Balenciaga's blazer becomes the must-have copy

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The Independent Online

Call off the search. The hunt for this season's most wanted, and most copied, piece of clothing has screeched to a stylish halt at a navy blazer with yellow piping by Balenciaga. At least 10 shops, including Peacocks and Topshop, have sealed the garment's cult status, bringing a design by one of the world's most directional labels within the reach of high-street consumers.

A plethora of homages, as they are euphemistically known, of the various blazers in the Balenciaga autumn/winter collection have included a red and black striped number, as well as velvet and hot pink versions. Despite the similarity of many of the garments to the designer originals, Balenciaga has so far avoided taking legal action against the retailers involved. The feted designer behind the label, Nicholas Gesquiere, has in the past shrugged off the widespread phenomenon of copying as inevitable, saying: "I'm ok with copying ... its all just a cycle, I guess."

Despite the difficulty and expense of suing for copyright infringement, there have been numerous recent cases of designer labels taking legal action against high-street shops who have copied their designs. Many cases are settled by chequebook before they reach court.

In July, Philip Green, the owner of Topshop, succumbed to pressure from Chloé over a yellow dungaree mini dress that closely resembled one of its own designs, and agreed to pay £12,000 compensation and legal costs, without saying explicitly whether or not it was copied. According to Jane McNally, the buying and merchandising director at Peacocks, the high- street shop which has produced interpretations of Balenciaga's blue blazer with contrast piping, said: "Our inspiration came from numerous sources – not just the Balenciaga show – and was a combination of global trends, what key boutiques are buying and what we think are the hottest collections."' She added that Peacocks' design team had received legal training over what constitutes an infringement of copyright.

High- street imitations of designer clothes are partially responsible for the breathtakingly rapid trend cycle that now characterises the fashion industry. As chain stores produce cheap versions of designer styles, their prestige is devalued and discerning customers look for new, unique looks.

However, the popularity of the Balenciaga blazers, which are a luxe take on a traditional, preppie trend, reflect a return to classic styles and cuts among fashion industry cognoscenti looking to distance themselves from gimmicks. The piped Balenciaga blazer, priced at £1,130, already has a waiting list at Selfridges, and their fringed scarf has already sold out, as have Balenciaga's jodhpurs.

So what differentiates the real thing from its cut- price imitations? Several of the blazers feature hand- painted porcelain buttons and highly skilled tailoring, while some of the high street versions are about as sophisticated as school uniforms. However, in their anxiety to get the Balenciaga look, several members of the fashion industry at London Fashion Week chose the ultimate route to recreating the look for less money – by actually wearing their old school blazers.

Copycat cases

* Marks & Spencer was forced to withdraw a £9.50 handbag in December 2006 after the luxury brand Jimmy Choo successfully claimed it was a copy of its £495 Cosmo silk bag. Only three months earlier, the company had taken similar action against New Look, forcing it to discontinue its BonBon shoes.

* Chloé forced high-street chain Kookai to remove its £35 whip-stitch pocked bag in July 2005, claiming it was too similar to its own £1,086 snakeskin Silverado bag. Chloé's president, Ralph de Toledano, described the house as embroiled in "a real war" against high-street copycats. More recently, the French fashion house has taken legal action against online retailer Bananasoup and British high-street favourite Topshop. Earlier this year, Bananasoup was forced to stop trading after its imitation of the Paddington bag, which has a distinctive padlock, was spotted by Chloé, while Topshop agreed to destroy over 1,000 of its Chloé-inspired dungaree dresses.

* In June 2006, the Italian design house Fendi successfully sued Asda's parent company, Wal-Mart, claiming it was selling illegal copies of its monogrammed accessories, including handbags, wallets and key chains. Over the years, Wal-Mart has faced similar claims from Tommy Hilfiger, Polo, Nautica and Fubu.

* L'Oréal won a land-mark case in February 2006 which saw the French luxury retailer compensated by the Dubai-based perfume firm Bellure for selling cheap copies of 13 of its scents. While perfume companies have successfully sued when packaging or names are too similar, this was the first case of damages being awarded over smell.