The Dream Would be Brick Lane – Assessing the Impact of IP Within the European Fashion Industry

CREATe’s Carolina Bandinelli and Angela McRobbie both from Goldsmiths, University of London summarise some findings from their work exploring how questions of Intellectual Property impact on the professional practices of designers and design teams within the fashion industry.


Milan Fashion Week 1The Fashion Work Package for CREATe has focused on a number of intersecting questions. What is it like to embark on a small fashion enterprise in recent years? How do young designers actually create their own working environment as part of the process of establishing a name for themselves soon after they have graduated from a degree course? And in this context how do questions of IP and copyright impact on their everyday practice? We also wanted to open out the study to include three cities in Europe, i.e. London, Berlin and Milan, first to get a sense of how different urban environments and creative industry policies affected these small-scale enterprises and second and more significantly to see how in a European context the reality of the economic recession and wide-scale unemployment was pushing young creative graduates to invent careers for themselves. What we report below is an initial summary and comment on the Milan CREATe work.

We were always slightly hesitant about how the research would develop in Milan for the reason that unlike London and Berlin there has not been a strong and embedded start-up fashion culture. Nor has there been a tradition of social enterprises especially in the field of fashion. The cooperative movement – quite strong and established in the country –  has been operating mainly in other fields, primarily in the third sector. Therefore, the fashion world in Milan and indeed in Italy as a whole has been dominated by the global fashion houses whose brand identities are known and highly regarded across the world. This domination by the fashion conglomerates (many of whom are, like almost all the major fashion labels, owned by one of two French companies LVMH and Kering), means that employment opportunities for young graduates in and around Milan tend to take the form of short term or casual and outsourced work in the glamorous headquarters of companies like Prada or Max Mara or Missoni, as Adam Arvidsson in his short survey showed (Arvidsson et al 2010).

MICHALSKY StyleNite stage 01 2010What we have found is that in the absence of the lively start-up and social enterprise tradition in both London (as incubators) and Berlin (as job creation schemes) it is only with the Euro-crisis in Italy and the dire situation for graduates in these areas (as well as across the board) that setting up on one’s own or with a friend has become an escape from the monotony and demoralisation of unemployment. Indeed, in the last few years a number of start-up incubators and co-working spaces have been successfully launched in Milan. Overall, the rise of an entrepreneurial culture is noticeable especially amongst the many graduates in communication, design and architecture, who were previously more likely to look for corporate jobs. Yet, it seems that the efforts of the Milan city council to help develop an entrepreneurial ecosystem is still insufficient for independent fashion designers. One reason being the high cost of setting up a company in Italy. We have even come across something of an exodus from Milan to Berlin by young people in a bid to learn about start-ups in fashion and emulate this model, also thanks to the more established welfare-to-work routes available in Germany and accessible for Italians for the reason of EU membership. (This has given rise to some alarm and consternation reported in the Berlin press with the Italian embassy agreeing to undertake a review and undertaking a plan to regularise what may be seen as part of the ‘informal economy’). In general, interviewees expressed admiration for foreign entrepreneurial and cultural scene, and some of them looked forward to the opportunity of establish their business abroad. ‘The dream would be to sell our things in Brick Lane’ said two jewellery designers from Milan.

So, what do we find when we talk to and interview young Italians who have set up by themselves and how do they protect their designs form copyright theft especially in times of online business and marketing? Carolina undertook the 10 interviews in Italian and what she found can be summarised as follows:

a)

