Thanks in part to social media, which facilitates unprecedented access to designers’ work, the fashion industry is overflowing with copyright violations. Though social platforms also provide a means of shaming copycats, it seems the result is embarrassment at best. Even following the Varsity Brands vs. Star Athletica case, current copyright laws do little to protect designers.
In our latest installment of Confessions, Céline Semaan — designer of Slow Factory, an eco-friendly and activist-driven fashion brand — reveals how a prospective collaborator copied her work and why legal action wasn’t an option.
When did you realize your work had been copied?
I was on Instagram following #fashionactivism, the hashtag I started; I’m always following this hashtag and also scouring Instagram to tag work that qualifies as fashion activism. An image caught my attention: It was an exact copy of my work, but by someone else. I felt like I had a knot in my stomach. I love being inspired by others and inspiring others, but this was different.
So, who made it?
It was someone who had approached me about a collaboration. They weren’t proposing a typical partnership — nothing was in my favor and they refused to sign an agreement, so I refused to do it. That person then texted me, “If you don’t cooperate, I’m going to do it without you.” To which I texted, “Are you threatening to copy my work if I refuse to do what you want without a proper agreement?” The answer felt like a threat: He said, “It’s your choice.”
A Slow Factory jumpsuit featuring a NASA image
He wasn’t bluffing. How is this allowed?
I met with my lawyer and told her the story, and she was like, “You can’t patent this idea. You can’t trademark it.” In the fashion industry, pretty much the only thing you can trademark is your logo. It’s a bit like the food industry: You can’t trademark a chocolate chip cookie. Even when I said, “I have this text message. What can I do?” She said, “Nothing.” I was just like, “Fuck.”
Before the text, could you see this coming?
When I visited his studio, he had this big mood board, and on it were so many images of my work, and the work of other women designers and women artists. I was like, “Isn’t that Jenny Holzer’s work?” And he was like, “Yes, I’m inspired by it. I’m gonna do exactly the same thing, but with my own twist.” And I was like, “Wow, it’s really ballsy to think this is OK.”
How do collaborations usually go?
It’s very transparent. We both put in effort, we share the profits. We have a functioning model that has worked seamlessly, amazingly — and an agreement is signed from the beginning. You talk about the creative input and the terms of the sharing of the profits, and the terms for costs of manufacturing. It’s all a negotiation based on what fits both parties.
Is this the first time someone has copied your work?
There is a company that also uses NASA images, but they do it on synthetic fabric. They used to put them on leggings, but then they started making scarves — and every single scarf I make, they copy the image onto polyester. It’s just the worst fabric for a scarf. I launched a Mars collection, and six months later, they did a Mars collection. I did a City by Night collection, they did a City by Night collection. My friend started a Twitter fight with them, saying, “Wow, you really have zero creativity to steal the work of Slow Factory.” They were atting me, and that’s how I found out.
What’s the answer?
I do work with open source images, but the concept is what I want to protect. Fashion is an opaque industry. It’s not like music: Hip-hop will always sample — they take pieces of music from here and there — but there’s some kind of ethics involved. They always state their source. When Forever21 copies Gucci, they should say, “Inspired by Gucci.” That’s all I’m saying: Take it, do what you want with it — but say where got it. If this guy would have stated, “#fashionactivism, inspired by Slow Factory” — or some shout out — when he posted his copy of my work, it would have been fine.
I don’t want to criminalize creativity. The point is not to criminalize remixing and being inspired. How to get away with it is by being transparent and humble enough to say, “I got this from them.” That’s how we can remain authentic and keep our ethics strong.
How prevalent is this in the fashion industry?
It’s inevitable you’ll be copied — it’s a shit show. It’s frustrating, and it hurts, I feel very hurt. We’re not expected to be polite, we’re not expected to be ethical. It is a silent criminal action, where you’re stealing and it’s OK. Nowadays, on the social media, people are calling it out. They don’t pretend it’s not happening. People are not stupid; they’re going to recognize where it came from.
What would you say to those taking inspiration too literally?
You rub people the wrong way, and it’s disrespectful. Acknowledge the people who came before you. If you’re inspired by an image, acknowledge the image. Don’t pretend you just came up with it. And don’t work in a vacuum. You’re just launching something out of the blue, as if it just came fresh from your head? It didn’t. Guess what: Everything is a remake.