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Critical Mass

Law enforcement can't do it.

Many retailers won't do it.

The U.S. Congress hasn't tried to do it -- yet.

But the sharp pens and sharper tongues of fashion critics are working hard to reinforce the social norms against copying within the fashion design community.  While designers are legally free to copy one another's work, at least in the U.S., doing so runs the risk of harming a designer's reputation.  The fashion press celebrates new looks or the fresh expressions of an established designer's signature style, but woe to the previously celebrated designer who borrows too liberally or literally from another. 

Consider the following reputational slaps on the wrist during the recently concluded New York Fashion Week:

Calvin Klein Spring 2007From WWD:  Guests at Calvin Klein didn't realize they were in for a ride, but on Thursday, Francisco Costa charted a direct course for Helmut-land.  He opened with several subtle dresses layered in wafting gauze, but the unsubtle nature of his homage to Helmut Lang was stunning.  From the show space to the clothes themselves, Costa echoed a very specific phase in Lang's career:  his artsy, ethereal stage.  Dresses fluttered with too-familiar streamers and were cut in a very distinctive palette that had some wondering aloud if Helmut's longtime collaborator Melanie Ward was backstage (she wasn't).  It's unfortunate for Costa that, after stepping out of Calvin Klein's shadow, he'd step into Lang's.  But simply put, he should know better.  But for those who don't know better, or who just don't care, there were attractive pieces to be found....  And yet, like the song says, it's never as good as the first time.

Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune agreed:  At Calvin Klein, Francisco Costa, far from projecting forward, seemed to be shrinking back into fashion history with a collection that had some pleasant pieces, but seemed in thrall to other designers. With the bright, white space and high-tech vision that belonged to Helmut Lang in the 1990s and the full-shouldered silhouette of Claude Montana in the 1980s, Costa seemed to be turning back the clock.

Suzy also had cautionary words for Michael Kors:  The vibe was Degas meets Donna Karan in the 1980s. But the best looks were Kors's own: his luxurious sportswear given a touch of sweetness when a chiffon skirt twirled over a stretch bodysuit.

And in the New York Times, Cathy Horyn expxressed disappointment in yet another desinger's offerings:  Catherine Malandrino certainly has a signature in her French-casual sportswear.  It was hard, then, to comprehend what she was up to on Thursday:  models on a raised runway in funnel collars of the Claude Montana genre.

Certainly not every homage to another designer is blameworthy, and general trends are often inspired by particular eras or masters from the past.  No law could or would try to limit this sharing of inspiration.  But within the creative echelons of the fashion community, where the opinions of editors matter, the reputational gatekeepers accord acclaim to originals and blame to copies.