Another foreign retailer has landed itself in hot water on South African soil last week. Twitter blew up when a post on social media raised eyebrows and fuelled outrage as it showed a range of socks being sold at Zara with a pattern allegedly similar to that which local luxury brand MaXhosa by Laduma has come to be known for.

 

Zara made its mark in the world of mass-market retail by revolutionising the timeline of its supply chain to ensure consumers get access to the latest trend more quickly. As a result, they report near-constant growth in each fiscal quarter, something to envy in a time when everyone keeps saying that nobody shops at the mall anymore. The Spanish retailer is known for more sophisticated designs and higher quality clothing than its rivals, such as H&M, Topshop and NastyGal. When Zara opened in South Africa, consumers flocked to get their hands on the latest offerings. Unlike local retailers, Zara gives consumers looks that could rival their favourite fashion influencer’s most liked Instagram post, at a relatively accessible price (depending on the market segment).

But Zara’s journey hasn’t been a quiet one. It has picked up a few lawsuits along the way during its meteoric rise to global retail powerhouse. It has a long and documented history of being sued by indie artists for allegedly ripping off their designs. These include fashion designers, graphic designers and illustrators who have one day woken up surprised to see something similar to work they have shared online on the racks of their nearest Zara outlet.

Laduma, on the other hand, is South Africa’s latest luxury fashion golden boy. His brand is built on locally manufactured knit patterns inspired by those seen on traditional Xhosa garb. He, too, has enjoyed a meteoric rise to his current seat at the top since winning the Africa Fashion International Emerging Designer of the Year Award in 2014. Since then, Laduma has enjoyed international acclaim unlike any other local brand has experienced in recent years. He’s showed at fashion weeks from Kampala to Moscow, has won an award from Vogue Italia and has been featured in publications the world over. MaXhosa by Laduma also currently stocks stores and boutiques in the UK, USA and Japan. Oh, and who could forget that moment he was spotlighted on Beyonce’s blog? Basically, Laduma is not a small brand. He is a highly successful, independent African designer on a trajectory like no other, doing something completely unique to non-South Africans and South Africans alike.

There is no plan B.

A post shared by Laduma Ngxokolo (@laduma) on

So, where do these two meet? For the longest time, the worlds of luxury fashion and mass retail have been at odds. Consumers want the latest trends by luxury designers but cannot afford luxury designer price tags. In recent years, retailers have been overwhelmed with the constant demand for the latest it items from their consumers. Their inability to satisfy this demand is what lead to the gap in the market that Zara has filled. But, in order to fill it, Zara has to dance on that thin line between inspiration and theft.

It is very hard – actually much rarer than you’d think – for a clothing item of any kind to be protected by law from being in part recreated. Under the Copy Right Act of South Africa, anything you create is subject to be protected by law but there is little clarity in how this applies to clothing items that are similar and not exact copies, like bootleg sneakers. Designers are running with the logo-mania trend partly because the easiest way to protect your designs is if they feature your company’s trademarked logo.

Usually, the guaranteed way is to patent the technique used to create that item. So, for instance, you can patent a dyeing technique or a weaving technique, but can’t cry wolf based solely on how clothing looks. This is due to the fact that, on a surface level, there is very little originality left in terms of clothing. Fashion designers from around the world borrow from everything around them, including each other. Sometimes it’s appreciation and others it is appropriation, but the fact that it is not an “original” idea makes it a tricky lawsuit to win.

The socks in question are undoubtedly similar, meaning they could be seen as appreciation rather than stealing. The print/knit pattern on the Zara socks is on a smaller scale than those of MaXhosa, and the colours can be explained as a palette that has been trending in African fashion and certain foreign subcultures Zara may be targeting (ironically in part due to the influence of local designers).

Also, this is not an original, hand-drawn illustration. The pattern itself is derivative of the signature diced knit pattern (or an argyle pattern) known the world over to be a staple in menswear – which is part of its retail appeal. Then we need to consider the method. Maxhosa knits are produced in Port Elizabeth by local weavers using a specific method, which Zara apparently did not use in production of its socks. See? Tricky.

Laduma has every right to fight in court for what he believes has been stolen from him by a retailer notorious for not having the most original design team, but this may become a case better left to be a victim of the fashion cycle.

According to Times Live, Zara’s holding company Inditex provided the following statement; ‘Inditex, the parent company of Zara, has the utmost respect for individual creativity and takes all claims concerning third party intellectual property rights very seriously. As a preventive action, the process to immediately remove this item both from stores and online was activated at the moment this situation was brought to our attention.’

By Tshego Felicia ‘Red’ Mosiane

@red_mos