How Free is Fashion?

Are intellectual property rights stunting creative processes or are ‘free culture’ radicals just spouting a load of nonsense, asks Louisa McElwee

The concept of cultural freedom, in its abstract sense, is frustratingly difficult to understand. What exactly does it mean? Most culture is certainly free. State museums, galleries and parks are accessible to all with rarely even a nominal fee required. This, however, constitutes the broadest sense of the term. More recently, cultural freedom has been bandied about as a useful term to bolster arguments for the democratic right of every person to freedom of creative expression and free speech, unhindered by questions of ownership or exclusivity rights.

Nowadays, ‘culture’ has come to be used as an umbrella term that shelters a plethora of media including the biggest money-spinner of them all, fashion. Yet exactly how free is fashion today? Is it as accessible to all and sundry as all culture is deemed to be, or has it lost sight of its liberal idealism and morphed into capitalist conglomerate territory? These days, heightened Intellectual Property (IP) laws mean that a variety of intangible assets such as literary, musical or artistic works are subjected to strict copyright laws.

Critics of this system however, argue that this kind of censure or ‘permission culture’ is preventing creative endeavours and are of benefit to owner interests while detrimental to the masses. Yet is this a fair assessment or simply the bitter remonstrations of a disenchanted minority?

A case in point occurred in 2008 when Danish artist Nadia Plesner embarked on her ‘Simple Living’ campaign. Sickened by what she felt was the media’s misguided prioritisation of celebrity news over the Darfur Genocide, Plesner sketched a young starving child holding a simpering small dog in one hand and a Louis Vuitton handbag in the other. The tongue-in-cheek image was Plesner’s way of deriding the materialistic culture that had cropped up everywhere courtesy of Paris Hilton et al, while the real issues such as the mindless murders and pillage in Sudan were kept in the background.

The caricature was printed on to t-shirts and posters and Plesner sold them through her website with 30 per cent of the price, i.e the entire profit, going towards the ‘Divest for Darfur’ charity. As sales started to increase, Plesner attracted attention from the Louis Vuitton headquarters. They felt her satirical representation of the designer bag was too close to home and as such, felt compelled to warn her that if she did not cease production, this was a direct infringement upon their Intellectual Property rights.

Undeterred, Plesner continued selling the image on her website despite the risk of personal financial ruin if the luxury brand should successfully sue. Her story gradually came to worldwide attention after being picked up by liberal-minded blogs. Plesner was positively portrayed as the socially conscious young artist who stubbornly refused to kowtow to the greedy giants of capitalism. “Sometimes recognisable objects are needed to express deeper meanings, and in their new form they become more than the objects themselves, they become art – therefore I stand by my freedom of expression – artistic or otherwise,” said an unapologetic Plesner in a formal statement.

This is the crux of the matter. Would her image have had the impact it had, or gained the notoriety it did, if she had just sketched a non-descript handbag? It is unlikely. Plesner used and abused the Louis Vuitton label as a byword for vulgar materialism. Was she within her constitutional right to do so? Or is this simply the case of a not-so-innocent ambitious endeavour to deliberately provoke the corporations of our age into becoming more socially conscious and morally aware of the impact their consumer-driven business has on the world around them?

While Plesner eventually did stop selling the image, the incident successfully reopened the dialogue on the concept of free culture. Every so-called ‘free’ thing has to be counterbalanced somewhere along the line. Without getting into semantics, nothing in today’s world is entirely free, except perhaps the air we breathe. It can be argued Louis Vuitton and other transglobal brands are as entitled to exercise their rights of possession as others are entitled to question it. There is always going to be a dichotomy between the worlds of corporate materialism and creative liberalism but as there is Yin and Yang, perhaps this is how it is destined to be.


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