When it comes to fashion, no success is sacred. Last year, the Shashi bracelet, a bauble of macramé and rhinestones, was on Lindsay Lohan’s wrist and sold for about $60 at Henri Bendel and Intermix. Now, American Eagle Outfitters Inc. is selling similar-looking bracelets priced at $12.50.
“It’s not fair,” says jewelry designer Yuvi Alpert, who, along with his business partner, Danna Kobo, makes and sells the Shashi bracelet. While the design continues to sell well, the Shashi bracelets’ retailers have complained about less expensive look-alikes on the Web and in stores, Mr. Alpert says. “I can’t know of how many people didn’t buy Shashi bracelets because of it,” he says. American Eagle Outfitters declined to comment.
Emerging designers like Mr. Alpert and Ms. Kobo are tiny fish in a global fashion food chain that seeks an endless supply of new trends. The fashion world is ravenous for new jewelry, accessories and clothes to fill the shelves of retailers and Web sites, many of which seek to offer fresh inventory as often as every two weeks. Often, existing designs become the inspiration for new, mass-produced pieces.
Small designers face a particularly large burden; often, they lack deep pockets to chase down versions they find similar, and their brands are so little-known that customers often aren’t aware they’re not buying an original design.
Scarf designer Elle Sakellis says she wondered why the trendy retailer Kitson didn’t reorder her $190 Otrera “evil eye” scarves. Ms. Sakellis created the scarves after seeing a wall of luck totems meant to protect against the “evil eye” in a store in Mykonos, Greece. Kitson and Intermix bought them, and they sold well, she and the stores agree. But soon, a scarf with a similar motif, made by a company called Raj Imports Inc., showed up at Kitson for about $30. Then polyester versions appeared on Web sites for as little as $10.
“Everyone always says that imitation is the best form of flattery. But it happened too soon,” she says. “I’m not Louis Vuitton. It’s not like when someone buys a Raj scarf that they know it’s an Otrera knockoff.”
Raj Kapoor, owner of Raj Imports, says he can’t remember what inspired his evil-eye-themed scarf. “We do get inspiration from some products. But it’s altered enough to have its own identity,” he says. He said the evil-eye scarf was “insignificant. …We’ve probably designed a few hundred items since then.”
Fraser Ross, owner of Kitson, says he dropped the Otrera scarf for the cheaper version. “It’s like, we carried the higher price,” he says, “and now we’re carrying the diffusion line.”
Designers must be fleet, he says, at creating new, cheaper versions of their own creations. “I’m always telling these designers, ‘Knock yourself off. They’re knocking you off, so do it yourself.’ “
Store chains and manufacturers are constantly searching for new ideas that can be mass-produced. The Web sites, “look-book” catalogs, and trade shows where emerging designers show their wares to the press and retail buyers can become sources of ideas.
“There are buyers who buy [designs to copy] for a living,” says Michael Heimbold, a partner with the law firm of Steptoe & Johnson whose clients are often the defendants in copycat lawsuits. “They go to a show and say, ‘this is cool, let’s make one.’ ” Mr. Heimbold isn’t familiar with the Shashi bracelets or the scarves.
Tracing the originator of a design can be challenging, because designers are always looking to other sources for inspiration, from ancient symbols to the recent “military” trend. But fashion creators make motifs their own through design choices. What makes the “evil eye” scarf special, for instance, is not the fact it has the symbol but the placement and size of the symbol, the border, and the choices of fabric, color, and details such as beads hanging off the corners.
The mass versions can arrive on the market with astonishing speed. When shoe designer Tiffany Tuttle discovered one of her designs selling under a rival label, she says, “Their shoe actually hit the stores before mine did.”
Trendsetting stores that carry independent designers’ work—stores like Kitson and Fred Segal in Los Angeles, New York City-based Intermix, and Colette in Paris—also help spread ideas. Their celebrity clients feed new trends to a hungry global audience.
The Shashi bracelet became part of the trend machine when Ms. Kobo created the Shashi bracelet. Her partner, Mr. Alpert, initially dissed the pieces as too “girly.” But after the bracelet was introduced at Henri Bendel and Intermix last May, influential stars including Ms. Lohan and Katy Perry were soon wearing them.
By December, Mr. Alpert and Ms. Kobo had sold 10,000 of the bracelets. The Shashi helped fund the young designers’ development of their more expensive Ruby Kobo jewelry line, for which they won a 2010 Council of Fashion Designers of America “Incubator” award.
By February, the bracelets’ retailers began complaining about less expensive versions, Mr. Alpert says. The American Eagle Outfitters bracelet come in a variety of colors like the Shashi’s, and it’s hard to tell the difference between them, except that the American Eagle bracelet’s string seems weaker and coarser.
Mr. Alpert and Ms. Kobo have applied for a patent on the Shashi and say they had an attorney send cease-and-desist letters to American Eagle Outfitters and about a half-dozen Web sites. But it is costly—and seems impossible—to slow the flood of imitators, they say. This week, Mr. Alpert says, the Trendy Room boutique in Port Orange, Fla., cancelled an order of Shashi bracelets, saying cheaper versions are available. The Trendy Room co-owner responsible for the decision couldn’t be reached for comment.
There’s a bill bouncing around Congress that would allow clothing designers to copyright their creations. But critics argue it would benefit only big brands that have the resources to apply for and protect their copyrights, trademarks and patents.
The most effective response to the current environment, according to some small designers, is a steady stream of new material. Mr. Alpert says he and his partner have stockpiled more than a year’s worth of new Shashi designs.
Ms. Sakellis’s latest look is a hamsa hand scarf, featuring the Middle Eastern luck charm. “The hamsa scarf will get knocked off, too,” she says, “I just know it.