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Project Runway: Birds of a Feather

It seems that every season of Project Runway involves a copying complaint of one variety or another, and this year is no exception.  In last night's episode, contestant Kenley whines that two of her fellow competitors have knocked her off -- by which she means only that they, too, chose to make short rather than long bridesmaids' dresses (at the urging of design guru Tim Gunn).  Proprietary hemline lengths?  Hardly a compelling argument.  Kenley, however, seems to have a double standard when it comes to copying. 

Watch the strangely restrained critique of Kenley's wedding gown from designer Michael Kors and the confirmation of copying from fashion editor Nina Garcia, along with the aspiring designer's denial...

...and then judge for yourself.  McQueen showed his dress (left) to rave reviews  just months before the filming of Project Runway.

 Alexander McQueen Fall 2008 (left) and Kenley's design (right

But wait, you think.  Kenley may have copied the strapless, fitted, off-white, feather-covered bodice, the full feathered skirt with tulle beneath, and the feathers sprouting from the model's head, but didn't she at least come up with the only other element -- the extra mass of tulle beneath the skirt -- on her own?  Not exactly.  The bird-brained contestant's dress is a mashup of the McQueen above and several of his other feathery looks from the same show, which use that same riot of tulle as an underskirt:

 Alexander McQueen Fall 2008

Still, knockoff or no, shouldn't Kenley's performance over the course of the season -- a series of vintage-inspired frocks regularly ridiculed by her fellow designers -- entitle her to compete for the big prize? 

Let's take a look at her only individual winning design, which does have a rather modern silhouette.  At the time (episode 3), Counterfeit Chic thought it mimicked the couple of dozen Balenciaga looks with which designer Nicolas Ghesquiere had deeply impressed editors for Spring 2008.  Floral prints, strong shoulders, rounded hips, high neck, short skirt -- all in all, a very distinctive and powerful take on spring dresses.  Still, Kenley's version was enough of a departure that, while not the kind of original vision that can make a designer's reputation, it wasn't just a knockoff (though it shouldn't have been a winner, either).  In retrospect, it may indeed have been an indication of what to expect from this Project Runway contestant.

 Balenciaga Spring 2008 (left) and Kenley's winning design (right)

Why, if Project Runway purports to be a search for "the next great American designer," has blatant copying not resulted in early elimination?  Why are crooked hems or dangling threads apparently the greater sins when professional designers are expected to create a unique (and profitable) vision, not sew on deadline?  

Perhaps the unoriginal contestants have simply been good television in one way or another, and thus worth keeping around.  Perhaps the producers believe that some great American designers are copyists.  (No names -- today.)  Or perhaps producer/judge Heidi Klum is loathe to penalize anyone else for copying, given the accusations leveled against her jewelry line by Van Cleef & Arpels in a recently settled lawsuit. 

This laxity with respect to knockoffs must be good news for the team designing Heidi's own line in partnership with Jordache.  Following a recent series of celebs whose eponymous labels are filled with copies straight from their closets, Klum appeared in the New York Times in July 2007 wearing a top from the Lower East Side design duo Foley + Corinna (on model below), whose designs have become copy-catnip.  Then, this past May, she showed up in People magazine alongside looks from her own line, including a suspiciously similar top (below right). 

 Foley+Corinna (left) and Heidi Klum (right)

Maybe next season Project Runway -- on Bravo or Lifetime, whichever channel wins the legal tug-of-war over the show -- will take the opportunity of illustrating to aspiring designers the line between inspiration and imitation. After all, in an information-rich, consumer-savvy market, names are not made on knockoffs.  Not to mention the fact that in every major fashion capital except New York, they're legally actionable.  At the same time, young designers are regularly hired to carry on the tradition of a famous fashion house, which involves a bit more than just ransacking the archives.  Counterfeit Chic can't wait for Tim Gunn's take on that challenge.  

And in the meantime, let's hope that in this season's final episode Kenley's avian abomination gets plucked.