12 Fashion Knockoffs That Made Our Jaws Drop This Year

Photo: Courtesy of Urban Outfitters.
Most would agree that 2016 was a year that was particularly full of bad news and disappointment. This wasn't solely due to the election cycle; in general, we couldn't log on to Twitter without being bombarded by really somber headlines. As for the fashion conversation, the discussion of shameless knockoffs cropped up again and again.

Social media has allowed designers to speak out when they see their work re-appropriated. And that doesn't just mean in the form of those fake designer handbags you're used to spotting on Canal Street in New York, either: The majority of newsworthy knockoffs came from fast fashion haunts like Zara and Forever 21. And it wasn't just high-end labels that got cribbed. Indie designers got hit with a few uncomfortable (and unfortunate) déjà-vus while shopping this year, too. And while very faithful fast fashion riffs on higher-priced items aren't a completely new occurrence, but they do seem to be happening more lately than ever before.

"There's a sizable market for copies, Julie Zerbo, founder and editor-in-chief of The Fashion Law, told Refinery29. "Fast-fashion retailers are extremely profitable multi-national businesses that depend almost entirely on the sale of runway copies for extremely low costs." As long as there's consumer demand, she says, there'll be companies trying to feed into it. The second reason Zerbo believes knockoffs are so pervasive nowadays is that, despite the fact that there are legal protections in place for fashion companies in the U.S., fast-fashion retailers and contemporary brands have found the loopholes that make it technically okay (if frowned-upon) to mimic the work of other designers.

While it may feel really blatant these days, Zerbo points out that knockoffs are nothing new. "When couturiers began making original designs in the 1700s (or even earlier), they were copied," she noted. The groundwork for what we now consider fast fashion started after the Industrial Revolution, as new manufacturing techniques allowed for more expedient production, she explains. What has changed recently is the "accuracy of copies," per Zerbo, since technology and the free flow of information allows for more attention to detail during the copy process.

There is an "increased awareness about copying — especially as designers are launching social-shaming campaigns on social media and sites write about them at length," according to Zerbo, although she says she hasn't noticed any vast improvements because of it. Social media has allowed creators to take back the narrative to some extent, and has ushered in more press coverage on the topic. "In the past, the publication of articles devoted to intellectual property and other legal matters was largely limited to law review journals and other legal profession-specific publications, and, of course, traditional news sources," she said.

More talk about fashion knockoffs has led to conversations on accountability (and legal repercussions). Still, copyright law is incredibly nuanced, and it actually doesn't protect fashion. Instead, it offers limited protection for "useful items," such as apparel and accessories, Zerbo explains, which means only "separable creative elements" are covered. "How helpful is protection of just one part of a dress, as opposed to the whole thing?" Zerbo said.

That doesn't mean designers are totally helpless when it comes to knock-offs, though: Trademark and patent law can help creators protect their work. Zerbo points to trade dress under trademark law, which refers to both "the design and shape of the materials in which a product is packaged" and "the design and shape of the product itself," according to the Legal Information Institute. There are limitations to both of these, though: Zerbo notes that patents are not only expensive, but they also take much longer than a season to issue — costs that, as we've seen in this year's various incidents, independent designers might not be able to weather. (For a comprehensive breakdown on copyright, patents, trademarks, and more, check out Fashionista's thorough explainer.)

The concerns surrounding fashion's tendency to mimic — or, often, overtly rip off — the work of others really rose to the top of the industry-wide conversation in 2016. Some of these "nods" were just too uncanny. Click on for the copies that made our jaws drop in the past year; here's to hoping we won't see nearly as much copycat action come 2017.
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Photo: Via @tuesdaybassen.
Tuesday Bassen's Illustrations "End Up" At Zara — Again, & Again, & Again
Over the summer, L.A.-based illustrator Tuesday Bassen spotted a bunch of patches and pins on Zara clothing that bore an eery resemblance to her own work. "I first noticed the copies in early 2016, when hundreds of fans reached out to me privately to ask if I was working with them or if they were plagiarizing my work," Bassen told Refinery29 in July. However, when she hired a lawyer to pursue legal action against Inditex, Zara's parent company, she received a not-so-encouraging reply. "[They] literally said I have no [case] because I'm an indie artist and they're a major corporation and that not enough people even know about me for it to matter," Bassen wrote on Instagram.

