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What Does Copying Mean For Independent Lingerie Designers?

The Rosaline set by Karolina Laskowska. The inspiration for this piece came directly from a 1920s bra style. Many of the apparently 'modern' strappy design details can be traced back to vintage pieces.

The Rosaline set by Karolina Laskowska. The inspiration for this piece came directly from a 1920s bra style. Many of the apparently 'modern' strappy design details can be traced back to vintage pieces.

I hold the firm but controversial belief that no design is truly original. At least not in the world of lingerie: designers don’t live in a vacuum and they all face influences, whether it’s consciously or not. Inspiration can come from almost any source, be it the haute couture catwalks or historical costume. More often than you’d expect, it’s purely a matter of zeitgeist that sees a swathe of labels simultaneously release collections with parallel design details.

However, the line between inspiration and copying is a fine one. Yet that line definitely exists, as much as where it lies can be argued.  This can become especially convoluted within the lingerie world. Lingerie must perform a certain number of set functions on the body and consequently can only be modified within certain limitations. Wired bras must always adhere to the same basic shape, otherwise they will no longer work on the human body. Similar principals can be applied to other areas of lingerie, be that panties or slips.

Angela Friedman's 'Dentelle' slip uses a beautifully delicate French lace with silk details. It retails for $325 and is handmade in the US.

Angela Friedman's 'Dentelle' slip uses a beautifully delicate French lace with silk details. It retails for $325 and is handmade in the USA.

Consequently, lingerie faces more design limitations than the wider world of fashion. This means that there’s a lot less scope for ‘originality’ for the designers. Nevertheless, brands still clearly develop design signatures, be that particular choices of materials or silhouettes. That means that knock offs are a definite possibility, albeit it’s a little more difficult to define what that entails exactly.

The fast fashion industry has grown monumentally over recent years; there is huge consumer desire for low-priced clothing. Of the many unfortunate side effects of fast fashion its constant demand for new styles. Within the last century, the speed of fashion has gone into overdrive: where trends were once changed every few years, now some retailers drop new collections on a weekly basis, as For Love And Lemons indicate on their home page.

Topshop's 'Floral Lace Night Slip', retailing at $43

Topshop's 'Floral Lace Night Slip', retailing at $43

A consequence of this constant drive for newness means that corporate design teams are constantly on the lookout for new designs. The breakneck speed means there is simply no time to design anything vaguely original: it is much more economically sound to either recycle old designs or to simply lift them from other designers. More often than not, the designers that corporations look to for their design ideas are the independent ones.

There’s a whole side to the fashion industry that is almost completely hidden from the view of consumers: trend prediction. The premise of trend prediction is the creation of a ‘package’ for brands that concisely dictates the trends for the future fashion seasons.  Access to these packages is seemingly reserved for the large corporations of the fashion world, with basic membership often starting at around $14,000.

The 'Valentina' bodysuit by Hopeless Lingerie, a now discontinued style.

The 'Valentina' bodysuit by Hopeless Lingerie, a now discontinued style.

Trends were once derived largely from the high-end and couture catwalks, as a method of translating these opulent and costly creations into something much more easily accessible for the average consumer.  Unfortunately, there’s been a definite shift in the intimates department of trend prediction. Whereas in areas like womenswear much is still influenced by big name catwalks, the lingerie trend packages seem to focus almost exclusively on independent designers.  What this essentially means is that independent designers have to eat all the costs and energy in producing these designs, only for large name corporations to reap the benefits of them and copy them for huge profits.

The 'Sykes' Ann Summers bodysuit, retailing at £20.

The 'Sykes' Ann Summers bodysuit, retailing at $28.

It’s particularly poignant to consider the hurt this can cause to independent designers when you note that they are the ones taking any kind of major design risks. Mass produced fashion will always stay relatively ‘safe’ as there’s too much risk to their profit margins to do otherwise.   Independent designers run their businesses on a tiny scale compared to that of major retailers. In lingerie, it’s pretty common for an indie brand to only have one person behind it: usually a woman who pours vast amounts of their personal money, heart and soul into the brand. These are people who don’t turn over vast profits but do what they do out of love or necessity. In the words of Gaby of Hopeless Lingerie: ‘As someone who has personally experienced on numerous occasions just what it feels like to see crappy rip offs of your designs mass produced, it’s incredibly damaging mentally. Knowing that those businesses are making a lot of money from my ideas, while I continually struggle to make ends meat… that’s really tough to deal with.’

