Designers under the influence

The fashion zeitgeist is one thing, plagiarism is another. James Sherwood reports on the fine line between inspiration and imitation
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It is universally acknowledged that the high street copies the catwalk. It is never acknowledged that the fashion elite copy each other. When designers at the top end of the market all present Bianca Jagger pant suits and black leather pencil skirts in one season, it is called a "zeitgeist". When high street shops produce cheaper variations on the theme, it is called industrial theft. So it comes as a shock that Alexander McQueen has been accused of stealing a dress design in his Givenchy couture debut collection. Former fashion student Trevor Merrell claims that a dress modelled by Eva Herzigova at McQueen's 1997 Givenchy show, is a copy of his own design shown on the Isle of Wight in 1995. McQueen showed a white dress which skimmed Eva's breast, stopped above the knee and cleverly twisted up over one shoulder. It was belted at the waist and accessorised with a gilt head-dress by Philip Treacey. Merrell's dress was slung low over the breast, fell below the knee and was worn with a sports bra and centurion's helmet. The similarities are underwhelming but the case has forced the industry to question where inspiration ends and copyright begins.

"We are all so designer literate now," says Lucille Lewin, owner of designer store Whistles. "So we know when a detail like Helmut Lang's signature slashes appear in another designer's collection. Having said that, we all have the same frame of reference each season - the same films, magazines, lifestyles and images from the last season - so a certain crossover is inevitable. But at the high street level there is a huge amount of copying. We have had prints, fabrics and signature shapes copied exactly. They may tweak the odd detail but these people can work fast and have the copy in store when our pieces are still in season. This is not acceptable."

Draper's Record writer Michael Harvey identifies the Gucci velvet suit and the Ralph Lauren pinstripe pant suit as pieces directly copied by four different retailers: "Some companies may change the colour or disguise the piece by altering certain features, but too much and they risk losing the connection. They employ consultants to spot the trends and send buyers to the four fashion capitals to buy designer pieces to be copied in their studios."

Merrell's case has yet to come to council, though an independent legal source says, "It must be taken seriously because Merrell has been granted legal aid. Public money is not squandered on hopeless cases." In the broader picture, the majority of British people shop on the high street rather than in designer stores. The high street is raising awareness and levels of taste in Britain. In ten years time, young girls who buy designer copies may be able to afford the real thing. The minute people stop caring about fashion is the minute the industry might as well give- up. Perhaps that is why designers are not beating a path en masse to their lawyers'doors.