Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Appropriation & Inspiration in Fashion

A still from Jennifer Steinkamp's video installation "Orbit 5"

I’d venture to say appropriation and inspiration are always in fashion. Especially in the fashion industry — where there are far fewer legal barriers to design appropriation. But these dynamics are apparent in every artistic discipline, and there’s something particularly pleasurable about stories of artists who succeed in taking an aesthetic idea from one realm and applying it to another. 

That’s why it was really fun to read a recent Wall Street Journal piece (thanks to Marissa Gluck for sending it my way) about Narciso Rodriguez’s effort to capture in his latest fashion collection the elegant layering of flora and fauna in a video installation piece. Jennifer Steinkamp’s “Orbit 5″ features seething images of transforming trees and flowers. Rodriguez says he was intrigued not just by the imagery, which is not uncommon in textiles, but by the layering that makes it visible. He wanted to capture the relationship between a projected image and its screen.

Another filmmaker looking a Steinkamp’s piece most likely would not have thought much about the materiality of their medium. All of their work is usually projected on some kind of surface — this materiality is usually taken for granted. But a fashion designer works on a projection of a very different kind. Their work is plastered across human bodies, which are notoriously variable in dimension. Rodriguez seems to have realized that if he wanted to conjure a type of layering similar to a digital projection, he would need to generate a screen.

Enter the artisinal Italian textile manufacturer, Filippo Binaghi, who goes to great lengths to make a unique type of fabric that uses a clever interplay of transparency and opacity to create a layered image that gestures toward cinema.

The copyright issues, as always, are interesting to me. Jennifer Steinkamp — who is, apparently, totally uninterested in fashion — does own the copyright to her decidedly non-utilitarian video work (she mentions in the article that she would have had “reservations” if another video artist had been similarly inspired by her work.) While Binaghi’s two-dimensional textile design feels like it has a third dimension to it, he only owns the copyright to it because it is a two-dimensional object with no immediate utilitarian purpose. Rodriguez’s gowns, however, do not qualify for copyright protection because they are three-dimensional garments with an explicit utilitarian purpose: to cover naked human bodies. 

This might seem terribly unfair, but the WSJ piece explains one of the interesting creative dynamics that emerges in an industry that cannot rely on copyright protection for their designs. (I explain this in some detail in a TED.com talk I gave.) One reason Rodriguez probably went to so much trouble to achieve this look — and to pursue the development of an innovative new textile — was so that the fast fashion industry (Zara, H&M, etc.) wouldn’t be able to copy the gown and sell it at a far lower price-point. In other words, the fact that his design could be copied without his permission gave him an incentive to make something that was too difficult to copy. So, unless you’re willing to cough up $2700, you’re probably not going to experience the sensation of being in a Jennifer Steinkamp video.

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