The 'Daniela' bra by Karolina Laskowska, handmade from French lace and retailing at $240.

The 'Daniela' bra by Karolina Laskowska, handmade from French lace and retailing at $240.

One of the main ‘pro-copying’ arguments that often crops up is that the ripped off designer doesn’t actually suffer financially, because the end target customer is totally different.  This is usually true. A customer who purchases my $240 French lace ‘Daniela’ bra is unlikely to be the same person who hands over $68 for Nastygal’s ‘Pour Vous’ bustier.  Unfortunately, this fact doesn’t erase the hurt a designer can feel at seeing their own work so heavily referenced.  In my personal experience as a designer, you eventually reach the point of forcing yourself not to care anymore because it just uses up to much energy. Kiss Me Deadly are a brand whose mainstay is vintage recreations so they rarely face this copying issue, yet for founder Catherine Clavering it doesn’t mean that this practice is acceptable: ‘I don't think copying by big industry names harms small brands sales; the customers just don't overlap. But it's an absolute ****** if you're someone who is a creative driving force and the big brands are just using you for inspiration rather than going to you and paying for your talents to design a line for them. If I were more creative that would be what got me spitting teeth.’

The 'Pour Vous' bustier by Nastygal, retailing at $68.

The 'Pour Vous' bustier by Nastygal, retailing at $68.

Lingerie design at an independent level can have a lot of emotion involved. So much work has to go into creation that it’s inevitable that the designer will develop some level of attachment to them.  Sadly, there’s little recourse for these designers in the cases that they are copied. On a legal level, most small brands are simply unable to afford representation.  Fashion copyright can be tenuous at best and in some countries simply doesn’t exist.

It’s a state of affairs that gets a lot of lingerie lovers metaphorically marching with pitchforks. It is decidedly unfair to see small labels continue mined for their design work with no form of compensation. It’s unlikely that we’ll see the end of this practice without our lifetimes but fortunately it’s not all doom and gloom! It’s easier than ever to access independent design, with the level of choice in sizes, designs and price points growing at an exponential rate. If you buy from an indie label, you are supporting that designer directly, which gives them scope to grow and to continue creating the things that you love.  Whilst corporate fashion isn't going to relinquish its grip on the industry there's at least the silver lining that independents are giving customers another option, however small scale that may be.

Readers: How do you feel about copying within fashion? Would you ever purchase a knock-off?

Karolina Laskowska

Lingerie designer. Spends most of her time sewing bras and getting excited by chantilly lace.

9 Comments on this post

  1. Lindsey Burt says:

    This is so sad to see. It’s particularly bad when you realize that hiring the original designer to make a similar, lower-market design would probably be inexpensive by the standards that these huge companies have. Business has always been cut-throat, but it seems that the larger companies get, the smaller their consciences become. The trend of large corporations replacing small, family-owned businesses has had dire consequences for many people.

    If it’s any consolation, the original designs always look about 1000x better than the knock-offs. The time and effort and attention to quality shows when the original designer’s heart went into creating it. The cheap versions have horrible fabrics and flimsy construction.

  2. Bunnie says:

    As a lingerie designer at a small to mid-size company that sells to companies like Yandy and NastyGal, I have experienced this from the creator’s side. As a preface, I DESTEST this practice. I am creative and talented and can design original pieces for my customer even with extreme budget and sourcing restrictions. Here is a little bit of what I experience on the day to day…

    The demands for specific styles are strong: pictures from Instagram and the like are given to us by the higher ups (non-creatives) or private label clients (also non-creatives) with the desire to see EXACTLY that piece in the line. It is truly heart wrenching when this happens as I know and follow many of the wonderful women that make those designs a reality. My team and I typically roll our eyes when these images are handed to us.

    To being our design process, the design team works tirelessly on beautiful trend and detail presentations. We gather images that span the whole range of possible inspiration from nature, to art, to actual lingerie, in an effort to get non-creative people to tell us what they want to see in the coming season. Alas, we are still given screen shots of Instagram pictures 3 months into development and we are told “I want this NOW!”. Sometimes, that exact picture was in our trend presentation but it didn’t strike the right chord at that time.

    If we were given direction 3 months earlier that management liked the style, we could have worked into it and created something new. Our team works diligently to create designs with elements of the original image to keep the higher ups happy, while applying our creativity and brand voice. Rarely do these designs come out looking anything like the original. When a new style demand is given us so late into development with our photoshoot is 2 weeks away, and we NEED a sample to make it in time, it is nearly impossible to experiment with different design elements or even work into a design: at this point we have no time and no room for error as the first sample must be perfect and photoshoot-able. I am not excusing this practice, it is awful, but this is the reality of the situation.

