Russ Roberts

Blakley on Fashion and Intellectual Property

EconTalk Episode with Johanna Blakley
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Johanna Blakley of the University of Southern California talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the fashion industry and the role of intellectual property. In the fashion industry there is limited protection for innovative designs and as a result, copying is rampant. Despite the ease of copying, innovation is quite strong in the industry and there is a great deal of competition. Topics discussed include the role of the street in generating new designs, the role of fashion in our lives, and whether the host of EconTalk has any hope of being fashionable. The conversation concludes with a discussion of the Grand Intervention, an urban park design competition, and the potential of Second Life for studying social trends.

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0:36Intro. [Recording date: June 8, 2010.] Student and expert on culture and fashion. Talk at TED.com. Start with fashion. Fascinating world, especially to those of us on the outside. Nobody's on the outside. Everything you wear makes a statement. Russ: Beauty of this show is you can't see just how frumpy I am. Start with the higher-brow topic: intellectual property in the fashion world. What is protected in the fashion world via the law and legislation, and what is not? Blakely: The main protection fashion designers have is over their trademark: their logo, their name. Source is protected; that's why you hear about raids on pirates, who have made copies of Louis Vuitton bags, Canal St. in New York (NYC), Santee Alley in Los Angeles (LA). Have control of their name; have copyright protection of all the two-dimensional designs that go into the production of a garment. Textile design with a certain pattern--automatically qualify for copyright protection of that design. What they don't own are any of the three-dimensional designs they end up creating. The stuff you see prancing out on a runway are actually up for grabs. Anybody can copy any aspects of any of those designs and get into no trouble with the law. Those designs are not particularly utilitarian--a word that comes up a lot in this industry--utilitarian stuff tends not to be protected legally. Something has to be considered a work of art in order to be considered for copyright protection. The courts decided long ago that they did not want any fashion designers owning such utilitarian designs as shirts, blouses, pants, belts, lapels. Don't want somebody owning a monopoly--basically what a copyright gives you. If I'm at the runway in Milan and I see a design I like and I'm a medium-to-high end retailer, versions of those non-utilitarian clothes get translated into garments that are worn by everyday people, correct? Yes, and the courts would say that any fashion design, no matter how non-utilitarian it may seem, does not qualify for copyright protection. The only way it would qualify is if there were some detachable piece from that outfit. The rare example would be like a belt-buckle--a sculptural item that you could remove and hang on the wall and regard as a piece of art. Thinking about how the industry works and the dynamics of it. When there's a new look or a new color or a new style that becomes "fashionable"--not talking about the length of a skirt, but a new look, layered hot new style. You know something about fashion! Just pulling your leg. Interested in how it cascades down the retail chain. You'll see a version of that at a high end store, but you'll also see a version possibly at The Gap, or at Target even. Agree except for the suggestion that it's entirely a top-down business where things cascade down from above and land in the lowest level retailers. More complicated than that. If you talk to any of the high-end designers, always say they are powerfully influenced by the stuff people are wearing on the street. They want to see how people are mixing and matching and then they are moved to ask on that. Figure out what the zeitgeist is by looking at consumers. Then they create their next fashion show, their next collection; the ideas that really resonate with people--not only other designers but also consumers and fans--those designs get picked up and copied immediately. Fast fashion giants--stores like H&M, TopShop, even Forever 21 which most people despise because they don't do anything creative with their knock-offs--ricochet off these new ideas. People understand that pink is the new hot color, that hemlines have moved above the knee, layered look sexy thing. The magic, the reason behind it is that people are allowed to copy--without talking to lawyers to get permission to copy those designs.
7:46Top-down, bottom-up. In The Devil Wears Prada, there is a scene where Meryl Streep lets the audience in on a secret: that a few people determine and steer what's the hot color and style this year. You are saying, 1., that this is not true in general, and 2., that it comes from a very large group of people, mainly in large metropolitan areas where the people are relatively hip. Is that true? Do people spend their time walking the streets of NYC, Paris, Milan? Absolutely; and they have their cool-hunters. Lots of different types of fashion designers. Some come up with ideas that have an artistic sense, ideas that seem to emerge fully formed from their minds. People like Alexander McQueen who just killed himself tragically was one of these designers. Then there are designers like Tom Ford who revolutionized Gucci, dragged it up by its bootstraps and turned it into a global brand, because he was really good at tapping into the markets and figuring out what people really like these days and what looks fresh and new. Not a monolithic industry in terms of its creative cycles and types. Bizarre interplay. Because it has so much to do with people and who they are at a very utilitarian street level, is one reason that "the street" is over and over again mentioned as part of the design process, even at the highest levels. Not talking about a painting that hangs in a museum, though there are fashion designs that hang in museums--Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art--talking about stuff you get to use. A lot of sociologists have looked at how it is that fashion catches on, how it is that people articulate their identities through fashion. Global human movement.
