Copying processes #4
Kathleen, how do you know they stole your process, as opposed to coincidentally reinventing your wheel?
I am really glad you asked that question because I’m sure many designers would love to know the answer. The answer is, I don’t. I don’t know definitively that they copied my process. However, circumstances are such that it is highly suggestive of the possibility. To explain that, let’s revisit the concept that the apparel industry is really much much smaller than people realize and people are connected in the most unlikely of ways.
In this case, all of us worked in the high end of western apparel and the magazine representing that element of the trade is called Cowboys & Indians. Anybody who’s anybody in high end western apparel advertises there. It’s a very, very small community. By the way, most consumers don’t know anything about western wear so I’m used to people thinking western wear is crappy yoked shirts with pearl button snaps but nothing could be farther from the truth. The best designers in this area have no problem getting $500-$2,000 for their leather jackets; it’s very upscale and many designers are collected. Most of my career portfolio is comprised of styles shown in Cowboys & Indians; I’ve done the highest end of fashion in that business. Anyway, both the company I worked for and the company who purportedly copied, worked in the same end of fashion, both advertised in Cowboys & Indians and lastly, this company “coincidentally” produced at least 6 other styles that were nearly identical to ones I’d also made. I can see one or two being evidence of creative synchronicity but with over six very distinctive styles in less than a six month period of time, it’d be hard to describe that as coincidental, particularly when most of their other styles were similar to still other designers.
The last thing to mention about this company is that it was not a big, established firm. The copyist was a DE company. I know most of you think it’s big brother manufacturer most likely to knock you off but I’ve found DEs copying other DEs or even established firms just as frequently. I know we’d all like to believe that DEs have more integrity than that but the reality is that DEs copy too.
The lesson to take from this is that if one designer is borrowing concepts from another, it is most likely to be within the same narrow range of the market. It is most likely that the products will be advertised in the same kind of consumer publications and it is common to have actually met someone who ends up knocking you off too.
For example, Cathy Smith may mean nothing to any of you but she is the designer who gestated this whole side of western fashion apparel. You’ve seen her work in countless television commercials and movies, including Geronimo, Buffalo Girls, Dances with Wolves, and Son of the Morning Star (for which she won an Emmy for costume design). She’s also known for producing historically accurate native American costume and her work is displayed in the Smithsonian Institution (among other places). Not only are her designs authentic, her processes are too. Her designs are sewn with handmade bone needles because sewing with metal needles does not render the same result (hand sewing with bone needles is no picnic either). Her work is something you’d have to see to believe. By the way, Cathy got her start way back when she was stuck out in the middle of nowhere living on an Indian Reservation with no hope of employment with small child to support. I believe she started with moccasins, although a chemist by trade.
When I spoke with her by phone today she mentions she’s no longer producing apparel but is open to designing on commission, in other words, fees by sketch in case you’re interested. Her site is down just now but you can email her. Anyway, Cathy started the whole high end western apparel fashion scene and she gets little to no credit for having created a movement. Cathy can tell you all about this company that copied her over 15 years ago, launching their company that went on to make millions. She recalls watching them sketching her designs like mad and there was nothing she could do about it. Seems like too few people remember who started this whole genre anymore. It’s really tragic.
Regarding the above mentioned company; I’d be remiss if I failed to mention several things about them. For one, they did not continue to use other people’s concepts in the ensuing 15+ years; it is not unusual for DEs to launch on a borrowed concept. Two, they made this milieu their own and went on to define excellence of quality design in this genre. Third, their designer is one of the most gifted designers I’ve ever worked with; while one may launch on a borrowed concept, a company cannot attain the success they have without having added substantively to the field. Fourth, over the years, this company has been knocked off by still other companies far more than they ever did at the outset. Fifth, I have not met any other start ups in this field that have failed to claim that this company knocked them off. Considering my familiarity with the design provenance of this company, I would consider claims by the latter DEs to be utterly false; rather, the reverse was true. In other words, these new start ups were also launching on a borrowed concept; I cannot stress just how prevalent this is. As much as DEs would like to deny it, they have less standing in protecting “their” designs than they’d like for others to believe.
I had more to add to the discussion of “how do you know” but this post was getting too long (I have more examples and photos) so I’ll put that up tomorrow.