Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you might’ve heard that fast fashion brands like Zara and Primark are coming under fire for straight up stealing designs from independent artists and industry leaders.
Chanel founder Coco Chanel considered this kind of phenomenon to be inevitable, describing it as the “ransom of success”. That being said, how exactly are fast fashion brands getting away with stealing sneaker designs?
Unlike music, movies, and pieces of art, sneakers, as well as any other fashion design for that matter, aren’t protected by intellectual property law. Unlike counterfeit items, which straight up copy branding, motifs, and patterns, knockoff shoes, like the ones sold by Zara and Primark, simply resemble the original design, making them perfectly legal.
This is because patents don’t really exist in the world of sneakers. Take, for example, the Balenciaga Triple S. With its iconic “ugly” upper and unmistakably bulky midsole, if the luxury fashion house decided to patent the design, it would take months or perhaps years for the patent to go through. By that time, the chunky sneaker trend would probably be a thing of the past, and the Triple S would look like a relic amongst all the sleek, streamlined sneakers of the future.
To add to this, sneaker designs cannot be protected under copyright law. According to Christopher Sprigman of the NYU School of Law, shoes aren’t copyrightable as fashion designs are typically thought of as “useful articles”, and copyright doesn’t protect “useful” things and only protects “artistic and literary” things such as songs and films. The term “useful” denotes that the shoe has a set function. Although you bought your pair of adidas Originals NMD R1s with its design in mind, at the end of the day, it’s a piece of footwear that protects your feet and helps you walk with ease, therefore it’s defined as “useful”.
With all that said, when fast fashion brands steal sneaker designs, it’s not an entirely bad thing. In the book The Knock Off Economy by Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman, they believe that imitation sparks innovation. Since its inception in 1858, fashion design has always been about trends, and the only way to make trends is for fashion designers to “take inspiration” from others.
Back in 2016, the biggest trend in the game was laceless sneakers. Sleek and simple, but striking nonetheless, brands around the world were churning out these sock-like shoes like it was nobody’s business. adidas Originals had the NMD CS1, Nike had the Air VaporMax Moc, and PUMA had the Fierce. When Zara decided to jump on the bandwagon by straight up ripping off the Balenciaga Speed Trainer, brands knew that this fad was well and truly over, thus they jumped ship in search for the next big thing – propelling innovation forward.
With all that said, we believe that fashion designers are artists, and should be protected by intellectual property and copyright laws. It’s insane to think that sneaker designs can so easily be stolen, but works of art can’t be, and we think this is completely unfair. When the adidas Futurecraft 3D first leaked in 2015, before the Three Stripes could even officially unveil the shoe, fast fashion brands had already looked at the leaks and made their own versions of it, completely disrespecting the artistry behind the original concept.
Although Zara’s version was literally a sixth of the price, it just goes to show that sometimes a steal is literally a steal.
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