The public response to Bassen's post was swift: Many re-'grammed, reposted, and spread the word about Zara's reported malfeasances — enough to prompt the retail giant to respond. "Inditex [Zara's parent company] has the utmost respect for the individual creativity of all artists and designers and takes all claims concerning third-party intellectual property rights very seriously," a representative for the company said in a statement. "[Inditex] immediately opened an investigation into the matter and suspended the relevant items from sale."
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Photo: Via @adamjk.
More Designers Come Forward About Allegedly Being Knocked Off By Zara
Bassen's case shed light on independent designers' struggles to confront large corporations, and her situation prompted other artists to come forward with stories of their work being ripped off by fast fashion retailers. In response to Bassen and stumbling upon copies of his own drawings, Adam J. Kurtz started a website called Shop Zara's Art Theft, which documents instances where an artist's work has been allegedly copied by brands within the Inditex umbrella, specifically, and invites users to shop the original designs.

"If independent artists can make sure they don't infringe on each other's work, surely the world's largest global fashion retailer has employees who can spend an hour with Google image search and Pinterest to ensure copyright infringement isn't happening, no matter where or with whom the art they're using originates," Kurtz wrote. The goal of this project is to hold these companies accountable — and, hopefully, to encourage more thoughtful shopping.
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Photo: Via @aurorajames.
Ethically-Sourced Label Brother Vellies Finds Not-So-Ethically-Sound, Fast-Fashion Version Of Its Sandals
Aurora James' CFDA-recognized brand Brother Vellies is founded on sustainability, ethical manufacturing, and respect for tradition — basically, it's the polar opposite of fast fashion. So, when a friend texted the designer a photo of black sandals with a fur trim reminiscent of her own Dhara style (with a $59.90 Zara price tag), it was a low blow. "I honestly don’t go into Zara, because it’s not my thing and I know they knock people off a lot, but to see [the shoe] actually on the shelf was very disheartening," James told Refinery29. "This really isn’t about me as a designer — it’s about the choices that we make as a company to be sustainable and the opportunities that [Zara is] taking away from other people." She did what any other millennial with a platform (and a message) would, and posted the shot on Instagram with the caption: "Stolen from Africa," punctuated by a worried-face emoji.

James wasn't totally sure if she wanted to even attempt to pursue legal action against Inditex. "You have to weigh your time as a small-business owner," she told us in August. "I can try to do this, but I’m going to end up taking 20% of my week away from my business, away from the goals we’re trying to accomplish, and send it toward that when, essentially, the damage is already done." Unfortunately, James isn't the only designer who has faced with this tough decision: Many independent makers must ask themselves if the cost — both in money and in time — is worth the legal battle to protect their work.

Still, she wasn't totally disheartened by the situation — if anything, this made James more ready than ever to move forward with Brother Vellies' mission. "It’s one of those moments that tests you, and makes you think about why you got into this and what your motivations are," she told us.
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Photo: Courtesy of Urban Outfitters.
Vetements' $900 Snoop Dogg T-Shirt Pops Up At Urban Outfitters...For $39
Our eyebrows were already raised very high when Demna Gvasalia (re)introduced '90s Snoop Dogg merch in his fall '16 Vetements collection — with little if no aesthetic adjustments, but with a jaw-dropping markup. (Snoop's reaction when asked if he'd drop $924 for an oversized T-shirt with his likeness on it? "Hell nah," he told Hypebeast.) Still, it was one of those "only Demna" moments that gave us a good laugh, since we couldn't foresee anyone spending three figures on such a garment.

It would make more sense to track down the original Death Row Merchandise style, which would still set you back a pretty penny, but at least would be authentic...or wait until Urban Outfitters releases its own version, which is exactly what happened, GQ reported. A relaxed-fit cotton shirt with 1993 Snoop could be yours for $39. (Forever 21 also has its own take on this graphic, but it's nowhere near as uncanny.) The joke's on you, anyone who shelled out for the Vetements one.
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Photo: Via @aubriepagano.
Bow & Drape Founder's Shopping Trip Experiences Slight Detour When She Spots A Very Familiar Sweatshirt
Bow & Drape was championing customizable fashion way before the Hadids caught on to the trend. While the brand specializes in letting the customer follow their heart's desire with sparkly letters and patches, it's become just as well known for its cheeky slogans and cutesy designs. Bow & Drape founder Aubrie Pagano's "I made it" moment, though, came when a casual post-work Forever 21 browse in October turned into an unexpected run-in with the brand's "Hangry" sweatshirts. "I did a double take because they took everything, from the phrase to the random assortment of bananas, doughnuts, tacos, and pizza," she recalled to Refinery29.

