Bitchy broadsides and oodles of brouhaha are part of what makes fashion fun. They are also inevitable in a business so densely populated by thin-skinned designers on fat pay cheques. Of all the professional criticisms that you might level at a fashion designer, the absolute worst – worse even than being vulgar or banal – is that she or he is in any way a copycat. For this strikes right to the heart of the perception, so carefully cultivated yet very rarely actually true, that clothes designers regularly come up with entirely new ideas.
This year the absolute worst has happened, again and again. Planet fashion has been at turns titillated and appalled by @diet_prada, an anonymous vigilante Instagram account dedicated to accusing designers and labels of fashion plagiarism – or “ppl knocking each other off lol”, as the account’s bio puts it. It has been unafraid to call out sacred designer cows – including Céline, Balenciaga, J.W. Anderson, YSL, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana – for what it contends are dresses, shoes, bags and even chairs and fashion-show sets that are based on other people’s work.
Look at @diet_prada’s feed and you will speedily glean that the scabrous wit behind it has the accuracy of a blunderbuss; sometimes devastatingly on the money, sometimes wildly awry. Yep, a dress in the YSL Winter 2017 collection did look startlingly like that worn by Tina Turner in the video for “Private Dancer”. But nope, a dress designed by the Row, a feted American label, could not be a “knock-off” of the similar Valentino gown, as the account suggested, because the Row’s garment was actually made earlier.
Nearly every designer or company accused of crossing the rip-off merchant’s rubicon from pastiche to plagiarism by Diet Prada – so-called because Prada is indubitably the most “homaged” fashion label of the last two decades – opts to remain silent. But the onslaught has prompted two notable fashion-house reactions. The most direct was from Stefano Gabbana of Dolce & Gabbana – no shrinking violet – who was moved to righteous outrage in October when Diet Prada accused the house of pinching the idea for its graffiti-covered set for a show in Japan from a recent Gucci collaboration with a street artist. Kapow! Gabbana quickly posted pictures proving he had done something very similar in one of his own shows in 2000 and in a video made in 1996. He followed up with: “Darling… if you are ignorante is much better for you don’t say anythyng [sic] about this image…please say sorry to me!!” There was no apology forthcoming; instead, Diet Prada produced T-shirts printed with the slogan #pleasesaysorrytome and put them on sale online.
The second riposte came from Gucci, perhaps today’s most au courant fashion house. Its designer, Alessandro Michele, is a romantically inclined jackdaw, many of whose so-called “knock offs” have been highlighted by Diet Prada in the past. Instead of bemoaning the accusation, Gucci invited Diet Prada to attend its most recent show in Milan and call out the multifarious “knock offs” it contained – including homages to Elton John’s 1970s performance outfits by Bob Mackie, the Duke of Devonshire’s “Never Marry a Mitford” woolly jumpers, and a font popularised by video-game company Sega which was used on a bag emblazoned with the word “Guccy” (itself a reference to the counterfeiting to which Gucci has long been victim).
As PR ploys go, this was clever. For it served to cauterise any implication that Michele is an illicit copyist by explicitly acknowledging, via a Diet Prada-led game of art and fashion-history join-the-dots, that he is an enthusiastic truffler of history in search of an angle that chimes with the present. Most designers are exactly the same, just less inclined to concede it. Because in fashion there is hardly ever anything entirely new under the sun. Clothes are clothes.
To my mind, fashion design is more cookery than art – its most successful proponents conjure their collections from a long-established catalogue of ingredients. The secret sauce – what makes a designer great – is a talent for garnishing them in a manner that whets the appetite (just as Dolce & Gabbana first did with graffiti in the 1990s), and which makes the old feel new. Fashion is copying – so Diet Prada will never be short of material.