During the early 1980s, artist Lorraine O’Grady debuted her performance piece, “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire,” which remains her greatest-known work today. A critique on the racial apartheid and the utter lack of integration in the art world, “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire” (or Miss Black Middle Class) invaded art gallery openings around New York City, giving both white institutions like the New Museum and emerging black artists at smaller galleries a piece of her mind. “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire” always arrived unannounced, dressed in a white gown adorned with white vintage gloves—almost identical to the glove-layered tops Martin Margiela would send down the runway a mere 20 years later.
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Today, the garment that served as a manifestation of O’Grady’s appraisal of the art world resides in the Brooklyn Museum, and the performances it starred in have been documented in a series of photographs taken by Coreen Simpson and Salima Ali. It’s not unlikely that Margiela came across these images from O’Grady’s performance piece and was moved by her work— in which case, his own glove-top may salute her ingenuity—but it is also quite possible he did not. Yet, in either scenario, O’Grady created the glove dress first: this concept is purely hers. Margiela translated her physical vision, consciously or not, into something of his own for an entirely separate audience. By bringing this garment out of the art galleries and onto the runway, Margiela eliminated the politically-charged motives O’Grady originally established. In situations like these, and even more so in the age of modern media, how can we really define plagiarism within the world of fashion?
Although Margiela’s glove tops and O’Grady’s gown are not entirely identical, there is a clear replication of thought at play—an occurrence, or recurrence for that matter, that consistently arises in fashion design, and naturally so. Fashion, art and culture evolve, mature and regress as one, each drawing off the other for themes and inspiration. Artists look to designers, designers look to artists—there’s a dynamic relationship between these two industries and perhaps that is because they are so alike. It is not uncommon to see a fashion designer reference an artist, film, place or even a tweet throughout their collection, but it is equally as common for these odes to go unnoticed. As for Margiela—a worldly industry figure, likely in-tune with happenings in the art scene—one can assume he came across O’Grady’s work. Whether or not his dress should be classified as plagiarism? That’s up for debate.
From a modern-day perspective, where global corporations act as watchdogs over their creative directors and design houses, plagiarism is a frequently talked-about term. We’ve seen massive lawsuits surface (most recently Gucci vs. Forever 21), while other incredibly clear cases of replication on the runway transpire without penalty. One Instagram account, Diet Prada, uses the space to share these very moments of plagiarism in the fashion industry, or as the anonymous account owner states in their bio, “ppl knocking each other off.” Although this is no revolutionary discovery—we all know that fast-fashion brands like H&M and Zara stay in business by ripping off the runway—Diet Prada approaches the issue of plagiarism from a different angle: high-fashion designers copying their equals. Trends and recycled styles can make pinpointing fraud difficult, but there’s no denying its presence both on the runway and off.
Social media, needless to say, adds an entirely new dimension to this predicament—sharing news is instantaneous, designs and campaigns are readily available, and there is, simply put, so much more to ingest. The very limitlessness of these platforms makes them ideal for brands and consumers alike, giving anyone and everyone a chance to speak their mind. Yet, social media platforms also add a new layer of confusion: are we so bombarded with images and information that we are losing touch with our own originality? Or is research the key to innovation within fashion design? Perhaps the ideal is a balance of the two: understanding fashion history comprehensively, while remaining in touch with the current trends and movements seen through social media to create new, entirely authentic designs.
A true archival expert, Diet Prada exposes the fact that fast-fashion brands are not the only ones at fault here. High-fashion designers, although often unnoticed, are equally as guilty. The sheer quantity of posts and the undeniable similarities of the garments Diet Prada features make the situation almost laughable: Tibi’s Resort suitings are nearly identical to Céline’s, Jason Wu replicated the asymmetrical cuts and sheer fabrics of Nicolas Ghesquière’s Fall-Winter 2017/18 collection for Louis Vuitton and Christian Siriano wholeheartedly copied the bubble sleeves and structured shoulders that are so iconically Jacquemus. Why are we celebrating these blatant examples of imitation?
It’s interesting to see some of the most acclaimed names in the industry mimicking the work of others, and to then consider the fact that almost all of the designers in these posts have not seen legal action proposed against them. In these clearly plagiarized cases exposed by Diet Prada, why aren’t these designers being held accountable? It’s fair to assume the stakes are higher at the top, but beyond Diet Prada, there seems to be a lack of honesty surrounding the topic.
Like the case of the Margiela’s glove tops and the hundreds of posts on Diet Prada, it’s difficult to say if these designers were aware of their inauthentic design decisions at the time. Regardless of whether these designers are shamelessly ripping off their competitors or not, the lack of accountability is undeniable. Fashion plagiarism, despite the surplus of media surrounding cases involving fashion chains, is not limited to fast-fashion. High-fashion designers, even those cherished in the industry, are proving that true innovation may be losing its footing to convenience and complacency.