German designer Philipp Plein made his New York Fashion Week debut this past Tuesday, to much fanfare — but not all of it was positive. The show, which involved a front row studded with celebrities like Madonna, Kylie Jenner and Tiffany Trump), included various athletic references that Alexander Wang felt were a little too close to home. Later that day, Wang took to his Instagram account to accuse Plein — via meme, of course — of copying his H&M collaboration from 2014, which featured many similarities, including a race track-inspired set, acrobats and boxing accessories.
Although Wang is a beloved designer with more weight in the industry than the lesser-known Plein, it may not have been all bad news for the designer (whose team denied the accusation). Data released by Captify, an ad tech company, shows that Plein received the biggest boost in searches during New York Fashion Week, at a whopping 5,738 percent. He was also the fifth most-searched designer of the week, coming in just behind hot tickets like Calvin Klein and Victoria Beckham. Alexander Wang, on the other hand, did not make the top five, nor did he receive a notable boost in searches. Of course, these results aren’t likely to matter to Wang, who currently has 2.9 million followers on Instagram, in comparison to Plein, who is shy of 500,000.
“It seems that Plein is relying on the PR promise that ‘any press is good press,’” saidLiz Elder, a research associate at L2, noting that this recent surge in brand relevance is unlikely to translate into sales. Elder places the blame for this on both the brand’s “lackluster social media presence” and its “gimmicky influencer tactics.” She said that Plein has been overly-reliant on young influencer celebrities like Hailey Baldwin and Sophia Ritchie, featuring them in numerous campaigns and making sure they’re in the front row at all of his shows. “All of these actions are not indicative of a smart sales strategy, but rather a desperate gasp to remain relevant in the millennial world,” she said.
Dana Schwartz, the vice president of fashion at Wetherly PR is also unconvinced. “Yes, exposure clearly increased as a result of what happened, but shaping the narrative of a brand doesn’t happen in one moment,” she said. “It’s a result of strategic and calculated strategy that happens over time.” And, from her perspective, repurposing another designer’s work will never end well: “Even if Google searches skyrocketed as a result, it does not help the brand in the long run.”
Plein has been accused of plagiarism before, though the source was simply speculation from Fashionista and thus garnered a lot less attention: For fall 2015, Plein sent out a black-and-white fur stole inscribed with the word “Warrior” that the fashion news site felt looked eerily similar to one Hyein Seo had debuted on the VFiles runway for fall 2014. But, given how little-known Seo is, and the fact that she never raised the issue herself, the accusation fell away.
Left: Philipp Plein fall 2015, Right: Hyein Seo fall 2014
Wang’s certainly a much bigger name, but Julie Zerbo, founder of The Fashion Law, thinks part of the heightened reaction has to do with the changing interests of fashion followers. “Right now, in particular, it seems that fashion fans are just as interested in the industry’s happenings — whether it be lawsuits, public claims of copying or the musical chairs of creative directors — as they are in the garments and accessories themselves,” she said.
When asked if past copying scandals have ever resulted in a brand boost for the accused, she said no, with the caveat that most of these scandals involve fast-fashion companies, rather than two designers. “For a brand that is lesser known in the U.S. than Europe, but that has been vocal about its desire to expand into the U.S., this could really go either way for Plein,” said Zerbo. “People may now view the brand as a cheap copycat, or they may be learning about it for the first time and [gaining interest].”