Post-Oscars, the Dress Knock-Off Crowd Gets Busy
"I had 99 percent of the fabrics already. I didn't have feathers yesterday, but I got them now." It's the morning after the Oscars, and Allen Schwartz, world-famous king of the red-carpet replica—adored by thousands for his copies of Academy Award gowns, reviled by others as a blatant, shameless rip-off artist—is telling me what he thought of the broadcast, which he and the design team from his company ABS scrutinized as avidly as a tomcat guards a mouse hole.
Of the many thousands of yards of duchesse satin, silk chiffon, and organza that floated down the red carpet on Oscar night, Schwartz isolates five or six styles that he's convinced will look as good at a prom in Winnetka as they do in the corridors of the Kodak Theater.
Hilary Swank's Versace, Jennifer Garner's Oscar de la Renta, and Katherine Heigl's Escada make the cut, and Schwartz is especially taken with Jessica Alba's feather-laden Marchesa. He thinks she looks great despite the fact that she's six months pregnant—good news for girls who want the Alba look but are not a size two. ABS dresses retail for between $400 and $500, and Schwartz claims they're made as well as the couture stuff—or better. "My customers don't spend 10 thousand or 20 thousand on a dress," he says. "They'd rather buy a car."
Even someone who merely glanced at E! between trips to the fridge and the toilet would have noticed that everyone from Miley Cyrus (who, two weeks earlier on the Grammy red carpet, gave a shout-out to the three men in her life: her father, her brother, and Jesus Christ) to the patrician Helen Mirren was clad in crimson, and of course Schwartz is all over it. But he hastens to add that he's got plenty of other colors, including the greenish hue of Amy Adam's green Proenza Schouler.
No Björk swans muddy the water this year. When I bring up Tilda Swinton's trashbag-esque uni-sleeved Lanvin (hey, I'd wear it!), Schwartz says, "The one shoulder that stole the night was Hilary Swank's." In truth, these Oscars were pretty much a cakewalk for copycats. "We're into all these trends already," Schwartz says. Huh? What about the feathers? "That's a trim," he explains patiently, adding that the plan is just to throw a few fluttery plumes on an existing design, not create a whole new dress. Because everything's got to be on the racks at Bloomingdale's or ABS's other upscale vendors by May 30, time is tight, but Schwartz doesn't seemed fazed. "If I don't have those trends and those colors already," he says, "I got a problem."
Over at Faviana, a company that invites you to "dress like a star," there's general agreement that red is the new black. "I think that was really the stand-out color, very strong," Omid Moradi, the company's CEO, tells me. Moradi usually watches the awards en famille (mom Shala is the company's designer; Omid handles the sales and merchandising), but this time they were camped across the street in the E! studio, doing a segment on their own Hollywood hits, which include a line-for-line copy of the green dress that Keira Knightley wore in Atonement. (Faviana also offers the purple dress from Enchantment and an ersatz golden frock from The Golden Compass.) Lest you think this dress-copying business is something new, it might interest you to know that a hideous ruffled number that Joan Crawford wore in the forgettable weepie Letty Lynton in 1932 was knocked off and sold 50,000 units at Macy's alone in the depths of the Depression.
"We make trends work for everyday women," says Moradi. "We take inspiration and design our own collection around it. We change it, we fit it, we use fabrications at reasonable prices." Well, OK, though on its website, the company states its mission more baldly: "Ten minutes after any big awards telecast, the Faviana design team is already working on our newest 'celebrity look-alike' gowns."
Which is fine with me. Frequent readers of this column know that I am an unequivocal fan of replicas, knockoffs, copies, fakes, and phonies of all stripes. I rejoice when I see Marni-esque make-believe at Old Navy, art nouveau proto-Prada at Zara, bogus Balenciaga and forged Fendis on a street table at 14th and Fifth.
But of course, not everyone agrees with me. I decide to call up Susan Scafidi, an attorney and law professor who operates the excellent website counterfeit chic.com and isn't at all sanguine about the situation.
Turns out Scafidi watched the Oscars with the same enthusiasm as Schwartz and Moradi, and she's got an idea of what those fellows will be up to soon enough. "The Gaultier mermaid dress, I think somebody's going to knock that off," she says. "And the red Valentino on Miley Cyrus—I would think that one, it's an easy shape to wear. Oh, and the red Marchesa on Anne Hathaway, somebody's going to knock that off too."
When I tell Scafidi all the reasons I think fakes are so wonderful—that I believe copies provide a sartorial gateway drug, if you will, to young girls with no money; that the expensive stuff is frequently just as derivative as the blatant copies—Scafidi argues back, and, quite frankly, she talks rings around me. (But hey, she's a lawyer.)
"Copying ought to be under the control of the designer," she says in her calm, sweet voice. "What happens is heartbreaking: Young designers at trade shows get knocked off by the big companies all the time, and no one ever knows it was their design. In many countries, in Japan and in Europe, designers are protected legally. That way, it's up to the designer to decide: 'Maybe I'll do a commercial deal with a place like Target'—or I might decide, 'I did that Oscar dress as a one-off, so, OK, take it, copy it, do whatever you want with it.' It's not like a painting—it's a commercial garment. For the designer, it's a business decision, but it's also an artistic and a creative decision."
The discussion turns to my mythical little girl, spending her hard-earned pennies on fake Marc Jacobs at H&M, and here, I frankly find the otherwise hard-boiled Scafidi's suggestions a little dreamy. She thinks my girl should bury herself in the vintage shop (what, like Anna Sui?) or, better yet, go to a fabric store (do these still exist?), stock up on red material, and learn to sew. After all, Scafidi offers, "That little girl might be a designer herself one day." (Well, sure, she might be. Or she might be a skilled copyist, employed by the 2020 version of Forever 21.)
Let's face it, when the prom rolls around, you won't find most Miley Cyrus wannabes holed up like Bertha the sewing-machine girl. They'll be cruising the local mall looking for ABS feathered frocks and Faviana Atonement gowns. Scafidi is more than aware of this reality. Right after our conversation, she e-mails me, tarter in print than she was in person: "If you speak to Allen Schwartz again, please tell him from me that if he were really Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, he wouldn't take such a big cut along the way."