10:24Trend issue, mentioned in TED talk. Tension between wanting the newest thing but not wanting to be out on a limb wearing something that looks goofy. Everyone wants the newest thing, but also the right thing. Some sociologists call this "flocking" and "differentiation." People want to demonstrate via their apparel that they understand what is in--what is acceptable--to wear; and they also want to articulate what is individual and unique about their own identity, taste, and aesthetic. So most people try to work that sort of gray area. How does that process actually work in the design world? There must be a lot of failure, some stuff that is rejected. Absolutely. That's one reason it remains a refreshing, creating industry--you cannot guarantee that even the most powerful players are going to be on top of the fashion heap next season. Three months later they could lose their footing, and somebody else can take their spot. Reveals that we don't have a strictly hierarchical industry here--we have one that falters and fumbles. One reason the entire industry remains financially stable--and it has been hurt in the recent financial crisis like every industry--is they have remained flexible, supple, partly because they are able to latch onto trends. They can figure out quickly, especially now that we have these fashion giants disseminating merchandise quickly, which designs will be unsuccessful. Those fast fashion giants were preceded by some pretty-fast fashion giants. In the 1980s, especially when global production started to become more important, the fashion industry got good at moving quickly--saving on inventory costs, doing more just-in-time. Must have been a big factor on how fast trends turn over. Assume that in the 1950s, and the 1920s, trends persisted for longer because it would be very expensive to get on top of the next trend and be wrong. Now you can do it much more cheaply, so mistakes are less expensive. Not an economist, but believe that has to be the case. A lot has to do with digital technology--we can transmit this information about these new designs so quickly and geography not so much of a problem. Tell a story in your TED talk about a designer in a thrift shop who finds a jacket in a thrift shop that she is going to replicate--presumably one that is not being manufactured any more--a vintage shop. Fancy way of saying a thrift shop. Very different! One cool, one not. The replication of a design is also easier because of digitization. We are not at the point where we have 3-D printers where we can generate a mockup of an original fashion design just by a printer. But there is very sophisticated technology in China, where somebody can send photos of a garment from different angles and the pattern can be automatically generated. Can start manufacturing prototypes very quickly. The process is still very fuzzy; sometimes the computer turns out a design that is fundamentally different in one way or another from the photographed design. They roll with it: this is a variation on the trend, part of the differentiation and flocking process.
15:30Incentives. Standard view would be: If I think my design is going to be copied, and copied quickly--which is what has happened to some extent because the copying ability better and the speed faster--then you'd think people would have less incentive to create new and better designs. That does not seem to be the case in the fashion industry. Why? Several reasons. One, from the beginning, copyright has both given artists an advantage and also taken something away. What it takes away from creators is access to other creative designs. Copyright holders may own what they have, but they cannot sample freely from others around them. Huge problem in the film and music industry. The fashion industry doesn't suffer from this problem because every design that has ever been made is within a type of public domain. It is the raw material they can sample from to make their new work. Rich archive. The history of fashion, every hem length, every curved seam, every style is available to sample from. Not just stealing--sort of a curatorial responsibility. They are curating. Different gestures, different design elements from the past. Inevitably creating something new. From Miuccia Prada, making an exact copy of a previous design--not making a new design but integrating it into an historical moment; speaks to the rest of her collection. Huge advantage of not being restricted by copyright protection. One of the challenges economists, lawyers, and others have is there is the morality that weighs on us, and then there is the practical issue. Distinction. A lot of fights going on right now in music and film. Imitation: A creative musician creates a new style of music. Imitated by every young player, trying to do it better, faster, more clever, different kind of lyric. When you go back into the past and quote a style of music, it has a resonance that can't be described--part of the human experience, mix of nostalgia and interaction with the present. Might make a distinction between that and replication. Replication: if you take a song that someone else has written, you can't copyright the scale, the notes, the combination of notes. The courts are going to decide whether George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" is really the same song as "He's So Fine." They sound a lot alike. At one extreme, we understand that rock music can't be copyrighted; and at the other extreme, we understand that you can't take my words and my tune and just record it yourself under current law. In the fashion world, in some sense you can do both--can have a puppy sleeve