Pagano joked about it on Instagram. But the situation made the entrepreneur reckon with the very real implications as a small business owner. "I feel powerless to address it; fast-fashion brands so rampantly [copy], especially from smaller labels that are without large copyright protection," she told us. "It seems there is little I can do; I hope I'm wrong in this, but I'm doubtful." While she says it's not the first time Bow & Drape's tongue-in-cheek catchphrases end up elsewhere, Pagano characterized Forever 21's alleged slight as the "most egregious."
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Photo: Via @sportyandrich.
Twitter Informs Emily Oberg That Sporty & Rich Is "Smart & Pretty" At Forever 21
Complex's Emily Oberg learned that Forever21 was stocking a riff on her Sporty & Rich "Smart & Pretty" hoodie through Twitter. "At first, I didn't really care because my followers and customers know it's whack and they would never support a lamer version of my brand," Oberg told Refinery29 after reposting a photo one of her followers shared with her. "But after talking to people, I realized this is a bigger issue, and I should take some sort of legal action against them," she explained, adding that she would, in an ideal world, settle a case with Forever21, but that ultimately she's happy that the media was picking up on the story.

Oberg went on to write an op-ed for Complex about having her work ripped off by fast fashion. "Do my hoodies incorporate an elaborate design? No. But a recognizable one? Absolutely," she argued. "It’s clear that we are at a point of absolutely no creativity and originality when it comes to big box retailers. And it’s fine to be inspired, have references, and pull ideas from social media. But if your only resort is to copy, at least be inventive with the way you do it."
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Photo: Via @hm.
Vetements' Two-Tone Cropped Jeans Becomes The Most Ubiquitous Denim Style
When the street style-favorite jean of the season came in at a steep $1,300, we knew it was only a matter of time before affordable "versions" showed up on the scene. Here, Vetements became victim once again: Because not everyone can afford to spend more than a month's rent on some baby blues, the fast-fashion machine stepped in to feed the need for an accessible version of the season's clear must-have. In the case of Vetements' reworked denim, the jagged edges and pieced-together look proved easy enough to duplicate, as seen in all the DIY's that cropped up in Fashion Week's wake. However, fast fashion retailers weren't the only ones riffing on the style: By March, a handful of brands had already rehashed the spring '15 bottoms, per Racked. And, with these coming in at much less than $1,300, shoppers were sure to eat it right up. (The H&M pair sold out in all sizes within days of launching.)
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Photo: Via @aquazzura.
Aquazzura Designer is Not Having Ivanka Trump's Copy Of His Shoes
Ivanka Trump's namesake brand has attracted much scrutiny in light of the election. Before she became First Daughter, though, the entrepreneur found one of her shoe designs the center of a legal dispute.

Back in March, Aquazzura posted a shot of its Wild Thing sandal side-by-side with Ivanka Trump's remarkably similar Hettie heel. "One of the most disturbing things in the fashion industry is when someone blatantly steals your copyright designs and doesn't care," the caption read. "You should know better. Shame on you @ivankatrump! Imitation is NOT the most sincere form of flattery." A few months later, the Italian label filed a complaint against the brand and Marc Fisher (which manufactures Ivanka Trump shoes), Vanity Fair reported. The suit alleged that the defendant knocked off "nearly every detail of Plaintiff’s well-known and coveted Wild Thing Shoe, from the shape and silhouette to the fringe covering the toes, to the tassel on the heel."

Trump stood her ground, though: A few months later, she responded to Aquazzura's complaint by filing documents to have the whole complaint thrown out, according to Huffington Post. She denied that her company had partaken in "infringement...unfair competition or deceptive trade practices," according to the suit.
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Photo: Via @stevemadden.
...And Then Goes After Steve Madden, Too
Ivanka Trump wasn't the only brand to try to take on the Wild Thing sandal. The blog InTheirCloset outlined 19 other brands that "reimagined" the look of Aquazzura's recognizable style, including Steve Madden, Charlotte Russe, Boohoo, and more.

