Sui Generis?

Anna Sui, others sue Forever 21: How original are you?

Did the prisoners at Leavenworth consider suing Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel for ripping off the saggy belt-less trousers they wear in the prison yard? Did hundreds of anonymous graffiti artists sue Stephen Sprouse for printing tags on Louis Vuitton satchels?

OK, you're not going to believe this—but you know Anthropologie, that place where you just bought that thick, knit, flared sweater exactly like the one Dries Van Noten showed on his runway last year? The store where you purchased all those puffy jolie-laide fake Marni dresses in charmingly hideous prints last spring? The shop that currently stocks those ersatz Marc Jacobs jackets with all the military bells and whistles that you're trying to make up your mind about? Well, that very venue is currently pursuing a lawsuit against Forever 21 for—get this—knocking off Anthropologie clothes.

It's the season, it seems, for such litigation. More than 20 other designers are also suing Forever 21, including Diane Von Furstenberg—she of the famous wrap dress—who claims that the 21'ers knocked off not just her styles but the very prints she employs: in one example, a rather overwrought pattern of blue-and-white triangles that she calls "scattered stone," and which actually looks a lot like an old Marimekko design. And in her capacity as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the glamorous Diane has descended on Washington, attempting to get federal legislation passed that would make clothes-copying clothes a criminal offence.

Elena Dahl models the "Forever WANTED" T-Shirt
Mollye Chudacoff
Elena Dahl models the "Forever WANTED" T-Shirt

Anna Sui, who based an entire career on resuscitating, revamping, and rethinking the vintage fashions of the 1960s and '70s, the decades when she was young, is also livid about Forever 21 ripping off her designs, and she's suing as well. So incensed is she that for her spring '08 show (a collection that style.com described in part as "pure Barbara Hulanicki," citing the designer of the iconic 1970s label Biba), Sui stuffed each gift bag with a T-shirt depicting the owners of Forever 21 on a Wild West–style poster with the legends "Forever Wanted" and "Thou Shalt Not Steal."

Asked to comment on her pending litigation, Sui's spokesperson said, "Anna isn't doing press on this (we gave one quote to the Times only). . . . The shirt is her statement." (Actually, nobody is very anxious to get back to me about this—repeated calls to Anthropologie were not returned.) It's easy to see why Sui is so mad—after all, Forever 21 did replicate her stripes-and-giant-roses print. Still, when it comes to fashion, who can claim to be original?

I took a spin recently around Sui's Soho store to see if this could be a case of a very chic pot calling a fashion-forward kettle basic black. And here is what I found: many garments that appeared to be line-for-line copies of clothes from the '70s that were clearly purchased from flea markets; a newspaper print that is startlingly similar to one touted by John Galliano a few seasons back; a ribbon-trimmed badge pinned to a sweater exactly like the ones employed by the Fake London brand on its sweaters.

But let's be fair: Galliano wasn't the first guy to do a newspaper print either, and lots of designers spend Sundays at the flea market. (They are, in fact, notorious for sweeping through the Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show-—the next one is October 12—and buying like wild animals.)

And just a few weeks ago, Marc Jacobs was furious with Suzy Menkes, the critic for the International Herald Tribune, who took apart his most recent runway collection, accusing Jacobs of borrowing rather too liberally from Comme des Garçons, Martin Margiela, and John Galliano. Jacobs fired back in the September 13 issue of Women's Wear Daily:

"I've never denied how influenced I am by Margiela, by Rei Kawakubo, those are people that inspire my work; I don't hide that. . . . Of course there are comparisons to other things. I'm a designer living in this world who loves fashion . . . I'm attentive to what's going on in fashion, I'm influenced by fashion, that's the way it is. I have never ever hidden it. I have never insisted on my own creativity, as Chanel would say. I have my interpretation of ideas I find very strong. Jil Sander is influenced by Comme des Garçons, Miuccia Prada is influenced by Comme des Garçons, everyone is influenced by Comme des Garçons, Martin Margiela. Anybody who's aware of what life is in a contemporary world is influenced by those designers."

Well, all right then! So it's OK for Marc to rip off Comme, but somehow shady and vaguely reprehensible for Zara to do Prada or Bebe to do Versace or Forever 21 to do practically everybody? It's telling that Jacobs should invoke the name of Coco Chanel, who had her own personal revelation about copying when she visited the S. Klein department store in Union Square in 1933. According to her biographer, Axel Madsen: "Chanel proclaimed that knockoffs were nothing more than 'spontaneous publicity.' It was at Klein's that she decided that it was hopeless to try and fight it, that piracy was the flattering result of success."

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