Chinese Design Student Accuses Viktor & Rolf of Copying His Work

A Chinese fashion student has accused fashion brand Viktor & Rolf, which debuted its 2017 Autumn/Winter Haute Couture collection in Paris last week, of copying his designs.

Zhou Tong (Terrence, in English), who studies at the Parsons School of Design in New York, took to Instagram on July 7 to make his claim. He posted images of his designs, which included a series of action figures, side-by-side with images from Viktor & Rolf’s latest collection. He demanded that the brand give him credit for using his ideas.

In the above Instagram post, Zhou wrote that Viktor & Rolf took his ideas when he applied for an internship and submitted a design portfolio named “Plastic Surgery” around two months ago. The whole design is viewable on Zhou’s personal website.

According to the description on the website, the”Plastic Surgery” series was completed in collaboration with the illustrator Lizzy Shin, who graduated from Parsons. During the design process, they took inspiration from a number of artists including the renowned Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero.

According to design experts interviewed by Chinese fashion site Ladymax, there is some level of similarity between the designs of the student and those of the fashion brand. First off, they both used special materials to make the action figures; and secondly, the fluffy outfits worn by the dolls were both made from light-filled cotton.

On its official website, the brand published a statement claiming that the outfits of the action figures were “inspired by a stereotypical and rebellious winter look, consist[ing] of a bomber jacket, jeans and a t-shirt styled with a mix of iconic Dr. Martens and custom Viktor & Rolf slippers.” 

Zhou’s accusation has sparked discussions China’s social media platforms. Many commenters echoed his sentiment saying it’s not easy for young designers to fully protect their intellectual rights in today’s fashion industry.

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Many people praised Zhou’s courage in speaking up for his rights this time even though in a creative industry like fashion and design, the line between “copying” and “borrowing” is usually blurred. It has become quite common for brands—including big names such as Chanel, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana—to have similar accusations hurled at them.

Image via Weibo user (handle: thesnobeffect). Zhou Tong's design (Left), V&R 2016 Collection (Right)

Image via Weibo user (handle: thesnobeffect). Zhou Tong’s design (Left), V&R 2016 Collection (Right)

Regarding Zhou’s case, however, there are also some online commenters who take the opposing view. For example, a post shared by Fashion Model, a verified Weibo fashion blogger with nearly three million followers, said that the design presented by Zhou in his Instagram post directly copied (from the idea, to the crafting and cutting) a design from Viktor & Rolf’s 2016 Autumn/Winter collection. This blogger also said his “Plastic Surgery” collection was clearly inspired by the theme of the Commes des Garcons 2016 Autumn/Winter collection.

The post further explained that Viktor & Rolf’s action figures looked more similar to the costume designs in the film Frank, which was released in 2014, than to the collection. Thus, there is not enough evidence presented by Zhou to call the similarities plagiarism.

Julie Zerbo, the legal expert and editor-in-chief of the Fashion Law, holds the same view on the issue.

“For Mr. Zhou, the oversized heads that appeared on the Viktor & Rolf runway are not ‘substantially similar to his’ in terms of their specific creative elements,” she told Jing Daily over email, “and so, he almost certainly does not have a valid copyright infringement claim.”

In today’s fashion industry, Zerbo said it was impossible to protect ideas under the umbrella of copyright law. And even if Zhou could prove that Viktor & Rolf had copied the heads exactly, he could ask for protection, but it wouldn’t come cheap.

“Having said that,” she added, “fashion is an industry that relies very heavily on inspiration because so much has already been done.”

Jing Daily has reached out to Viktor & Rolf for a comment on the issue, but had not heard back by time of publication.

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