From their lurid fetishisation of the female corpse to one of the most notorious instances of cultural appropriation in high fashion history, namely, the Spring 2017 show’s ‘dreadlocks controversy’, Marc Jacobs’ continuous self-sabotage begs questioning. Why does one of the world’s most iconic and esteemed fashion houses continue to commit such faux pas? Having emerged relatively unscathed from both affairs, it was thought that their positive reception at New York Fashion Week might just have secured their auspicious comeback into the world of fashion. Alas, and quite predictably, ignorance has again failed them, and an ongoing legal battle with designer Katie Thierjung for Marc Jacobs’ alleged copyright infringement has once again left the brand teetering on the precipice.
Marc Jacobs is yet to face designer Katie Thierjung and two private companies, who, having taken to social media to publicly ‘out’ the brand for plagiarising their designs, have now filed a joint complaint with the Southern District of New York. They allege, “[the] Resort 2017 collection was not original: a number of the featured pins and patches were flagrant, unlawful copies of Plaintiffs’ popular original pins and patches.” The maison’s piracy comprised images of a pink-and-white parrot, a highball glass with a paper umbrella and lemon wedge, and a colorful margarita glass – all used without the designers’ permission, and appearing on clothes and bags as well as being sold individually.
Yet, these imitations should come as no surprise, since history has shown Marc Jacobs to be no stranger to plagiarism. In 2008 the brand was discovered to have copied a scarf design of Swedish designer Gösta Olofsson from the 1950s. This was a matter withdrawn from the public eye after a monetary settlement of an undisclosed sum was made towards the designer’s son. Whether buying silence with settlements is the choice remedy on this occasion remains to be seen, but what is certain is that Marc Jacobs’ credibility is hanging in the balance.
Few designers have possessed Marc Jacobs’ messianic power, so it would not be unjust to say that a fashion house as ubiquitous as theirs should know better than to normalise design plagiarism, a practice which assaults artistic authenticity. After all, this is a notion at the very heart of fashion. Plagiarism is fast becoming a problem endemic to the industry on two levels: intra-fashion house instances of plagiarism, think Balmain’s infamous rehash of a white suit from a 1997 Givenchy couture collection. Secondly, the more insidious practice of leading fashion giants ripping off the designs of smaller, independent designers, such was the case when Gucci was accused of using the aesthetic of a Central Saint Martin student’s work in their AW17 collection, and such is the case with Marc Jacobs now. It is this second strain of plagiarism, however, that is the more detrimental to the future of fashion, preventing lesser-known, smaller-scale designers from being brought into the fore. Incidentally is the delicious irony, of course, of Marc Jacobs’ most recent collaboration with one of his real-life bootleggers – their first fruit being a Marc Jacobes bootleg hoodie – marking a new trend giving bootleggers the carte blanche in return for a share of the profit.
It is difficult to reconcile the concepts of Marc Jacobs with feminism, too, when harking back to that Spring 2014 campaign. Whilst a beautiful, yet seemingly lifeless model poses dead next to her two ashen contemporaries in front of a dimly-lit backdrop, Marc Jacobs’ hyper-glamorisation of the female corpse – the apotheosis of female passivity – calls into question whether the brand really has a place in progressive fashion. As a brand that has prided itself on its preppy, street-sleek creations, this bizarre foray into dead-chic territory might just have cost the brand the some of its target market.
Compounding this is the flagrant cultural appropriation that accompanied Marc Jacobs’ Spring 2017 prêt-à-porter collection show, using predominantly white models sporting dreadlock wigs, which was met with a half-baked apology one whole year later after coming under fire. Prior to that, the namesake had stated, ‘funny how you don’t criticise women of colour for straightening their hair’. Although the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation is a fine one, the cultural insensitivity evidenced by the brand casts doubt upon their integrity and is clearly out of step with the way the industry should be evolving.
Although the label has seen an unprecedented instability over the past couple of years – reflected in a reshuffle somewhat akin to musical chairs – with Suhl’s exit and his replacement by Marechalle, the brand cannot be absolved from blame so readily for such fundamental errors of judgment. Having once been bestowed with a coveted spot in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, there is only so far that Marc Jacobs’ laurels can stretch. If the brand is to avoid being upstaged by its rivals, then much, much more is needed than a quick shake-up in the atelier: a step away from appropriation, in all its forms, and the objectification of the female body, along with an ideological shift, is prerequisite.