or a set of pleats or a wide lapel, and can even make the exact same width and material lapel. In the fashion world, even though both replication and imitation are allowed, it seems to work out pretty well. People are creeped out--at least some people--that that might be possible in other worlds. Could be that they are not used to it, or that it is not the same. Talk about how it works in fashion. Why is it that when I generate a new design that it can be literally copied and I'm still going to make money? One, because of trends. People want to flock toward a certain kind of design. If you are making a design, fairly high level designer, and nobody is knocking it off, that means it's probably not going to be trendy. Means you are probably not going to have as high sales on that product. Other reason, unique to the fashion industry, is that there is a very fast cycle of innovation and turnover. What some people have described as induced obsolescence. Once the people who believe themselves to be the avant garde of fashion have succeeded in popularizing it, they have to get off of that trend and on to the next one. Fashion for most of us is an affordable luxury--we can buy new pants, shirts, dresses each season to supplement a core wardrobe we love and that will last us. We can evolve our look. Fabulous thing for the bottom line, especially in an industry that needs to move product.
22:37Longevity at the top: If I asked who are the top 5-10 designers right now, how different would that be from a list five or ten years ago? Very different. Maybe just a couple holdovers. They are still making a living. So much is a matter of taste. Large conference about this topic around 2005, tried to make sure I was not imposing my own aesthetic on this conference: who are the most influential, top designers, throughout the history of design? For every designer at this conference, there are three people on this list. Democratizing feeling to it, to fashion. Taste is a key factor in figuring out quality. Dynamism. Think about the music/fashion parallel or non-parallel. If you are an aspiring designer today, is it a better time to be alive or would you have been better off living in the 1970s? Depends on the kind of clothing you are trying to create. What's good now? Now you have to be somebody who is willing to shock people. Those are the people who will more easily climb to the top. Have to be interested in embracing new technologies, not only in the creation of your fabrics, designs, manufacturing: have to be willing to play within the new economy of fashion, which includes these fast fashion giants. Several of the most haute couture designers have done designs for stores like H&M: successfully copied themselves at a lower price point. Some designers cannot imagine besmirching themselves to bring themselves down to a lowest common denominator. They will have a harder time becoming global movers and shakers. In the 1970s they didn't have to have that persona. They didn't have to create bridge lines for department stores in order to make money. What has changed? The technology; that has driven so much of the changes in this industry and others. The issues around creativity and intellectual property are going to become even more profound when digital technology can be used to create complex 3-dimensional objects. Right now any child can replicate or duplicate an mp3 or video file. That has introduced a kind of chaos into those industries. What's going to happen when you have the technology in your hands to replicate these 3-dimensional products? That is coming down the pike. Now is a good time to better hash out what sorts of property rights make sense for people in a digital age. You mention in your talk that it's too important to leave to the lawyers. Would go further: too important to leave to experts. Not sure what the alternative is except to leave it to customs and norms. Don't know if that will work any better. Research project: survey of artists, to find out from them in what way the intellectual property structures they depend upon help them and hurt them. Good question. Snapshot in time; but these are the people we are depending upon for the fashions of the future; they are also the people we are depending upon for the software solutions we will see in the future. And medicines. We don't just want academic experts who know something about sociological and economic models and legal code. Need to tap in to the people who are trying to make things. The challenge is that we know that existing players often want the status quo: they want to make it harder for others to compete. The real challenge is to figure out what will motivate the next generation of people and what legal environment will provide the best incentives to them. Artists are easier to talk to about this than the people who own the music labels, the production facilities and marketing units in film or television industry. They are often frustrated, do work-for-hire, shut out of the copyright protection. In 1998 these rules were revised, extended an extra 20 years--life of the author plus 70 years, and for works of corporate authorship it's 120 years after creation. Seems like more than enough. People talk about product differentiation as if it is an empty frill. In your talk you mention that tattoo artists generally don't want copyright: if you come up with a really cool tattoo, anybody can copy it. They might feel differently if you could just have the tattoo. Presumably an advantage that a great designer has is the ability to tattoo well, or in the case of the fashion world, the distinctiveness; or the raw materials at a higher end design are going to be better. Steve Meyer podcast, digital music world. Encourages people to provide something extra, not just the mp3. Some people see that as wasteful but it may be the cheapest way to avoid the legal entanglements. Talked about a few aspects of this in the TED talk. In industries with no copyright protection, develop a reputational system that becomes very powerful. The fact that these fashion designers own their name, own their trademark, means that that means to actually indicates something. Signature look, set of designs that coherently fit together. When that gets knocked off, people in the know, know, because they recognize the look. They also use materials that are difficult to copy; sew things in ways that are innovative. A lot of people raved about Coco Chanel because of the fit of her outfits. She didn't mind that people knocked her off because she knew that nobody could make theirs fit as well as hers did. A lot of musicians have a certain timbre of voice that nobody can really copy. Russ: I did see that Coco Chanel movie, so that's two fashion movies for me. There were two. There was a "Coco Before Chanel" and just "Coco."
