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There's No Shame In Young Designers Copying

By Guan Tan


In the past two days, there's been a heated debate on Instagram over an alleged copy on the fashion runway. The subject in question was Richard Quinn's fall/ winter 2018 collection. The London-based label is merely two years old. 

"We heard Queen Elizabeth II was in attendance at Richard Quinn's show yesterday. Wonder if she spotted the Demna [Gvasalia's] Balenciaga references...lol. (Bonus obvi Margiela and Comme nods too)," wrote the duo behind the Instagram account, @diet_prada, Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler

Said post triggered a hefty backlash. The conversation in the comments section brutally dissected Quinn's collection and cued at one question, "Where have we seen this silhouette, print, and pattern before?" Names like the Swiss designer Manon Kündig, the late Leigh Bowery, and the American artist Paul Harris surfaced over and again. 

Instagram: @diet_pradaOn the left, look 16 from Balenciaga's Pre-Fall 2017 collection. On the right, look 26 from Richard Quinn's Fall/ Winter 2018 collection.
On the left, look 16 from Balenciaga's Pre-Fall 2017 collection. On the right, look 26 from Richard Quinn's Fall/ Winter 2018 collection.

It calls to mind another copying episode by another brand from January this year. Vetements rolled out a series of split-toe boots that looked curiously similar to that of Martin Margiela's 30-year-old Tabi boot design. "All the same down to the hook closure detail," wrote the anonymous Margiela fan account, @margielatab1.

Amongst the fans, Vetements' copy of the boot was almost a travesty only because the Tabi boot has never been copied before. "The Tabi boot is the most important footprint of my career; it's recognisable, it still goes on after 25 years, and it has never been copied," Martin Margiela famously claimed in 2015. Well, now it has. It seems that the fashion industry ushered in 2018 with grand debates on copying. 

Felicia Yap

A young, emerging designer and another established designer, both subjected to the same brutal cross-examination. Is this fair? Many will say yes, it is indeed objective. 

Yet, think about it. In sports, demarcations such as age groups and weight classes serve to protect the young ones and the institution of fair-play. In the fashion industry, there are no such rules and ethics, at least not yet. When it comes to the conversation of copying, consider this – young designers should not be pitched against the established ones. 

The problem with lobbing young and old designers into the same conversation is the immediate assumption that they are all on level playing fields. But they are not. 

Creativity and originality are muscles that have to be developed over time – through copying and creation. In fact, this is not a new thought. It has repeatedly surfaced across diverse creative fields. 

To Tay Bak Chiang, a respected veteran Chinese ink painter in Singapore, copying is an integral part of the creative trajectory. When he was green, he copied past artworks and in the process, familiarised himself with others' creative state of mind and techniques. Later in his career, he digested these learnings to develop his own style and technique. 

Over in the graphic design field, designer Jessica Walsh expressed on her Instagram account, "When you're young or in school or still learning, it is okay to look at what others are making... as you need to develop your visual vocabulary." And she's right. In art school, my live drawing tutor always reiterated, "There's no better way to understand a painting other than copying it. You'll find out more about the artist than a book could offer." 

Circling back to fashion, Yohji Yamamoto once penned a thought that could possibly put an end to this copying conversation. He wrote, "Start copying what you love. Copy, copy, copy, copy. At the end of the copy you will find yourself." 

There is no shame that young designers copy. Calling them out and faulting them for copying does no service to the progression of the institution of fashion.

The phenomenon of calling out copyists points at the fashion industry's desire to protect and set apart high-fashion in a deluge of fast-fashion, designer wannabes, and social media influencers turned designers. Ultimately, the exacting cross-examinations evaluate a designer's creative thought, originality and integrity – therefore, his worth. 

Just like how a fashion critic wouldn't review a toile, it is equally pointless to lambast at a designer-in-the-making. Biting at a young designer is downright unethical. Take, for a final example, a collection review of VFiles spring/ summer 2018 that took place last September in New York, "First to bat was JunJie Yang, a menswear designer based in Antwerp, Belgium. Yang presented a collection that sometimes felt overly referential." It went on to list the brands that Yang allegedly copied from – Comme des Garcons, Craig Green and Yeezy. The review almost read like hard facts, as if Yang did intentionally copy from these three brands. Yet, these are but the opinions and observations of one man. 

It may or may not be related, but there is no inkling of a fall/ winter 2018 collection by said designer this season. While the brand has yet to respond to our interview questions, we're certainly hoping the premature collection review did not murder a nascent career before it is allowed to take off.