Is Gavin Rajah’s latest creation a shameless rip-off or a fluke?

“Our creativity doesn’t come from within, it comes from without. We are not self-made. We are dependent on one other. Admitting this to ourselves is not an embrace of mediocrity or derivativeness, it’s a liberation from our misconceptions,” says Kirby Ferguson, the filmmaker behind the “Everything is a Remix” video series in a TED talk about the appropriation of ideas.

Ferguson resolutely declares that nothing, in these times, is original. Everything is simply a new or different take on something that already exists.

I am reminded of this talk as I ponder the latest copycat scandal surrounding designer Gavin Rajah.

Depending on where you sit on this, Rajah is either innocently accused or guilty of stealing another designer’s idea, making a dress that is strikingly similar to designer Han Chong of Self Portrait’s earlier creation.

Chong’s blue and grey collared broderie anglaise dress with mesh panels was first seen last year worn by Hollywood actress Reese Witherspoon. Rajah’s version debuted at the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Jo’burg a fortnight ago.

Asked for comment Rajah told City Press that allegations that he is a copycat designer were “old news. Have a party with it.”

Line between inspiration and imitation
It isn’t the first time Rajah had been at the centre of a plagiarism controversy. Just last year he was accused of stealing a Zuhair Murad design.

“Fashion is driven by imitation versus differentiation. That’s why we understand the concept of fast fashion, but there’s a fine line between inspiration and imitation,” says trends analyst Nicola Cooper. “We’ve seen how Suzaan Heyns, for instance, takes inspiration from the likes of Alexander McQueen and Dolce & Gabbana but she doesn’t rip them off. You can see the inspiration yet her work is still quintessentially Suzaan Heyns.”

Cooper adds that, in general, we can’t be too precious about design but direct imitation is a different story altogether. “Trend wise, we know that people want something distinct. In terms of fashion I think we are all looking for authenticity and in the South African context, something with a local stamp.”

In the Rajah case specifically, Cooper says what has occurred has some serious ramifications for the fashion industry at large.

“It is often understandable when something like this is a rookie mistake or even a once-off mistake, but this is not the first time and that makes it a repeat offence. You begin to see a pattern emerging and I think it is not only damaging to his own reputation but that of the entire South African industry because (he) is a name that represents us on the global stage. This is why this is concerning.”

Dearth of criticism in fashion
Over the past few years, there have been several examples of plagiarism in the local fashion industry – from fashion editorials to advertising campaigns. In 2011, True Love magazine produced a main fashion editorial that was undeniably an imitation of Vogue creative director Grace Coddington’s 2010 “Brief Encounters” shoot featuring American rap artist P. Diddy.

Recently a Zoom advertisement made rounds on social media because of its striking resemblance to a Lanvin campaign. In 2012, Stoned Cherrie and Thula Sindi were in the news over a skirt design that both claimed as their own. It leaves one wondering whether those behind this kind of thing have any regard for the intelligence of their audience or consumers, let alone their colleagues who often work hard to create work that is unique and innovative.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing can only find root in an industry where criticism is almost nonexistent. Fashion editors, bloggers, journalists, you name it; people are more concerned with securing an invitation to the next event rather than speaking out against transgressions that can be detrimental to the image of our fashion industry.

Plagiarism’s not acceptable
This, too, Cooper says, is a concern. “Criticism doesn’t have to be nasty. It can simply be constructive. We should be able to be critical and that doesn’t mean the same thing as annihilating,” she says.

Asked for comment, African Fashion International (AFI), whose fashion week platforms Gavin Rajah is associated with, said it hadn’t yet had the opportunity to verify the validity of the allegations against the veteran designer and were not in a position to comment.

This doesn’t mean plagiarism is acceptable, according to AFI’s chief executive Sizwe Nzimande. “Plagiarism is counterproductive to the success of the industry. It is a practice that undermines the creative spirit on which the industry is built, robbing designers of the accolades and recognition they so rightfully deserve. It also often deprives designers of the commercial success that should be attained for their creative genius. The theft of fashion design intellectual property, be it on the runway or through counterfeit product, is something that AFI and the fashion industry at large must work to eradicate.”

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