33:08You can't copyright a joke. Easy to forget the benefits of copying. Morality about it, probably a good thing about theft. Cultural feeling about it is changing. If you are under 25, your feeling may be different about it than when you are over 50. For jokes: heard a comedian, Pete Barbuti, on Johnny Carson, must have been in the 1970s or 1980s. Told a funny joke--may have made it up or may have stolen it. Can't copyright a joke, though the way you tell it may be unique. People tell this joke, about the pig with the wooden leg--shaggy pig joke, very offbeat. Everyone on Johnny Carson show is roaring after Barbuti tells it. And the next night, Carson has a comedian sitting on the couch and he tries to tell the same joke. Fascinating: the joke was so funny, clever, and different that it had rippled through the country. This comedian had heard it. He got about two sentences into it, and Johnny Carson cut him off. Not intellectual property. How many people got to enjoy that joke in that one day that it had gotten so far along that a guy heard it and thought he could tell it on Johnny Carson. Much harder to get away with that now. We aren't necessarily going down a road where everybody's going to copy one another because they can. Treasure trove of recorded humanity we have online. Going to become addicted to it; but also going to feel the pressure to do the new and novel thing. That's what Carson had to do to make sure his show wasn't boring and hackneyed. How much delight there is in the world at so little cost. Accessibility of it, democratization of it is so intense partly because it's cheap. Glorious time to be alive. Tyler Cowen podcast, taste streams. Inspiring that we can pursue our amateur interests so easily now. Grew up in small town, couldn't do that, library wasn't big enough; the four channels on television didn't have what I wanted to know about the world. First time surfing the web in about 1994, 1995, was so excited I wept. So excited that I could visit the Louvre. Online. "It's a Wonderful Life", wonderful movie, romanticizes small town America in a way that's not realistic. People wanted to go to the big city.
38:48Personal questions: you can duck them. Didn't warn you about this; will edit this if it's embarrassing to you. [Note to listeners: there were in fact no edits.--Econlib Ed.] How many hours a week do you spend shopping? Sure it's all research! I go in spurts; mostly shop when I travel. The only shopping I do here in Los Angeles tends to be thrift store shopping. How many pairs of shoes do you have? Probably about 40 pairs. Not many. It's a lot! I'm embarrassed. Ask this question, and 40 isn't close to what a lot of 20 years old report they have. Partly climate--in LA they just won't wear out. Forty is a bit decadent. Do the survey because interested in how wealthy we are. Teaching at George Mason; state school, average student who comes here can still afford lots of shoes. People get confused about demand curves: "Can only wear one pair of shoes at a time." Also: there's a gender difference. There are men with lots of shoes, but on average women have more pairs. In fashion, also talking about women's clothing. Why? Women have more of a value of looking good than men, at least in our culture and western world. If men are concerned about it, people may think they are homosexual. Feminizing aspect to a demonstrated interest in fashion. Some men get it but still send off a very masculizing vibe. Russ: Give me some fashion advice. I have maybe 10 pairs of shoes, dress, casual, maybe 12 pair, probably wear two or three of them 99% of the time. Maybe 3 suits, one I probably don't wear any more; two I wear are probably charcoal gray and navy blue, Brooks Brothers. Blakely: Oh dear. Russ: Maybe 5 sport coats--that's the economist's uniform, a blue blazer. Lost in the sea of fashion. Wife was saying that in general hemlines come down in tough economic times. Probably true--longer skirts are more likely to stay in fashion. Same with a Brooks Brothers or traditional suit. Might look dull, but you won't look like a fool. Not looking like a fool is one of my main goals; same for most professional men. Any advice? There is no blanket advice. No such thing as an optimal wardrobe. There is, but you just need help. Need somebody who is knowledgeable, knows your price point, how hip you want to look, how conservative versus liberal you want to look. Have to come up with a different equation for every single event you go to. You are a performer. You need a personal shopper. A lot of women have a friend they trust--could be a sister. Do you shop with friends? Generally fly solo. Like to get things, travel, buy in places I want to remember. Want to get unique things--Amsterdam, Paris. Assume you check your bags? Usually don't. Travel during the summer, pretty small so can cram a lot of stuff in there. Don't buy shoes--too big, heavy, often too expensive. Trust wife, but don't want to go shopping with my wife, but when I need an outfit, having a salesperson you trusts is a comforting thing for a man like myself who is uneasy with his fashion choices. Long-time boyfriend is not allowed to buy any clothing without me being present. His choice or yours? Both. He realizes that it's painful for him to make an incorrect decision or to buy something I don't like. Some people can pull that off; for others, better to stick with the old reliable. Body type can be a challenge. But there are options out there. Don't you ever watch the Tim Gunn shows, or "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"? No, don't watch much TV.
