OPINION: Copycat designs: the art of ethical borrowing

Published May 8, 2018


JOHANNESBURG - They say there is no such thing as a new idea, and that can go for the melody of a song, a novel’s storyline, or a fashion design. 

Proudly South African recently came out in defence of Laduma Ngxokolo in his case against retailer Zara when a range of socks that bore a striking resemblance to his Khanyisa cardigan design appeared in their stores. Zara subsequently discontinued sale of the socks, but stopped short of an apology, promising only “an internal investigation”.

The issue raises many interesting questions around cultural appropriation (or misappropriation), inspiration and copycatting.

When is it okay for a company to take inspiration from a cultural group and use it in their music, textile design or whatever their narrative or medium is?

Does it not happen all the time?

Can Italians be the only ones to open and operate a pizza/pasta restaurant?

Do Scotsmen have an exclusive right to wear tartan?

Is it okay for Louis Vuitton to use the Basotho blanket as inspiration for a garment that carries a R33000 price tag?

Is it okay for Dr, as she is now, Esther Mahlangu to replicate Ndebele designs and paint New York streets with them?

Is it okay for Ngxokolo to take inspiration from Xhosa culture for the patterns on his cardigans in the first place?

It is also said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but when is admiration taken too far?

Product development and evolution is a fact of life, but begs even more questions. Did Taxify copy Uber, or have they differentiated their product significantly enough other than on price?

And what about the world of pharma- ceuticals with the immediate entry into the market of generics when a drug licence expires?

I heard for the first time a couple of weeks ago about drug “cloning” when the original drug manufacturer clones its product, replicates the packaging exactly but alters the name slightly, in order to retain a share of the generic market for their own drug.

It can be argued that licence expiry gives everyone a chance at accessing a lucrative market, once the original drug manufacturer has recouped the costs of research and development.

Perhaps this business model should be adopted in other sectors. It makes it important for companies or original idea holders to register their trademark, copyright their idea and establish their rights to their intellectual property.

Registering a cultural emblem is one option for ethnic groups such as the Basotho to ensure cultural preservation of a design or artefact, but this may not translate into real protection in the commercial marketplace.

If we are to bring ethics into the issue of appropriation, for me the difference between Louis Vuitton’s use of Basotho cultural elements and amaXhosa by Ngxokolo and even Mahlangu’s use of Ndebele designs, is that the Basotho people did not benefit from LV’s sales in any way.

Mahlangu and Ngxokolo are using inspiration from their own cultures to create their artworks. In particular, in Ngxokolo’s case, we know that his value chain in terms of local procurement has integrity and is ethical. The wool for his garments comes from Eastern Cape farmers, even though he could buy it more cheaply from overseas.

In researching this piece, I found another great example of ethical use of an ethnic group’s culture and this was by Brazilian luxury brand Osklen, whose Spring 2016 collection used symbols and references from the Amazonia Ashaninka tribe.

In exchange for the use of Ashaninka elements in their designs, Osklen gave royalties from the collection to the tribe, who also got a platform to raise awareness about their struggle to protect their land against illegal loggers.

Now that’s a proper collaboration and engagement with someone whose original work or property you admire.

Susan Scafidi, founder of the Fashion Law Institute and author of Who Owns Culture: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, says: “Designing with both inspiration and respect for other cultures in mind is a challenge that actually requires more creativity and transformative vision than just copying someone else’s culture and claiming it as your own,” and we would echo this.

We believe that Zara simply plagiarised a pattern by a fashion designer who in this case happens to be South African.

Ngxokolo is fighting his own legal case in this regard, but our gripe against Zara goes further. We are calling them out on 0percent local South African content in their stores, even though they’re happy to “admire” Laduma’s cardigan, reproduce his work, call it their own and make money from it.

As for my song, this week I’ve chosen Izinja. Did the talented Mapaputsi admire, copy or appropriate Baha Men’s Who Let the Dogs Out? You decide!

Eustace Mashimbye is the chief executive of Proudly South Africa.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.


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