On a Friday in March, Abigail Glaum-Lathbury was making her way through the Gucci store on Fifth Avenue, browsing items from a collaboration with Balenciaga called the Hacker Project. The collection was conceptual, a way of exploring the ideas of originality and authenticity in the fashion industry. There were bags whose interlocking Gs had been replaced with back-to-back Bs and jackets on which “Gucci” had been printed in Balenciaga’s house font — codes that, in their countless reinterpretations, have remained some of the clearest and most coveted markers of luxury.
Ms. Glaum-Lathbury picked up a Balenciaga-purple stretch top emblazoned with Gucci’s trademark green-and-red stripes. Its $2,700 price tag suggested quality and craftsmanship: fine fabrics, perfect seams, hand-embroidered details. But the shirt was made from polyester; the stripes, Ms. Glaum-Lathbury noted, had been digitally printed on the bias of the fabric. It looked a bit like a counterfeit, which was the whole point: The designers were trying to make consumers think about value.
A sales clerk approached her and asked: “Do you make clothes?” Designers, he said, are the only people who look so closely at the garments in the store. “No one inspects the stitching,” he said.
Ms. Glaum-Lathbury, 38, is a clothing designer, though her own small and short-lived label folded nearly a decade ago. Now she is an associate professor of fashion design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and occupies her off hours with personal and conceptual projects examining the qualities that make a garment desirable.
“One of many, many things that I love about clothing is that it is inherently social,” she said. An earlier project she worked on, a utilitarian jumpsuit available in more than 200 sizes, was created to inspire discussions about the quality of disposable, ill-fitting fast fashion; another, which laid out plans for a “community-supported underwear” collective, was meant to spark conversations about ethical and sustainable production.
Neither of those grabbed the attention of big fashion brands, but she hopes her newest one will. Called the Genuine Unauthorized Clothing Clone Institute, it revolves around what Ms. Glaum-Lathbury has termed “clothing clones”: garments whose patterns are made from mirror selfies she has taken in luxury fitting rooms. Back in her studio, she edits every image to blur any trademarks or copyright-protected patterns — the signature Gs, for instance — and crops it to isolate the garment’s outline. Then she prints the image onto fabric, creating a pattern for a new piece of clothing.
Though the project’s initials may spell “GUCCI,” Ms. Glaum-Lathbury has taken selfies wearing several designer brands, including Marc Jacobs, Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana. (A legal document drafted during the development of her project also nods to a fashion house in its title, the Policy Regarding the Assessment of Design Accents, Adornments & Attributes, or PRADAAA.)
The items are not for sale, but patterns are free to download from the project’s website, as are video instructions for constructing each garment. And though Ms. Glaum-Lathbury does wear the pieces out in the world, she is less interested in their functionality than how they represent “the overlap of process, history and legality.”
Threading the Needle of Fashion Law
About six years ago, when Ms. Glaum-Lathbury first started photographing herself in fitting rooms, Gucci had recently filed a trademark lawsuit against Forever 21; a bomber jacket sold by the fast fashion company featured stripe webbing at its collar and hems that looked similar to the kind Gucci trademarked in 1988. It was the quintessential luxury lawsuit, aimed at a company that had cheapened one of the house’s most valuable assets: its intellectual property. (Gucci won.)
The case inspired Ms. Glaum-Lathbury to thread legal commentary through every aspect of the Genuine Unauthorized project, including the design of the garments and the website that they’re displayed on, which is also meant to parody the Gucci website. She consulted extensively with a team of legal students headed by Amanda Levendowski, the founding director of Georgetown University’s Intellectual Property and Information Policy Clinic, to ensure that the Genuine Unauthorized project wouldn’t violate the boundaries of trademark and copyright law.
Immersing herself in fashion law has informed the way she talks to her students about the industry they may soon enter. She plans to use Genuine Unauthorized as the basis for a book and a lecture series. But for the time being, she’s focused on the artistic side.
Ms. Glaum-Lathbury pins selfies in various outfits on the whiteboard in her Chicago art studio: a Louis Vuitton coat, a Dolce & Gabbana dress, a Balenciaga sweater, a Louis Vuitton T-shirt and a Balenciaga shirtdress. Each becomes something unrecognizable through her process: a dress within a dress, suited perhaps for a cartoon villain, or separates digitally fused into a balloon-like jumpsuit.
The actual silhouettes of designer garments aren’t legally protected from knockoffs, according to Alexandra Roberts, a professor at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law, but the prints, logos and patterns incorporating logos are.
“That’s kind of the punchline of trademark law,” Ms. Roberts said. “So often what people are paying for is just the name.”
With her focus on trademarks, Ms. Glaum-Lathbury follows a long line of designers whose work has challenged prevailing ideas about originality, brand value and desire.
In the 1980s, a tailor named Daniel Day screen-printed fashion-house logos onto streetwear silhouettes in his Harlem boutique; though the practice got his business shut down a decade later after lawyers representing the brand came knocking, Dapper Dan, as he’s known, has since been embraced by Gucci.
Virgil Abloh, another streetwear champion, often said that an existing garment need only be altered by 3 percent to be considered new. While he agitated against exclusivity in the luxury realm, he also rose to great heights at LVMH before his death in December.
Even the fashion houses themselves have engaged with these questions, brokering collaborations with brands outside of the luxury realm.
“I don’t think that there is a one size fits all approach to questioning or intervening in the many issues that plague the fashion industry or that this work happens in only one way,” Ms. Glaum-Lathbury explained.
Her work, in some ways, resembles that of MSCHF, a creative collective in Brooklyn, whose trollish product releases seem designed to aggravate coveted brands like Nike and Hermès. But while her creations are not available for purchase, theirs are.
Gucci occupies an outsize position within the Genuine Unauthorized project for the same reason Nike stands out to MSCHF. It’s “one of the most visible luxury brands,” as Ms. Glaum-Lathbury explained. According to the brand valuation consultancy Brand Finance, Gucci is currently the third most valuable apparel brand in the world, right behind Nike and Louis Vuitton. (Gucci did not respond to a request for comment.)
Eric Spangenberg, a professor of marketing and psychological science at the University of California, Irvine, said that in the luxury market, “people are paying for the experience of acquisition” — the exclusivity of the shop, the customer service and, ultimately, the “status” associated with a brand. In an era of extensive collaborations and realistic replicas, that status can be found in many places.
After surveying the inventory at the Gucci store, Ms. Glaum-Lathbury headed down to Canal Street to peruse the knockoffs being hawked to tourists — people who longed for the status conferred by a Gucci handbag, or at least a convincing facsimile.
She picked up a copy of Gucci’s classic beige Ophidia tote and immediately spotted the difference in quality. It wasn’t made of genuine leather, and the stitching was far shoddier. But the logos were indistinguishable from the original.
Beige wasn’t her style, but a dupe of a blue Prada City Calf tote called out to her. “I’m into it,” she said, then bought the bag.