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The Rise of Designers As Aggregators

This season, New York designers spent most of their creative energy repurposing other people's ideas. And this time, they went too far.
The over-the-knee boot as seen this season.

The over-the-knee boot as seen this season.

Halfway through New York Fashion Week, I checked in with my former Fashionista colleagues Britt and Leah.  I mentioned one show I liked, even though it was “Philo-lite.” (As in, the designer took more than a few cues from the worship-worthy Céline creative director Phoebe Philo. Don’t even try to guess who I’m referring to, because it could be about 15 different labels.) Britt’s response? “I’m so over Philo-lite.”

I get her point. But the consumer in me is not over Philo-lite. So many of us, intentionally or not, walk around imitating the designer's likeness: big crombie coats, bigger sweaters, wide-leg pants and, of course, Stan Smiths. So I can’t blame another designer for being inspired by her.

What was a little more disturbing was something that happened a couple of days later, when I clicked through the lookbook of a new ready-to-wear collection that’s getting a lot of buzz. Its double-faced cashmere coat was a watered down version of one that The Row showed last fall. There was no denying the resemblance.

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But that was just one example of the sameness I saw throughout New York Fashion Week. While many are declaring the end of trends, it seems that others are glomming onto them more vigorously than ever. Into the '70s? Incorporate some brocade, standard flares, a bit of fringe, and you’re good. (Oh, and don’t forget to mention Stevie Nicks in the show notes.) Still obsessed with '90s minimalism? No need to think differently: just add one part slip dress, another part skinny turtleneck, and a spoonful of grey to taste. Today’s commercial fashion is simply an aggregation of trends that, just like a clicky headline, is made to attract the masses.

So why not shame them, call them out? I say, why bother? It's not that I fear exposing these designers’ acts. It's that I find it difficult to pinpoint where the inspiration ends and the copying begins, especially in the context of a designer's age and experience. The longer you've been around, the less okay it is to cull ideas from others. But a season or two in, I want to give the benefit of the doubt. From their first collection, designers are closely examined. They have no room to make mistakes, or figure things out privately. Many artists mimic the work of their idols for years before they find their voice. With fashion, though, there is no working it out. At least not in the digital age. The era’s success stories have been able to remove themselves from this cycle. Consider Rosie Assoulin. She thought -- really thought -- about her collection for years before launching it. And because of that, it looks like no one's but her own.

I also think price point is a consideration. I want more contemporary designers to take cues from ready-to-wear designers. That's not to say I'm in favor of Zara-esque, Adventures-in-Copyright-worthy pieces, but we can't all afford Céline. However, when a designer has the nerve to charge four figures for a coat that's an exact replica of a style The Row first introduced four seasons ago, it's more difficult to forgive.

It’s important to note that these are not new grievances. American fashion, for the first part of the last century, most consisted of department-store copies of Paris couture. And later, Europeans were culling from U.S. sportswear:

“The fashion world loves to catch one designer stealing from another,” said former WWD publisher John Fairchild in his 1989 book, Chic Savages. “[Oscar] De la Renta sees a front-page sketch of a Saint Laurent dress in WWD, and that morning he digs out a sketch from his old collection to show that he beat YSL to the punch. I have seen a grey peplum suit that was designed when [Marc] Bohan was at Dior form the basis of Oscar’s collection when he saw it at a New York wedding. Bohan sees his suit on the front page of WWD -- credited this time to Oscar -- and he only smiles. The truth is that many designers like to be copied.”

That insight still rings true. Of course Nicolas Ghesquiere is going to inspire half the fashion world--part of his job is to set the season's tone, just as Rei Kawakubo's job is to make other creative forces like Phoebe Philo and Marc Jacobs think differently about their own work. Raf Simons’ dressing gowns for Dior’s spring 2015 show had a little something to do with all the high necklines we saw this season, and that’s quite alright. In journalism, we call it "moving the story forward." If you didn’t break the story, it's always important to add your own take.

But without that, you're just an aggregator. These cookie-cutter collections say nothing other than what someone else has already said. And that is never okay.