The ethical implications of being broke a$$ algae in the high-fashion food chain

Italian artist Giambattista Valli is one of my favorite designers. Valli is famous for his ability to combine styles that transcend the romantic and feminine, with dramatic and fierce architecture. As a lover of the extravagant, I am most attracted to his use of tulle, and how he manipulates the stiff fibers to construct gowns with so much depth that you feel as though you’re falling into a black hole. Many would argue that you should not let a dress “wear you,” but his gowns are not supposed to exhibit individual style 一 they are not about the individual that wears them. To wear a Giambattista Valli gown is to take on the role of art exhibitionist; you become the hanger, the accessory, and quite frankly, the lucky individual who gets to feel the power that must radiate from a gown that takes up half the space of any given room. 

H&M x Giambattista Valli Short Tulle Dress
SOLD OUT ! (Image from H&

I was thrilled when I heard about Giambattista Valli’s plan to collaborate with H&M. The company planned to bring a relatively affordable line to a broader market through their #Project<3. One dress in particular (picture below) absolutely enthralled me. It was a strapless, hot-pink, tulle mini dress. It was shockingly angular, since the tulle was only contained at the waist, and the fabric was allowed to defy gravity elsewhere in its famous and unapologetically loofa-like fashion. I was sold – until I saw the price. I waited patiently for the exclusive line to drop on H&M’s website, only to find that this more “affordable” piece of Giambattista Valli’s vision and legacy was almost $400. Granted, I had no urgent occasion for such a showy gown; nonetheless, it was the price-tag that ultimately put the nail in the coffin.

Fast forward a few months, my broken heart had healed, and I was now cheating on GV with other designers like Christian Cowan and Alexandre Vauthier, going gaga over new  dresses. However, one day, I was scrolling through Instagram, when an advertisement for the Giambattista Valli gown I had once loved so much popped up on my feed. Whether or not Instagram was listening to me obsess over this dress is a whole other conversation, but something other than the dress (and my impending fear that the government was spying on me) caught my attention in this moment. The advertisement was not by Giambattista Valli nor was it H&M, but an online website I had never heard of called ikrush. 

I was intrigued, and after clicking through to the website saw that the dress was only $50. It became evident to me that whoever ran this website had gotten the design idea from Giambattista Valli’s original vision, something we see happen to so many designers today by big commercial stores like Forever21 and Zara. So, I called my sister, ecstatic that I had found such an affordable version of the dress. She began lecturing me about how unjust it is for designers to have their creativity and ideas ripped off by counterfeiters manufacturing these cheaper versions. 

She had a point. 

Fast-fashion conglomerates are able to identify trends they see on the runway, mimic them, manufacture cheaper versions, and have them available in stores in a matter of weeks. There is little to no protection available for the original designers. Filling for and obtaining a design patent can take up to 18 months, which is a rather impractical option for brands considering the time-sensitive nature that comes with releasing multiple lines a year. Suing for copyright infringement is also an option, but this process is just as lengthy and unpragmatic, especially considering the myriad of copycats that tend to follow suit of a single high-culture trend.

I began wondering, can art and fashion justly exclude those in a lower income bracket, purely on the grounds that it protects the intellectual and creative property rights of the original designer? The question of whether culture can and should be copyrighted is a long-standing debate among intellectuals and art-lovers. It also begs the question of whether or not culture is a common good. So, here we go. A UNC Philosophy major’s take on the Trickle-Down Effect of high fashion.

It is important to note before I continue, the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. Cultural exchange is encouraged, and ideally happens on an even playing field, in which groups mutually agree to the terms and benefit from the exchange of ideas and history (in this case artistic ideas). Exchange is often good, it facilitates understanding, and promotes an accelerated aggregation of intellectual and artistic capital for all involved. 

Cultural appropriation, however, happens on an uneven playing field, and involves the stealing or exploitation of a historically oppressed group’s ideas or culture by the social elite. The dominant group benefits from these ideas and precludes appreciation of the oppressed group. Can successful high-fashion designers be considered a vulnerable population in terms of having their ideas appropriated and copied? I had to decide if it was morally wrong for me to buy the $50 version of Giambattista Valli’s gown, since it was quite obviously ripping off his original artistic vision. 

My conclusion was this: successful high fashion designers are most often in positions of power and influence. By taking on this role of an artistic and cultural influencer of the masses, they are subjecting their ideas and creations to the uses and attention of the public. Their brilliance and innovation cannot be justly reserved for those occupying a high economic status. Instead, they should understand that it is only natural for something beautiful and adored to spread⁠— to be loved and desired by people of all statuses.

I am not saying it is okay for sellers to falsely claim a garment or piece of art was crafted by a designer which it was not… that’s theft. I am however saying that art and beauty are harder to copyright, and harder to limit people’s access to in a just way. 

I ended up buying the dress. Although I still have no occasion for a hot pink tulle mini dress, once I find one, I will feel and look beautiful in it, all the while praising the elite Giambattista Valli for his brilliance and for sparking artistic ideas in all people. I won’t argue that ikrush was “artistically inspired” by GV. Of course it’s not — they are selling a look-alike of the dress to make money. I, however, was artistically inspired by the gown, and the availability of a look-alike gave me the freedom to stylistically interpret and add to the piece in my own way (pictures below).

There are obvious structural and quality differences in the two gowns (I even cut the bow off of my new dress to improve the look), and I still believe the real one would bring me more joy and satisfaction than this cheaper version. But as a college student who cannot justify spending $400 on such a distinctive piece, I am, in this case, thankful for the trickle-down effect of hierarchical fashion diffusion. 

Here she is! I paired this dress with some black studded combat boots from my same order on ikrush, a Jealous Tomato leather & fur jacket, Forever21 earrings, and a tiered chain necklace from Dolls Kill. I wore minimal makeup and threw my hair in a low pony to contribute to this Carrie Bradshaw gone-grunge look. 

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