Inspiration vs. Imitation

SEE LARK! | Inspiration vs. Imitation

While trolling on Pinterest to see the latest eye candy, I stumbled upon what I thought to be a Zoe Karssen sweatshirt.  When I clicked on the link, I realized it was actually a copy of the original sold at a really cheap price.  I immediately thought “This is a copy…BAD”, hoped I didn’t accidentally download a computer virus, and moved on.  Months later, I saw more pieces from the same website and wondered “Have I judged it too quickly?”  It’s not claiming to be the actual high-end brand, but it does appear to be a copycat.  To add to it, why is this website getting my criticism when I don’t think twice shopping at an H&M, Zara, or Forever 21?  Fascinated with the business behind fashion, it got me asking the age old question…

When does inspiration become imitation?  


SEE LARK! | Inspiration vs. Imitation

The issue at hand is whether one designer is taking from another’s original design. A fun fact I learned through my research is that clothing designs are not protected under copyrights or patents. Therefore, most lawsuits I discovered argue on the basis of trademark infringement (a word, phrase, symbol, or design that distinguishes a source of goods from another party). In 2011, Christian Louboutin and YSL litigated over the famous red soles. Eventually, the ruling favored Louboutin for red soles only, but YSL is allowed to create monochromatic red shoes (where the sole and upper parts are both red).  Travota sued Forever 21 where the crux of the argument was that Forever 21’s used certain design elements unique to Travota such as button placement and rounded zippers.  After two years, the case settled outside of court.  There are many other examples where one skates a thin line between inspiration and imitation and have yielded mixed results which prompted my next question…

Does imitation hurt or help the industry?


SEE LARK! | Inspiration vs. Imitation

Like anything in this world, there is a valid argument for both sides.  If it were me, I would feel violated, I would want credit where credit is due and to recoup potential lost revenue.  According to The Piracy Paradox in The New Yorker, there may be some impact to sales, but for the most part, it targets a completely different market segment, making fashion affordable and attainable.  Besides, isn’t copying a form of flattery? An interview with the authors of The Knockoff Economy lays out the argument that it helps the industry since copying fuels trends and pushes for more innovation.  Once a design reaches the masses, it’s time for the “next big thing”.  For example, how many of you are thinking right now If I see one more wedge sneaker or jeweled sweatshirt…[insert some knee-jerk reaction]”.

So what’s the bottom line? 


SEE LARK! | Inspiration vs. Imitation

I definitely feel more informed about the subject after researching and writing this post.  Besides learning the difference among copyrights, patents, and trademarks, I learned that there various shades of gray in what I previously thought was a black and white topic.  I may not buy from the site mentioned above, but I will still buy inspired pieces. For me, it’s not only what is practical and economical, it also serves as motivation to someday be able to buy the original.

[Images 1 / 2 / 3 /4]

Sources: 1. The Piracy Paradox via The New Yorker / 2. The Knockoff Economy: How Copying Hurts – and Helps – Fashion via Time / 3. Christian Louboutin vs. YSL ‘Red Sole’ Lawsuit Finally Dismissed via The Huffington Post/ 4. Travota’s Suit Against Forever 21 Has No Effect on Knockoff Regulations via New York Mag

11 thoughts on “Inspiration vs. Imitation

    1. knivesliao

      Hi Rachel, thanks for sharing your point of view on this. I agree. I think an LV or Chanel or Louboutin exact copies are easy to catch. I struggle with more subtle designs. Like the Trovata case or a Celine design. I am less familiar with their aesthetic. Nonetheless it’s a great topic to discuss!

  1. FatFreeFashion

    I agree with you. I would buy an inspirational clothing pieces (I do love my Zara….) but I draw the line at faux handbags. I think a knockoff bag is too tacky for words, especially if it’ a familiar design (LV, Chanel, Celine, Balenciaga). Such an interesting post!

      1. knivesliao

        I hear ya! I have a strong aversion to knock-off handbags, what’s the fun in that? The designs of Celine and others that are more subtle are think are harder to differentiate and determine if it’s a copy. I know Zara has been questioned given its similarities to Celine designs before but that one is more of a gray area…how different can you make a tunic?

  2. Munachi

    I’ve been wanting to write about this topic for MONTHS. Fast fashion and imitation vs inspiration have so many grey areas it’s hard to make a finite decision the subject. One of the most important arguments for fast fashion is that it targets a completely separate market, like you said. Typically the person buying the $35 Forever21 version never intended to buy the $350 designer version. And as long as they’re not claiming to be the original no harm no foul right? Unfortunately the issue is the ideas that are being stolen. Many designers take weeks if not months to create a high fashion design and from Zara’s last stats release they can pump out the “inspired by” design in two weeks flat from seeing the garment. Essentially they are ripping off hundreds of hours of blood, sweat, and tears and not giving credit where it is due. I hope I get the chance to write in depth about this subject soon because even if you choose to buy fast fashion items I want it to be an informed decision. Thanks for writing this!


    1. knivesliao

      Thanks so much for the comment. I do hope you get to write about this topic as I find it very fascinating. Unfortunately it’s a gray area as fast fashion really does provide more options and choice for those (majority) who can’t afford the high end stuff. If the laws were more stringent, I think it would be tough to define who or what is original design? I highlighted some cases where high-end were suing low-end (with the exception of the YSL case), but I think high-end designers may have/share similar that copying? How would more defined “rules” impact a situation like that? I may not be able to tell between a Alexander Wang and Derek Lam and Jason Wu…hmmm, maybe I should write about that next! xo-Elaine

  3. Diana

    Great post! There is definitely a line in my opinion between cheap/ nasty badly copied crap that should be prevented and a high street retailers take on a high end designer piece. I personally love it when I spot something similar to a designer piece at less than half the price!

    x Diana

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