the future if we want tradition and craftsmanship to survive?"
Ventrillon's questions demand serious answers and better and clearer copyright laws in the fashion industry. Yet the industry could also start with a simple solution - collaborating with other independent designers like Ventrillon and stating it in their press releases and adverts. In Chanel's and Moschino's case, paying Ventrillon or Rime would have been cheaper and less shameful, especially when you consider all the negative press the two fashion houses involved are receiving. As things stand, this sort of incidents only end up proving that, while immorality and greed prevail in the fashion industry, the fashion rhythms are too fast and creativity is suffering even at big, rich and powerful fashion houses.
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