Why We Shouldn't Judge Design for its 'Originality'
It feels like every runway season, there is controversy surrounding a particular designer having ripped off, copied, or stolen another artists work. This idea of intellectual or artistic property is one which we are constantly obsessing over, particularly in the design world. While i'd say that this is a fair preoccupation, I want to explore the nuance of this debate, and what it suggest about our priorities as artistic critics.
Considering power in this conversation is a must. So, let me first start by clarifying that when talking about intellectual and artistic property, I am consciously making a distinction from the subject of appropriation, and more specifically cultural appropriation. Although using someone's ideas and using someone else's culture are not always entirely different acts, the conversation about cultural appropriation, genocide, and theft is still distinctive. It requires different thinking, voices, and solutions. As someone who has never had their culture appropriated, I cannot nor will I discuss it.
When I talk about power dynamics in the fashion industry, what I am trying to highlight is the difference between an upcoming designer taking ideas versus a more established one. Yohji Yamamoto famously said, "Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find yourself". In a video related to this topic, fashion student and journalist Ayo Ojo notes that designer Demna Gvasalia, who founded the notorious Vetements label, used to be criticized for his obvious references to Maison Margiela designs. But, what Ojo says is that despite the criticism, Gvasalia was open about his love for Margiela, and has since found his own distinctive design aesthetic. In this case, Gvasalia was not only open about his copied ideas, but also used them to establish himself from the position of being an upcoming designer. Plus, in the process, I don't think he took anything away from Margiela's reputation, seeing the ongoing dominance of the label.
In contrast, we can look to a designer like Virgil Abloh, who has repeatedly been criticized for taking ideas from small, upcoming designers. For example, in 2019, Diet Prada accused Abloh of stealing the work of young designer, Punk Zec, for his Off-White collection. Abloh did not credit the design, he did not mention Punk Zec, and went so far as to deny the accusations, despite there being a strong case against him considering he met the young designer only a year before.
The difference between Gvasalia and Abloh's case, is that Virgil Abloh is significantly more influential than the designer who he likely took work from. This means that Punk Zec doesn't have a strong enough voice to speak up against Abloh, and that he is more vulnerable to be exploited in this situation. And, Abloh's profit from the designs that he's taken are astronomical compared to what a young designer makes. So, the power dynamics at play here are different, as we have one person copying with intentions to uplift themselves and learn from a source that is already established and well off, versus one person who is taking most of the credit whilst their inspiration remains invisible.
BUT, originality. Is it even a thing?
Having briefly talked about power dynamics, I'd like to question the concept of copying itself. Is there even such a thing as originality? If not, then is there even such a thing as copying? Well, of course these aren't yes or no questions, because if they were, I probably wouldn't have you read this article, let alone write it. But, seriously, is there such a thing as originality?
I ask this question because we tend to credit work for being new, innovative, unique—we credit work for their originality. I think that this is why we also tend to assume that 'new' is always better. But, as said by Rick Prelinger in his manifesto about archival material, what we make always relies on what has come before it; we are always basing ourselves on the past to create the present. This is why an artist shouldn't immediately be criticized when they have obvious or recognizable references. We all need research, inspiration, and foundations to create, so I think that to a certain extent, criticizing a designer for 'copying' simply because they've used another artist's idea in their work is a denial of the creative process that we all must partake in.
So, I want to argue that even if we don't always admit to it, there is no such thing as a 'new' idea. Novelty is a notion that we've created to be credited for the progress that we're making—a symptom of capitalism if you will, which has developed a competitive culture that revolves around individual success and recognition. If I come up with a design that I haven't seen before, then yes, I want to take credit for my contributions. But, this progress is still a product of mashing, recycling, and rethinking ideas that came before me. So, is it really new? Is it actually original? Is it even my own idea? I think that rather than always trying to take all of this credit, designers should focus on acknowledging and recognizing their inspirations so that we, as an audience, can appreciate their process and then celebrate the contributions that they've made with the knowledge they've repurposed.
If we go back to the Abloh example then, the problem is not the copying itself. The real issue is that he took an idea from a small designer, used it in his own name, and shared it with the world without recognizing the work that had come before him. To frame this design as his own is misleading, because Abloh fails to acknowledge the process that lead him to the release of this design. Instead, had he credited Punk Zec's work, or even collaborated with the young designer on the collection, then perhaps we wouldn't be so pressed about him stealing. Instead, he chose to stay silent about his inspiration. In this case, hiding this information was harmful, because he took advantage of someone who did not have the platform to be properly praised for their own contributions.
SO, we must pay attention to how ideas are being repurposed.
On the one hand, I am asking us to reflect upon our perception of originality, because realistically, nothing is ever actually new. On the other hand, I am asking us to pay attention to how we pay homage to the information that has lead us to where we are in the present. Of course, it would be impossible to ask designers to adequately credit everything that inspired them for their creations, because the list would be endless. Still, I think it is fair to ask that they acknowledge some of the main ideas they have drawn upon, so that we work towards a more collaborative culture of design—one where rather than claiming everything as our own, we recognize what has come before us so that we can appreciate the progress that is being made.
As an audience, I hope that we change some of our standards of critique and praise. Instead of celebrating something for being new, or groundbreaking, or original, let's focus on how a designer has refreshed past ideas with a new perspective. Also, let's consider who is taking from where, and the power dynamics that are at play. With this in mind, Abloh is still worthy of criticism for the way that he reused Punk Zek's idea. It was tasteless, lazy, and was presented as something which Abloh created himself—not to mention the unfair discrepancy between their respective reputations and influence.
Although I do not believe that there is truly ever something original, I do think that there is always something to add. With fashion, a field that is always recycling outdated trends, styles, and techniques, it is important to focus on how ideas are repurposed, and how then meaning is added to these old ideas in their new contexts. This conversation shouldn't' necessarily be not about originality, novelty, or creation; nor should it be about ripping off, copying, or stealing. Fashion is about repurposing, borrowing, and building.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and a special thanks to Ayo Ojo, Diet Prada, and Rick Prelinger for inspiring the thinking behind this article.