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Fear and Clothing

When does fashion inspiration become appropriation?

Imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery, writes Aspasia Karras

18 February 2018 - 00:00 By aspasia karras

Along, long time ago, back in fashion history, Christian Louboutin was toying with his assistant's red nail polish. "What if I paint the sole of this shoe this sexy red?" he thought - and the rest is a signature. His signature. Louboutins are always red-soled. Other shoes are not.
Last week the European high court said perhaps not. Louboutin cannot trademark the colour red - Pantone 18 1663TP to be precise - because you cannot divide the shoe from its sole. And you cannot trademark a shoe design. So you cannot trademark the sole. This sounds almost existential.
Meanwhile in Paris, Demna Gvasalia, the Georgian designer of Vetements (label of choice for street-smart fashion editors), showed his menswear Fall 2018 collection in a flea market. "Everything starts in the flea market," he said. The mixed-gender models walked in multilayered repurposed genderless clothes that looked like he had sourced and thrown them together there and then.This reappropriation of street style is "the elephant in the room" - the central idea he grapples with in his design. Gvasalia worked for Martin Margiela for many years and the close association also reflects in the ideas and clothes the younger man now presents as his own. But not. Some are direct copies, like the classic Margiela Japanese split-toe boots. The originals in turn copied from the Japanese split-toe sock.
"We live in a world full of references. They are there to feed us - not to copy, but to create something new from them," Gvasalia said in an interview after the show. "That's the challenge."It is a challenge. Just ask the many groups who resent their culture being appropriated for someone else's gain. How do you separate new creations from the initial cultural inspiration? Where do you draw the line? How do you excise the bits you are certain are your cultural heritage and domain and not for sharing? How to separate the sole from the shoe?Hundreds of thousands of Greeks marched against the appropriation of their culture and their name by a neighbouring state last Saturday. It seems that there is no trademark on place names either, and if you, as a newly independent former Yugoslavian state, like the name Macedonia, you use it. And in time it becomes yours, and perhaps you forget how you came to appropriate it.
In the flea market of the world, all the cultures and clothes and names and ideas wash up in great piles of flotsam. And sometimes people rework them and wear them as their own. Some people like it and others object and get possessive and angry and sad. Some sue for damages.
Gvasalia asked the kindergarten next to his studio to get all the children to draw their interpretation of the idea of the elephant in the room. He showed the drawings on a series of T-shirts at his show. I think it may be the T-shirt of the season.
• The Fear and Clothing Column appears every Thursday on our new online platform Times Select...

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