Although it's no secret that Zara and other fast fashion retailers rely heavily on the ideas of high-end designers, these brands typically deny accusations of straight-up plagiarism. And many of us aren't accustomed to seeing instances of blatant design theft by familiar brands.
It can be jarring: Above, left, a look from Celine Pre-Fall 2013 (originally spotted by RogueValentino in the tFS Forums); on the right, the Zara version, which consists of a polyester accordion skirt and a silk blouse, each priced for $79.90. Apart from the pearly buttons on the blouse and the ankle boots, the items and silhouette of the overall look appear to be an exact replica.
RogueValentino compiled another post full of Zara-Celine comparisons which ranged from identical to extremely similar, while another member, emailme., noticed that each one of Zara's Fall 2013 campaign models had previously walked in Celine's Fall 2013 show (I checked, that's not hyperbole).
So, we have a fairly compelling body of evidence which suggests that Zara is not (at least in these specific cases) innocently drawing inspiration from runway trends and reinterpreting high fashion for the masses*. It is possible that there's some kind of spirit medium on staff at the Spanish brand, responsible for channeling designer Phoebe Philo's aesthetic on behalf of the design team, but spirit mediums are expensive and Zara seems inordinately preoccupied with the bottom line. More likely: the retailer is intentionally setting out to create Celine knock-offs.
(I emailed Zara for comment about how the company's design process works but haven't heard back.)
Of course, what complicates fast fashion's blatant copying of runway designs is that high-end designers copy each other all the time. In fact, many economists have argued that copying within fashion speeds up trend cycles (meaning more people adopt more trends, more quickly), putting pressure on designers to develop new ideas (which is why today there's this relentless churn of new fashion, and the mid-season collections are growing in importance). Under the so-called "piracy paradox," copying encourages creativity and consumption.
Still, in the creative industries, originality is part of the job description and plagiarism is frowned upon. So when it emerged, this March, that a coat from Celine's Fall 2013 collection (below, left) bore a striking resemblance to a 2004 design by Geoffrey Beene (below, right) it caused a stir. Karl Lagerfeld even went on record to comment: “I must say I was a little shocked,” he told Women's Wear Daily.
It's believed that the Celine-Beene resemblance was originally spotted by Jeremy Lewis at the blog GarmentoZine. Lewis later defended Philo's design, telling The Cut that Beene's 2004 version didn't have slits in the side; in Celine's version, the garment functions a bit like a cape, allowing the wearer's arms to pop out the sides. As he put it, Philo's coat might be referential, but it's not an act of plagiarism: "They're actually two very different garments. And if you look at the whole collection, what you'll see is they referenced a few technical details from the coat and expanded on it. I think of it more as a discussion between one designer and another, and I think what [Céline] did was fantastic."
Or to rephrase the famous T.S. Eliot quote: "Good designers borrow, great designers steal."
So there you have it: designer copyright, long a thorny issue, is still thorny. High-end labels often do take a different approach to copying than fast fashion brands, but incidents like these demonstrate why fashion design isn't protected by copyright law (items of clothing, like furniture and cars, are classified as "useful articles" with an "intrinsic utilitarian function"). I can't imagine a legal framework that could fairly determine whether a resemblance in design was allusion, theft or coincidence. That responsibility falls on the critic and the consumer.
*From a 2009 Slate article: "A second set of companies, like Zara and H&M, brings fashionable clothes to regular consumers but without closely copying the design of their fancy and costly brethren. Their clothes are usually not knockoffs but rather inspired-bys."