Shortly after filing a lawsuit against Ivanka Trump and Marc Fisher Footwear for allegedly copying the Wild Thing, Aquazzura set in motion a similar suit against Steve Madden, Footwear News reported. In the documents, the brand pointed to several Steve Madden styles that closely resemble some of Aquazzura's most recognizable designs, which could be protected by trade dress, it argued.

"This is not the first time Aquazzura files suit against a brand that uses its design," Jean-Michel Vigneau, the brand's CEO, said in a statement obtained by Racked. "We will continue to fight and try to stop these actions. Authenticity and originality are at the core of our brand, and we will defend them at all costs. We truly trust the law over the protection of these values."
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When Your Homage To Kanye West Is Then Copied By Someone Else — Who's At Fault?
With everyone jumping on the merch bandwagon in 2016, we knew the trend wouldn't be immune to a few knockoff situations of its own. Hot Girls Eating Pizza, a popular Instagram account highlighting attractive people and good-looking carbs, put its own spin on Kanye West's popular The Life Of Pablo T-shirts — subbing "Pablo" with "Pizza" and tweaking "No More Parties In L.A." to read "No More Pizza Parties In L.A." Hot Girls Eating Pizza's merch was sold on Depop — although, shortly after, founder Marta Freedman spotted a version of it at Forever 21. "Does it count if it's a parody of a parody?" she wrote.

"I’m not the first to parody [West]’s Pablo shirts," Freedman admitted to Nylon, explaining that she decided to pursue the cheeky project after learning that the performer approved of other reproductions of his merch, even stocking it in his New York pop-up. "I thought of designers and brands I really admire that are known for their parody designs—like Brian Lichtenberg and UNIF," she said. Her issue with Forever 21 ripping off Hot Girls Eating Pizza's own tribute to West was what it represents for independent designers that can't fight back against retail giants, so don't end up getting the credit they deserve. "I think it’s cool that everyone is banding together to 'fight back,' and at the very least, trying to make the consumer aware that this is not okay," Freedman concluded.

This particular case is more nuanced, since it involves a knockoff of a knockoff, essentially. The lines are getting more and more blurred between what's considered "inspiration" and what's considered a blatant rip-off. Freedman's claim to parody would work in her favor in a legal setting, according to The Fashion Law. But is this just evidence that the merch trend has gone too far?
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Photo: Via @frontrowshop.
Fast-Fashion Sites Try To Cop Gucci's Current Renaissance
Alessandro Michele brought a fresh sense of covetable glamour to the Gucci brand over the last few seasons — and it's resulted in a financial boost for the brand. (The company reported 3.1% increase in comparable sales in the first quarter of 2016, 7% in the second, and 17.8% in the third, according to Fashionista.) So, obviously, fast-fashion labels want to get in on the action.

One of the most on-the-nose renditions of the new Gucci aesthetic came in Front Row Shop's spring '16 collection, as Yahoo pointed out. The skirt suits, the trompe l'oeil-style pieces, and oversized glasses resembles Michele's whimsical touch just a little too closely. If a fast-fashion brand is just emulating the aesthetic of a luxury one, do we call that inspiration or a knockoff?
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Photo: Via @vetememes.
Vetememes: The Parody Project That Made A Solid Point About Hyped-Up Fashion
As much as 2016 was about merch, it was about getting really meta. At the crux of this self-referential fashion trend was a black rain coat that, with an oh-so-subtle switcheroo, pokes fun at one of the most hyped-up brands of the year. Davil Tran launched Vetememes with a single waterproof jacket earlier this year. He took the much-photographed $185 Vetements-branded topper, changed a couple of letters, and sold his version for $85. This simple but ingenious edit gained him over 16K Instagram followers, and eventually led the 22-year-old to grow his brand's offerings into other categories (which are a little more legally dubious).

"I wanted to start with the raincoat because of how 'meme' it is," Tran told WGSN back in March. "You can’t look at any street style right now without seeing it. It’s pretty rare that a designer brand resells for [higher than the retail price] and Vetements is doing that right now."

Ironically, Vetememes' success can be attributed to the same buzz and elusiveness circulating the brand it's parodying. With this one, though, we can't help but try to take fashion a little less seriously.

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