Fashion: Cool for copycats

Off the peg; No sooner has the last model sashayed down the catwalk, than the outfit (or something like it) is on the high street.

There's a new game in the high street stores: Who's Copying Who? Players must be intimate with the catwalk collections of the last few seasons and anoraky enough to care. To play, all you have to do is go shopping and pair up garments with the designer who thought of it first.

As shoppers have become more aware of fashion, through newspapers, magazine and television, they expect to see the catwalk trends in their local chain store within weeks. And they do. It's no secret that British high street stores "take inspiration" from, or copy from. designers who show on the catwalk, but due to consumer expectation, it is now happening on such a large scale that it is hard to ignore.

But where once there were lawsuits, now there seems to be acceptance. And in an ironic twist, clever retailers are hiring fashion names to "guest" design collections for the high street (see Hussein Chalayan at Top Shop or Julien McDonald at Marks & Spencer) and making huge profits in the process. Glossy magazines now have no qualms about applauding these lookalike garments by showing them alongside genuine designer articles.

The ingenious thing about the high street is that if it does take inspiration from the catwalk, it doesn't have to be from one designer. It can be a skirt shape from Clements Riberio with detail from Marc Jacobs, and colour by Gucci (three points). It can be a nightie dress shape from Chloe with beading detail from Matthew Williamson (two points). It can even be perspex-heeled mules almost identical to a pair by Prada (one point).

As a rule of thumb, breach of copyright depends on whether you have copied not the idea, but the substance of a garment. If the second garment was conceived with an eye to the first, and substantially follows it, solicitors consider there to have been copyright infringement. The high street manufacturers, however, take another view: if they are to rip off a garment (something that they admit to doing, off the record, of course), they say that there must be at least five differences between their version, and the design they are copying. Stuart Lockyear, solicitor with Stephens Innocent and an expert on fashion copyright, says this last point is "absolute rubbish. There could be a hundred changes, but if there are substantial similarities we can sue." Which he did, successfully, in 1993, when Antoni & Alison contested that a T-shirt design by Giorgio Armani could not have been conceived without their similar design.

Antoni & Alison is amongst the most copied of fashion labels. Their T- shirt logo's "Love It", "Modern", and "Give Me Space", and their vacuum-sealed packaging have "inspired" many fashion companies. Antoni sums up the general attitude among designers. "A good idea is bound to be copied. All we can do is offer the real thing, with the design integrity and quality only we can provide."

Ultimately, that's where the high street loses out. They might be offering a reworked version of, say, the winter 1998 Mathew Williamson snowflake coat pictured here, but they'll never be able to provide the quality, luxury, workmanship and originality of a designer collection

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