They say there’s nothing new under the sun, and one need look no further than the fashion industry for proof. At this point – save for a few pioneering designers like Nabil Nayal and Iris Van Herpen who strive to integrate technology into their work – there is a dearth of true innovation. Brands who rise to the top do so because they are especially adept at retreading trends from bygone eras, like Valentino and its turn-of-the-century gowns and Gucci’s punked-up Edwardian duds. And yet, these brands represent an attempt at trying to refresh the outmoded and, for the most part, they’re successful.
However, the industry’s largest retail arena is fast fashion, and it is in this sector that creativity goes to die. With the ability to turn around looks ripped straight from the runway in as little as two weeks, fast-fashion brands like Zara, Topshop, and H&M are responsible for a great many wrongs. Not only do their products account for tons of pollutive waste per year – thereby creating an environmental crisis – but they have also become corporations so large that they’re able to steal nearly anyone’s intellectual and creative property without recourse.
It is a well-documented fact that Zara, in particular, is one of the worst offenders when it comes to intellectual-property theft. Not only has it gotten away with straight up stealing designs by independent artists like Tuesday Bassen, but it has also made billions in copying looks straight from the runway. It has ripped off Céline’s lunch bag, Chanel’s iconic boucle-tweed separates, Christian Louboutin’s red soles, Yeezy’s neutral streetwear basics, and Supreme’s signature logo with a knock-off version labeled ‘Surprise’. Funnily enough, we aren’t surprised at all to see Zara appropriating so many designs.
Of course, brands have been swift to retaliate with lawsuits against Zara, but as the largest clothing retailer in the world – whose billionaire owner Amancio Ortega is one of the planet’s wealthiest men – it is simply too big to fail.
As someone who has shopped at Zara, I get the appeal of being able to find low-priced items that are exactly on trend. However, there is something rotten at the core of Zara’s business model, and it’s time that consumers took a stand against it.
It was as if Zara had chucked a whole bunch of images from each respective brand’s runway collection into a blender and hit frappé.
Earlier this week, I stumbled across Zara’s latest collection, ‘City Lights’, and couldn’t help but think it looked awfully familiar. Fully floral suits? That’s Gucci. Mixing floral and striped prints together? That’s Dries. The polka dots recalled Gucci Resort 2017 and Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017, while wallpaper florals were lifted from a number of runways. The skintight colorful leggings and severely pointed fabric booties? That’s so Balenciaga, don’t even get me started.
Other looks hailed from Céline, Proenza Schouler, Marni, and Delpozo. Having covered Fashion Week for Savoir Flair as a critic every season for the past seven years, I recognize all of the elements immediately. In fact, even a casual observer of fashion would easily recognize elements of Balenciaga and Gucci in nearly every look.
It was as if Zara had chucked a whole bunch of images from each respective brand’s runway collection into a blender and hit frappé. As I scrolled through the looks, it was copy and paste all the way down. There was not a millimeter of creativity that went into the ‘City Lights’ collection, unless you count creative ways to steal other people’s ideas.
As a consumer, one might consider Zara’s practices part-and-parcel of the retail business. After all, those high-end brands also copy from each other. However, I would strongly argue that mimicking certain elements of a design, like the pattern or silhouette, is part of the practice of designing for the runway in order to establish common seasonal trends.
Therefore, when one collection shows buffalo plaid skirts and another shows buffalo plaid shirtdresses, they are “copying” each other based on emerging trends, rather than stealing the entire design template like Zara does. The fast-fashion powerhouse is able to get away with these unsavory practices by changing the design just enough that it doesn’t violate copyrights. However, it is often caught, as in the case when Christian Louboutin sued Zara’s parent company Inditex over its use of his patented red-soled shoes.
In the case of the brand’s Pre-Fall 2017 “collection”, Zara took the lean, skintight Balenciaga silhouette of Spring/Summer 2017 and spliced it with Gucci’s wallpaper florals, which themselves were tweaked just enough so as not to be exact imitations. If you have to go through such lengths to attempt to disguise the origin of your designs, maybe you’re not on the right side of things.
I would even go so far as to argue that the enormous Spanish retail chain is one of the root causes of the broken fashion system that we currently face. When Raf Simons split from Dior due to fashion fatigue, he unwittingly started a whole chain of reactions, which continue to ripple through the industry even today.
The fact that fast fashion’s success is based on design appropriation and theft is a nauseating reality.
First, fast fashion’s incredibly swift turnaround time – from the moment an employee copies a look from the runway to the moment it hits retail shelves – has caused a crisis in the industry. Unable to keep up with such production schedules, high-end brands simply added more seasons – like Pre-Fall and Resort – to the calendar in an effort to keep new, fresh looks in rotation. Creative Directors went from putting out two collections per year to producing six, a major contributing factor to fashion fatigue that has plagued several designers.
Furthermore, after the global economic recession that struck in 2008, many consumers changed their shopping habits, leaving the retail sector scrambling to keep its head above water. Luxury and apparel spending plummeted worldwide, and further changes in retail expectations were formed via new social-media habits. Shoppers stopped buying retail at full price, choosing to wait for sales instead, forcing a backlog of “deadstock” (new, unsold) products that were shipped to landfills.
This type of dead inventory has been a “silent killer” of retail establishments according to Business of Fashion, which reported, “Dead inventory can handicap a retailer in many ways — but most importantly, dead inventory ties up precious working capital. Every dollar spent on what becomes dead inventory is valuable money that could have been put towards better talent, an improved backend system, or, most obviously, more productive inventory. Dead inventory dollars are held captive in a retailer’s EOP inventory rather than being available to purchase newer, more compelling product.”
Climate change caused warmer weather during the winter months, which led to weak retail sales. Meanwhile, some speculated that the retail calendar itself, which delivered products from the runway three to six months after they were shown, was the root of the problem. This led to a band-aid attempt to solve fashion’s broken system by introducing the “See Now, Buy Now” model, which made collections available at full price the second they hit the catwalk.
Many who adopted this strategy found out quickly that the rejiggering of their supply chains and production mechanisms was too difficult to actualize, making in-season retail little more than a gimmick. Fast fashion doesn’t share any of these issues, making it immune to a majority of the problems plaguing the fashion industry. The fact that fast fashion’s success is based on design appropriation and theft is a nauseating reality.
Yet, as long as people are buying what they’re selling, Zara remains insulated from all of these facts and all of this industry rhetoric. It can rip off designs from hardworking creatives, immensely talented ateliers, a brand’s marketing efforts, and more with near total impunity – occasionally settling a lawsuit or two as easily as you or I would swat away a fly. There will be no toppling of the Inditex empire, but for now, my contribution will be in never shopping at Zara again.