49:12Totally different project: Grand Intervention. What is that? One of the more unique projects I've worked on here at the Norman Lear Center; been here for 10 years. We had heard that there was going to be a 16-acre park designed for downtown Los Angeles; was supposed to be the Champs Elysees of LA. Millennium Park in Chicago had become a fabulous public space. Collective citizenship action. Disappointed when we found out that the city and county that owned the land had given the design of the park over to a company that had been given a deal on some big parcels of land in an adjacent area. There was going to be no design contest. No robust public debate. Went to friends at LA Times and said they should hold a park design contest, solicit responses from the public: should it be for protest, for community gardens? How can it be mobilized to bring together this crazy patchwork city? LA: joke is there is no downtown; no central feel. This is a part of downtown where there is a new church, and buildings like the Walt Disney Hall; museum, art deco city hall. The LA Times suggested we run the contest and they would publicize it. Held grass roots design contest; couldn't promise that it would be used, but we immediately got the attention of the city and developers in charge. Realized they needed to listen. Received 300 park designs; a lot of graduate courses contributed; international designs; some crazy people; some homeless kids suggested apartment buildings; big hot tub suggested. Where are you at now? Brought together a board of advisers. One member was selected as the Head Park Designer for the park. Published a special Christmas section in the LA Times showcasing a lot of the designs. Held some workshops, invited the public to participate by webcast if they couldn't make it downtown to the charette--architecture term. Bring together a group of people to solve a design problem; at the end they need to have something they offer. Did three of those; now waiting for ground to be broken. Budget for park was minimal; now creating a platform for more installations for the future. Tabula rasa. We have a basic sense of how the park will be pulled together. There is a massive fountain; once it was discovered to be there, people were angry it was being town down; it will be preserved. Have you ever been to Epcot Center? Fountain that responds to music. Bellagio in Las Vegas. One in the hip LA shopping center. Proposals for interactive fountain designs.
56:24Virtue of private property is that if you use it well, you get the benefits; if you use it poorly, you usually bear the loss. Public space, the people who "own" it--who have control over it--usually don't capture the benefits and costs. Don't pull it off. When you get control of it: everyone wants something different. Public markets, dog run, giant ultimate frisbee stadium. How do you make those decisions? Quite the trend in urban park development to make these spaces flexible. Ways in which you could reconfigure the park easily and quickly. If you have a protest, roll out semi-concrete stuff that protects the grass. Basketball court over the hockey rink. Success story in urban park design is Bryant Park in NYC, where the big NY fashion shows take place. Used to be crappy, scary place. Now vibrant urban park. Some people were angry about the way it was being programmed. The fashion shows are not open to the public. I'd kill to get in there. City wanted to use this public space to monetize it. Have farmer's markets there, etc. Some resistance to fashion shows, way to make money to support public programming. The superintendants who are overseeing the LA park model decided to adopt the Bryant Park model. Checks and balances on the people making the decisions. Maybe rotating board, maybe elected. Bryant Park is about 2/3 of a NY block: large lawn ringed by tables and chairs, beautifully landscaped; chess area, ping-pong area, reading area, cafe. Do they use the lawn? People weren't on it. Yes, can use the lawn. In Paris, not allowed to use the lawn. Grass is beautiful to look at; fun to lie on it.
1:01:33Second Life. We've been really interested in it for several years now. Science Fiction hound. Metaverse--a world that is a virtual parallel of our own. Anything you can point to in the real world has an analog in Second Life. Property taxes, voting, political campaigns, mafia, murder, drug dealing, and socially productive things. 700 educational institutions have a permanent presence in Second Life, teaching courses. Embassies from around the world. Built an island called the Center of Attention: laboratory workspace for different tools to measure the attention economy in the virtual world. Not open to the public yet; but people were doing drag racing on the island; suddenly three new houses on the island. Very wild. Not up to speed on the security measures so have gone back to private mode. Edward Castronova podcast. Is it growing? Yes. People think it's not growing because it's not getting Business Week covers any more. Economy is thriving. Growing pains; have restructured staff at Linden Labs to become a more competitive operation. Difference among age groups. A lot of people just assume that if you want to go into it, you want to live there. But a lot of businesses are in there; cheap to prototype and experiment. Retailers. Amazon.com looks like a library or bookstore in Second Life. How much time there do you spend outside the Center of Attention? Spurts. Have an interview talking about fashion design, because they are copyrighted in Second Life--they are pieces of code. How many pairs of shoes for avatar? Only have four. How many to choose from? Thousands. All about appearance; clothing your avatar is crucial.

