When a Reference Becomes a Ripoff

In the era of online outrage, where is the line between homage and plagiarism?

Key Takeaways

  1. Designers and commentators take to social media to point out similarities in work of different designers and brands—but the line between education and callout can be thin.
  2. Social media and the internet make it easier than ever to source pics moodboard and see contemporary and historical design, but more info doesn’t mean more knowledge.
  3. The ability to critically use of references and citations comes from a rigorous understanding of fashion history.

Earlier this month, Vetements—that infinitely self-referential, post-ironic label founded by Demna Gvasalia—shared a callout post on Instagram. There are two photos stacked. On top, yellow text—“VETEMENTS 2019”—a short sleeve t-shirt, black, with a name tag sticker, the kind you’d get at a convention held in a musty hotel conference center, saying “HELLO my name is CAPITALISM.” Below, with yellow text indicating “BALENCIAGA 2020” is a very similar garment: A long sleeve shirt with distressed collar and cuffs featuring a blue name tag reading “HELLO my name is Demna.” Caption: “WTF.” Replies include “Forgot this is not a meme acc” and, controversially, “Virgil type beat.” More on that later.

Others on social media have taken to similar jokes. For example, does a checked orange frock over ripped jeans—Gucci 2020—not look much like Disney darling Ashley Tisdale with her beige top over light wash jeans on a red carpet in 2005?, Twitter user @imartois asks. But of course such jokes have an origin familiar to many, the callouts both righteous and excessive of fashion social media accounts, most famously Diet Prada.

Diet Prada, the duo of Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler, is a 2.2-million-follower IG account which rose to prominence for pointing out the ways designers and fast fashion brands reference each other and rip one another off. It’s become a controversial if perhaps now-banal topic among designers and fashion journalists, and the common butt of jokes in the high fashion (hf) Twitter community. (@gucciandior: “never forget when my coworker said she thought diet prada posted places to get designer looks for less.”)

There is a legitimacy to a great number of Diet Prada’s callout claims. Designers plagiarize and big brands like Zara and Fashion Nova steal with near compulsion. However, fashion is also a cultural artifact like any other, in dialogue with its own history and present. As such, the citation, the homage, or the reimagining are crucial to being part of the conversation. So where’s the line between the reference and the ripoff?

To return to Gvasalia, it was reported that at Vogue’s 2017 Forces of Fashion conference the designer said his “inspiration came from this idea of cutting the clothes, twisting them, and changing them—through your own filter, you can make new clothes from things that already exist.” He went onto use a word both artistically generative and fraught, appropriation: “using the things around us and turning them into a new product.” To shape the present, you’ve got to know your history. As Fiona Dieffenbacher, Assistant professor of Fashion at Parsons, puts it, for designers “having knowledge of how fashion has changed throughout history, as well as understanding its relationship to and influence on society, informs how students view this current historical moment.” Moreover knowing history empowers them to respond and interpret to contemporary cultural themes more robustly. They can “interpret their time via the medium of fashion as many have done for centuries.”

On a different aesthetic pole from Gvasalia, Gucci’s Alessandro Michelle has been called an “alchemist” for his ability to mashed-up references from across the decades. As he told STYLE Magazine: “I’m like a thief of the granny wardrobe. There’s always something from the past that can match in a beautiful way with something new.” In a time when it feels like everything’s been done before, how do you do something truly new? And, perhaps more critically, how do you acknowledge, engage, and reconfigure history to make that new thing in a contextualized, contingent way?

It’s one thing thieving from grandma’s wardrobe, it’s another to steal from a designer peer. It is these kind of callouts for which Diet Prada has become noteworthy; other designers are also able to use their social media platform to advocate for themselves, such as this month when New York–based designer, Merritt Meacham, pointed out the Gravité top from retailer Clon’s looked nearly identical to her signature shirts. Sometimes the fight goes beyond social. This August, Louis Vuitton’s Virgil Abloh and Belgian designer Walter Van Beirendonck took to sparring (and perhaps suing).

But even Van Beirendonck admitted, in the New York Times, “Copying is nothing new. It’s part of fashion.” For his part, Abloh pointed to a spring 2005 menswear show by Louis Vuitton where models walked down the runway teddy bears in tow. While Abloh has almost certainly lifted from smaller and younger brands such as Colrs and Gramm (two highlighted recently by Diet Prada), it also should be noted his project is one of citation, of references creeping beyond referent. And, undoubtedly, some of the fashion elite’s opposition to his work is racialized, or at the very least a resentment to the fact that he had the trained architect-engineer had his come up via streetwear, not old-school Euro couture tutelage.

That said, one of Van Beirendonck’s and other’s main complaints is that a house so well-financed (LV’s valued at over $30 billion), do they really need to copy? While Van Bierendonck enjoys the wide-spread industry and artistic respect few designers could hope for, the issue of these power imbalances when it comes to copying become more present when it comes to younger designers seeing their ideas walking down mainstay luxury catwalks or for sale on fast fashion e-commerce platforms. 

Others are less keen on the Diet Prada approach. Not only do people find them playing favorites, some question the utility of pointing out certain similarities in design when creating historical and contemporary dialogue is often the use rather than the misuse of artistic practice. Would designers like Gaultier or Galliano or Versace have stood a chance if Diet Prada were around, ask hf Twitter users @riacoseph and @keofthefuture? When does social media’s inherent tendency towards outrage and black-and-white positioning cause more harm than good to creativity? For their part, the widely knowledgeable duo Diet Prada has says that they’re as much interested in education as accountability. As we know, however, social media doesn’t necessarily encourage such nuanced interactions.

It’s fitting that so much of the debate over citation and appropriation now takes place online, a place of infinite “references,” so often seemingly without referent. A content glut. An infinite horizon, obscuring itself with its own excess. As Dieffenbacher told me, there’s a “differentiation and gap that exists between information and knowledge.” Seeing, downloading, faving, pinning, etc.-ing more stuff doesn’t make you know anything better or more deeply. “A 'quick' Google search brings up ‘All Fashion History in 140 seconds’ on Vimeo,” she explains. “Just as our communication has been reduced to 140 characters in a tweet, now you can breeze through all of fashion history in the equivalent amount of seconds!” Well, not really. But on the infinite flatness of our bevelless glass screens there is no history, nor is there really a present. There’s just new content, always loading.