The Black Style Now exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York is a multifaceted tour of African-American influence on fashion, from celebrity style icons to historical photos and media images to talented designers and their work. Among these original creations I particularly enjoyed seeing Jeffrey Banks' "classics with a twist" and Sistahs of Harlem's "street couture," as well as Stephen Burrows' landmark contributions from the late 1960s and early 1970s.
But I was stopped in my Counterfeit Chic tracks when I reached the hip-hop section of the exhibit. The association between established fashion brands and rap or hip-hop artists is frequently noted, as is the copyright controversy surrounding the practice of "sampling" bits of others' music to create new works. Less popular attention, however, has been accorded the contemporaneous practice of "sampling" luxury logos to create new fashion.
In describing this glazed calfskin topcoat screened with the LV logo, the curator notes, "In the early 1980s, Harlem-based design entrepreneur Dapper Dan recognized the selling power of luxury. He created customized high-end products that incorporated highly recognizable accessory logos like those of Gucci and Louis Vuitton, featuring them in non-traditional ways. His clients included Biz Markie, Salt-N-Peppa, Big Daddy Kane, Roxane Shante, and Don King. Before Nike itself started making clothing, Dapper Dan created apparel with the Nike logo. The result: one-of-a-kind clothing that provided the wearer with instant visibility."
In artistic terms, music sampling and the incorporation of luxury logos into new works of fashion appear to flow from a similar approach to creativity.
In legal terms, however, the "sampling" of a designer logo is distinct from music sampling. In addition to the difference in intellectual property regimes -- trademark for the former, copyright for the latter -- it is far more likely that the sampler will use an entire logo as compared with a few seconds of a musical work.
But should trademark owners object or look the other way? It's a matter of degree and of business strategy. Depending on the quality, transformative nature, and scale of distribution of the work, creations like Dapper Dan's aren't necessarily bad for the trademark holder. In the right hands, street fashion can make established labels newly trendy by association, much the way that fan fiction strengthens ties between consumers and an existing creative structure. The MCNY curator's description even raises the question of whether Nike was inspired by Dapper Dan, in addition to the reverse. In the wrong hands, however, sampling is little more than simple counterfeiting -- a trademark holder's worst nightmare. Moreover, trademark owners must police their marks or risk their becoming generic.
As in the case of music, African-American styles from zoot suits to modern urban streetwear have historically been more likely to be appropriated by mainstream culture than to appropriate it -- a circumstance over which creative designers have no legal control. The rise of luxury logos and their appeal to hip-hop culture have prompted examples of appropriation in the other direction.