A real sense of uplift and enthusiasm on discovering this as a possible pathway to a working life and career when so many doors seem to remain shut. Most of the interviewees stress the escape from being in a state of depression to suddenly feeling excited about what they are doing. In all the interviews, with males as well as females, there is a strong emphasis on the emotional toll of being rejected with so many job applications. So the sheer euphoria of being able to ‘do something’ within the creative world has to be seen in this light.  Work is seen as an intimate part of personal identity. Without it there is only a feeling of failure. The idea of a start-up solves this problem both personally and socially as now one is once again a ‘somebody’. It is also clear here that finding a way of making a living is understood in emotional terms. Two young women had studied architecture and then found their way into making and selling fashion jewellery pieces. One  said ‘we were both depressed. Now we are learning how to be entrepreneurs. But the point is we are happy’. Another twosome tried first with a collection then moved to wedding dresses. The designer described his start-up moment ‘ I had an internship but I was shocked because there were so many lay offs and I used to see employees praying not to lose their job. I thought if I need to pray , then I want to pray for my own job, my own company’. One young designer with a PhD in marketing could only find call centre jobs, so she too launched on Etsy just making a few items with a friend modelling what she made for the Etsy site. She then started to study fashion design using online courses and YouTube and said ‘And so here I am! I just design and sew in my room . I do everything myself and this is it’. And another set of design partners  who made T shirts using a specialist fibre rounded up this sense of relief and achievement in adverse economic circumstances. One said ‘ Every day we wake up and ask ourselves what are we doing? But in the end we know it is the passion, the will of doing something that is ours’.

b)

Happiness and satisfaction are rooted in the feeling of expressing the self, and do not necessarily relate to economic success. In fact, most of the interviewees were facing financial difficulties and could not foresee how long they will stay in the business. A duo of female designers admitted: ‘as a start up we don’t have any benefit… we have to do a budget plan each week!’. And a woman who left a promising career in a big firm to set up her own fashion brand remarked: ‘The main obstacle is to find a market… a continuity… shops get big brands and then they buy only a few items from independents….’.Yet, the sense of personal fulfilment derived from running one’s own company seems to compensate for the financial difficulties and the long working hours. One interviewee explained: ‘I work the long hours, sometimes even until midnight, and I don’t even realise it, I am not tired, because I work for my self. I am free and autonomous’.

c)

For many young fashion designers running their own company is perceived as a way to have a positive impact on society. Most interviewees were keen to actualise their ethical values through their business. They demonstrated a sense of dissatisfaction for the way the fashion industry works and were willing to ‘do things differently’. A woman in her early thirties who designs knitwear and accessories claimed: ‘I try to do fashion in another way. In the industry nowadays the point is to design collections that then become obsolete after a season…This cannot be sustainable!’. Sustainability seems to be an important value for the new generation of fashion designers. A young woman who designs modular bags and produces all her collection in Italy made the same point: ‘I think there is a new tendency in the culture of fashion now, the whole idea of fast fashion has become a nonsense nowadays… I think things are changing, I feel part of a bigger movements of like minded independent fashion designers’. Overall, interviewees showed a particular interest for ethical issues regarding production, distribution and consumption in fashion, and consider their entrepreneurial status as an opportunity to do things in a way that reflect their values.

d)

So what about worries of copying and theft of IP. Carolina asked each one of the respondents about this issue. In fact their answers reflected almost exactly the comments from the interviewees in both London and Berlin. There is a mix of annoyance when it happens and at the same time recognition that, after all, it goes on in fashion all the time and that in many respects it is a ‘homage’. In both Milan and Berlin (less so in London) we found designers working in this kind of micro-economy realising that sometimes they were being copied in fact by their friends in the same cultural ‘scene’. This seemed to happen in informal ways often through sharing advice and information online and face to face. And so although there was indignation this was offset by a sense of self-belief in personal creativity and the need to work even harder to get the label more widely established. If we dig beneath the surface we also uncover a sense in which the sheer effort to establish a small business means that fear of being copied is just one of so many things to consider, where what is uppermost is cash-flow, sales and seeing the possibility of developing a brand. This idea of brand awareness took precedence across the sample of the ten Milan interviews and it could be understood as the main principle for the micro-enterprises and a way of protecting IP. Designers also saw this as the only way to stay in business and to be in a position to protect their own IP. To sum up the priority and key strategy was seen to lie in brand development as a wide process going well beyond the drawing board. This in itself shows that the designers are informed about their own ‘signature’ and how to protect it, but without that necessarily entailing specific legal awareness about IP and copyright. We conclude then with a collection of comments on these interwoven issues. ‘My creation is the brand, not the single dress….Sometimes you go to a fair and see a dress that looks like yours. But how can you say they have copied? Its your cultural background that makes up your style’…….‘The difference is not in what and how you produce but in the way you communicate it’…….. ‘It’s really annoying but then, there is not much I can do’.

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