March 01, 2015

What's on at the Museum at FIT

Last week during a short break in this never ending winter I took the opportunity to do some errands and catch a couple of exhibitions downtown.  One of the stops was at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology where two shows are currently on view.

In the Fashion and Textile History Gallery on the ground floor is "Faking It: Originals, Copies and Counterfeits" a topic that turns out to have been as relevant a century ago as it is today.

The issue of authorized and unauthorized copying of couture fashions has plagued designers and the fashion industry since the 1860s when Charles Worth began the practice of signing his name to his labels as an assurance to his clients that they were purchasing his original designs.  Later, some European countries enacted laws to protect their prestigious fashion industries but these copyrights and patents did not extend overseas and cheap knock-offs appeared from foreign sources.

By the 1940s the idea of licensing became quite popular and fine stores such as Bergdorf Goodman would purchase the rights to create copies of couture clothing for their American clientele.  These licensed copies adhered to strict standards of quality and workmanship and were often indistinguishable from the original designs except in price.  While this practice opened a whole new market for couture clothing and helped to revitalize the post-war garment workers industry in the U.S., it also opened up new opportunities for counterfeiters.

Take, for example, the tweed suits by Coco Chanel seen at left.  Both appeared in 1966 and seem to be identical until one takes a really close look at the construction and the materials.  The one on the left is an original, made in Paris in the Chanel atelier under strict supervision.  The one on the right was made in China using inferior fabrics and notions and missing many of the finer details like a full lining, matching plaid and working buttonholes on the sleeves.  This was obviously a clear violation of any licensing arrangement the couture house might have had with a foreign producer.  It is also further evidence of the continuing problem of unauthorized copies leading to a proliferation of poor quality clothing bearing fake high end labels.

The issue got even more complicated when designers tried to appeal to broader market with second-tier collections like Donna Karen's DKNY label or Lauren by Ralph Lauren.  These are deliberately designed to imitate the brands' higher end goods but with lesser quality fabrics and more efficient construction methods so the consumer can get a similar look without paying a premium price.  While these are authorized copies by the designer, they are often copied themselves making for a true buyer beware situation for consumers.

The real Missoni dress is on the left,
Missoni for Target is on the right

The problem of counterfeit goods in the luxury markets is a global concern and intellectual property lawyers are actively searching for ways to prevent these flagrant rip offs.  Legislation has been proposed that would copyright fashion design in much the same way that music, art and writing is protected but some feel that this measure would stifle creativity.  One thing is certain, the counterfeit market is alive and well and not going to go away without dramatic action.

For something a little less serious let's head downstairs to the Special Exhibitions gallery at FIT where "Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s" is now on view.  The 1970s were a decade of social upheaval and nowhere was this better reflected than in women's fashions.  No longer the beatnik 60s and ahead of the disco 80s, the 1970s were a time of relaxed dress codes, the Women's Liberation Movement, the energy crisis, and a shift away from couture houses to designer-led businesses.  Advances in synthetic fabrics and a demand for more wearable styles gave rise to new cuts and looks that allowed women more freedom in what they wore for both day and evening.

No designers are more representative of this era than Yves Saint Laurent and Halston.  Though they came from different backgrounds (YSL was born in Algeria and began his career with Christian Dior in Paris; Halston came from Des Moines and worked with milliner Lily Daché in New York), their careers followed remarkably similar paths.  By the early 1970s both were designing women's wear with a decidedly masculine twist and both were pioneers in the incorporation of the pants suit into every wardrobe.

As the decade progressed both designers looked to the exotic for inspiration.  Yves Saint Laurent produced his opulent Russian collection while Halston created the sarong dress using one long piece of fabric to wrap around the body.  At the same time, both men were turning up at parties and events dressed in similarly exotic versions of caftans and pajama sets!

Another element used by both designers was a reference to historical costume.  Yves Saint Laurent looked back to the turn of the century for sleeves and crinolines and both he and Halston each re-interpreted the elegance of the 1940s in bias cut dresses.

Today, Yves Saint Laurent is lauded primarily for his extravagant use of color and fantasy while Halston is considered the master of minimalism and modern design and one's legacy is seldom confused with the other's.  However, this step back in time to 70s "Mod" is proof positive that, at least in the beginning, they were, in fact, very much the same.

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