    Myself and my design team are so overworked at the 9-6 (or 7, or 8… sometimes 9 and later) duties of our jobs that we often spend our personal time at home designing the truly original pieces that often end up being best sellers. The higher ups we work with are very receptive to more creative, daring ideas but there is literally no time to create them.

    I’m not trying to make a case for the practice I mentioned above. If anyone is strapped for time and resources, it is the original indie designers of the beautiful creations that get knocked off. I detest the practice but as Karolina mentioned above, the churn and burn of trends demanded by marketing and sales teams leaves designers no time to sit, think, and create beautiful things.

    I could ramble on about this forever. I personally never take on the “rip off” styles. I refuse to work on them and I am lucky to be in a position to do so, but no everyone is so lucky. I cannot and will not in any good conscience ever copy a style, I wish the rest of the design world was so lucky.

  3. Florence says:

    I have never purchased (knowingly) a knock-off, but I think that’s true of almost everyone. I’m trying to step away from fast fashion in the clothing world, but I never had this problem with lingerie : I was saved by my unconventional size that forces me to shop outside the cheapest, largest brands, and the fact that I live in France where the culture of beautiful expansive lingerie is more important than in the US, I think. For example, my mother took me to Chantelle to purchase my first “adult bra”. But I have seen knock-offs of Marlies Dekkers bras (not just the strappy/bondage style, the whole bra : Undiz carried a perfect imitation of their signature Dame de Paris for a while). This makes me angry, because I don’t have the money to buy beautiful designers’ set often, and I’m always afraid the brand will disappear before I’ve saved enough money to invest. It happened twice already.

    Also, as Karen said, what about (at least in the US, I guess it’s almost impossible to put on foot worldwide) a Lingerie designer’s union ?

  4. Karen says:

    Form a union of lingerie brands and designers?

    Whilst there’s very little an independent designer can do against the likes of Topshop. If a large number of small brands and designers banded together, they would at least have a louder voice when their designs are blatantly copied.

  5. Tiah says:

    I think the line for me and the questions I ask myself are: “Is this a signature or is it a trend?” “How many labels are doing similar styles?” “Has this or a close variation of this been done before?” “Does the designer have the monopoly on/were they the first to do a certain style?” ie, I think there is a difference between say, designs like KL ‘Daniela’ and AF ‘Dentelle’ instantly recognisable and never seen before or similar by any other label, and a signature or two that is being done by multiple brands in the industry, particular label associations or not. Another thing to consider, especially in lingerie, is fit (in addition to cost and size range). Not all brands are going to fit you, no matter what size you get, how much you want them to or how hard you try. If one label that does a certain look doesn’t fit you, and another does that you know will, then I understand why consumers would go for the latter. But mostly, yeah, the line for me is disinguishing between signatures and trends.

  6. NigelP says:

    Those are very valid points raised and one that I can only sympathise with. Of course you / they should feel agreived because there is a word for it – copying someone work without referencing them to me is plagerism.

    Yes, the reasons outlined why they do it is clear, but it doesn’t make it right. Maybe fashion copyright may not exist or be hard to prove, but if contact is made with the brand, might there be a chance for a consultation fee in future? If the answer is repeatedly no, especially after each and multiple incidences of copying, perhaps that might strengthen a court case? This may be a stretch but if a certain brand is always doing it, perhaps the indies can get together and file a class action against them? In other terms, if multiple designers group together against a brand that has wronged each of them (and split the legal costs), maybe that will have a higher chance of success and worth a go? For sure at least start keeping records – well done on the example images used in the article, very apt.

  7. Wen says:

    The “Pour vous” bustier looks like a match between Gossard Superboost Lace Deep V Bralet and your Daniela bra… Respect and imagination seem to become really rare these days…

  8. Rebecca says:

    Perhaps a couple of years ago I would have purchased a knock-off item simply due to ignorance about the lingerie business and problems particular to independents, and a lack of appreciation for quality materials. I think once a consumer (regardless of income) is knowledgable about the industry and understands the obstacles that brands like yours face then they’re more likely to compromise on the quantity of their purchases for quality instead. Maybe that’s too optimistic? But anyone with a creative outlet whether it’s an occupation or hobby should empathize with design theft. From the basest concern about financial compensation to being mortified that a beautiful creation has been reduced to an inferior and ephemeral product – it’s all just obnoxious.

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