Homage, inspiration, and knock-off are adjoining territories, and not yet satisfactorily explored. Like obscenity or other great things in life, most people feel they know a rip-off when they see it. Well, take a look:
This is a "Parrot" jacket, by East West Musical Instruments, the misleadingly-named San Francisco-based specialty leather goods company that operated in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Notice how the patchwork leather on the shoulders and collar almost looks like two parrots in profile, their heads bent around the wearer's neck.
East West Musical Instruments specialized in intricately pieced jackets, and sold to the likes of Janis Joplin, Iggy Pop, and John Bonham; New York's hipster mayor, John Lindsay, even had one. These days, an East West jacket can sell for $1,000-$5,000 on eBay or at auction.
Which brings us to this jacket, presented this Monday in New York as part of Balenciaga's 2010 Resort collection.
Other bloggers have already taken note of this jacket's strong resemblance to the East West offering above.
It's not the first time Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquière has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar of 70s American rock 'n' roll style. In Ghesquière's Spring, 2002, ready-to-wear collection, then Hintmag intern (and current anti-comfort activist) Sameer Reddy noticed striking similarities between Ghesquière's patchwork collection and the work of San Francisco designer Kaisik Wong, because he just happened to be looking through a book of Wong's work at the right moment. Similarities down to the placement of tassels and the shape of the patches.
Balenciaga Spring 2002
Ghesquière admitted his pilfering to Cathy Horyn at the New York Times, telling her "I did it — yes." Unabashed, the designer even said, "I'm very flattered that people are looking at my sources of inspiration."
In this case, Ghesquière is not the only person looking to East West Musical Instruments for "inspiration." Urban Outfitters' Pins & Needles brand, which states clearly on its website that it "takes inspiration from a broad range of exquisite vintage and costume pieces, dating from early 19th to mid 20th century," copied the "Parrot" jacket earlier this year. (Its $298 version is now sold out.)
But Balenciaga, a high-fashion brand currently owned by the multinational PPR, and which acts swiftly when its own copyrights are infringed (for example with the much-copied Balenciaga "Motorcycle" bag), makes no such admission. Balenciaga posits itself as far more than mere knock-offs of vintage items; it's a fashion house that makes some claim to the originality of its designs — "inspiration" aside, when a designer of Ghesquière's talents is involved, you expect him to do his own work.
Or do you? Some would argue that, in our post-modern, post-Warhol, post-Grey Album age, that copying is no big deal. (This is not the view Balenciaga takes as regards its purses, but it is what some people say. Harold Koda, the curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said Ghesquière's copy of Wong's work was an example of the Belgian "just rummaging through extant material culture and juxtaposing it with other things to create something different.") Some even argue that knock-offs force source designers to design more, and design better. And the fact that the East West Musical Instruments is extinct could, to some, seem like an excuse for the copy — and the Balenciaga jacket, with its only slightly adapted collar, is certainly a copy. If a book is out of print and unable to be obtained, in a way it seems only fair for someone else to republish it. But that person really ought, in good conscience, to leave the original author's name on the manuscript.
American fashion designers are currently pushing, via the Design Piracy Act, for the inclusion of their intellectual property under the umbrella of copyright law. They argue that their original ideas are currently too easy fodder for knock-off artists like Forever 21 (who had a very near miss, via hung jury, on a copyright case brought by Trovata earlier this year) and the many, many other brands who take prints, patterns, and other design features directly from the runway without acknowledgment or apology. A high-end designer getting caught stealing from someone else's archives — again — can't but hurt that case.