Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Archive for January, 2011

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.

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Balloon Dogs & The Blogosphere

Like everyone else who appreciates irony, I’ve been following the latest story about Jeff Koons’ effort to claim copyright protection for his “Balloon Dog” sculptures. Koons made a fortune appropriating images from popular culture and so it’s decidedly rich that he’s attacking a wee company selling bookends shaped like balloon dogs.

As far as I can tell, Koons will probably lose: the pricepoint for the bookends ($60 for two) is so low that no one in their right mind would be mislead into believing they were made by an artist of Koons’ standing, and the bookends don’t share key features that might distinguish Koons’ version from those blown by anyVenice boardwalk clown.  

I was struck by a passage in a recent New York Times piece about this. The reporter Kate Taylor describes William M. Landes, emeritus professor of Law at the University of Chicago, as sharing “the blogosphere’s view that the business with the bookends made Mr. Koons look a little silly.” Anyone with any familiarity with said “blogosphere” (you’re in it now) knows just how many divergent voices and opinions are aired here, and so it’s a little disingenuous to suggest that all us bloggers agree about this.

But I do think it’s true that participating in the blogosphere makes you much more aware of the appropriative nature of discourse and meaning-making. Conversations we used to have in person are happening in a persistent text-based world where copying and pasting is second nature: it’s not just that we quote one another all the time, we also embed within our commentary links to other comments, articles and digital artifacts that quite literally become part of our contribution to the conversation.

Koons, of course, was clever enough to realize that the act of appropriation and reframing could be meaningful (and lucrative). For him to suggest that there should be stricter limits placed upon the circulation of broadly recognized images not only runs counter to his own artistic practice but also to the act of crafting and communication that makes the blogosphere so vibrant.

UPDATE : The New York Times reported on February 3, 2011 that Koons has given up his suit. Now “clowns everywhere can breathe easier.”

Black Swan / White Swan

One gift my mother gave me for Christmas this year was a rolled up page from a magazine: it was an Yves Saint Laurent ad for their men’s cologne, L’Homme, featuring one of our favorite hotties, Olivier Martinez. (You remember him, right? The guy that Diane Lane cheated with in Unfaithful? Oooooh yes.) Anyway, a few days later I flipped the page over to find a simmering Vincent Cassel promoting the other Yves Saint Laurent fragrance, La Nuit de L’Homme.

I had just seen the film Black Swan, in which Cassel plays a machismo ballet director who helps drive his frigid star (Natalie Portman) insane by demanding that she portray both the virginal “White Swan” and the naughty “Black Swan” in his production of Swan Lake. Needless to say, the virgin/whore dichotomy is pretty relentlessly pursued throughout the film; a sultry Milan Kunis embodies the sexy swan that our starving heroine can’t seem to summon up for Cassel. Although it’s hard to tell what’s really happening in the film (our heroine is prone to hallucination), I got the impression that Kunis might be the only happy ballerina in Manhattan. She actually enjoys dancing, she parties heartily, and we never catch a glimpse of her throwing up her lunch. God knows we’ve seen tragic virgins before, but happy whores are a rare breed. It didn’t occur to me until I saw these two ads that the new twist we see on the virgin/whore dichotomy in Black Swan is simply the way it would play out if you applied it to men. A male virgin is always tragic (or at least comic). A male whore is the guy every other guy envies. 

I have no idea whether YSL has some sort of merchandising tie-in with the film (I noticed in the final credits that Rodarte made all the Swan Lake costumes, which I thought were delicious), but there’s no way they could have used one of the stars of the film without realizing the parallel they’re suggesting. I just wonder if anyone mentioned this to poor Olivier. Does he realize he’s occupying the crazy tragic virgin slot in this tawdry little advertising drama? He was so hot, right? Until now . . .

Garmz & Misapprehensions about Copyrighting Fashion Designs

I was curious to find out more about Garmz, a new retail Web site that manufactures and sells fashion designs voted on by the Garmz community. According to W, Garmz has only 5,400 registered users, but they’ve already produced 800 designs from 39 countries. Their lofty goal is to “bring you the next Lagerfeld, the next Armani.”

Designers don’t pay a dime to post their sketches on Garmz and they take no financial risk if their designs are manufactured. However, they only receive 5% of the gross sales (runs seem to be 200 – 250 pieces).

What I found amusing, though, was this item on the FAQ page:

Does Garmz own the copyrights to my designs?

No. You keep the copyrights to all your designs. The finished clothing will carry your name on the label in the back. But in the case of us prototyping and producing your design, only Garmz will be allowed to distribute and reproduce the developed series. With you earning from every sold piece, of course.

I wonder how it escaped anyone’s notice that fashion designers cannot copyright their designs? I believe the site founders originate in the EU where there is some protection available for fashion designs, but it certainly isn’t copyright protection (and in my talk I explain why EU Design Law is completely ineffectual at stopping competitors from making knock-offs of registered designs). The only intellectual property protection that fashion designers typically have is trademark protection: the label inside the garment is the only piece of the garment that can’t be legally copied by a competitor. With Garmz garments, the designer’s name will appear on the label, but the trademark won’t belong to them. It belongs to Garmz.

I’m thrilled to see people experimenting with new business models for fashion design, and I have no doubt that some very talented people will surface in a world where access to the means of production can be accomplished in surprising new ways. But I see this illusory promise of retained copyright protection as a sign of just how low below the radar this issue is in the fashion industry. That’s one reason I’m hell-bent on putting together a research project that helps us understand how creative communities (including fashion designers) are struggling with the meaning and value of ownership in an era when every business model imaginable is being transformed by digital technology. More on that research project shortly . . .