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Neville writes:

What a fantastic and refreshing episode. I'm a long time listener and this is far and away my favorite Econtalk. Thank you Johanna for your insights, I'm excited to add you to my follow list.

Christian writes:

What a total fluff piece! The only interesting part was the discussion about the lack of IP rights and that only lasted 5 mins, just like my interest in this nonsense. No one write a book this week Russ? I mean, c'mon!

Ray writes:

Nice podcast.

It should be interesting for anyone with a genuine curiosity of how things work.

Noticing that scene in the Prada movie is probably a good litmus test for someone's interest in economics, and the basic elements of what goes in to studying the hows and whys.

Erik writes:

I thought this was a good conversation. I learned a lot. Thanks!

Robert Kennedy writes:

I sense that Russ really enjoyed this interview. Yeah, there was a reasonably amount of "fluff" but the enthusiasm was contagious to my ears.

that said, there really was an important theme here about the differences in copyright conventions in this market vs other markets. Russ & Johanna touched on those differences but i would have liked a bit more rigor. how might other market react if they had the same conventions as fashion? How did these conventions emerge in fashion vs how they emerged in other markets? there did seem to be a theme of potential change in the fashion industry as technology makes it easier to replicate. I was never quite sure how Johanna stood on that issue. Did she endorse the status quo or did she endorse new protections?

shawn writes:

just for a short extension of charettes, as we use them all the time in landscape architecture: it originated when beaux-arts students in paris (in the 1800's) would load their drafting table on the back of the cart and would be finishing their drawings while the cart (charrette) drove them to school for their final presentation.

yeah, arch still works like that. :)

Jon Kalb writes:

The IP situation is similar for font foundries. (At least in the US.) None of the graphic elements of a typeface are legally protected, but the name is. This is why when Apple first shipped the Mac, the fonts were named for cities (Geneva instead of Helvetica and New York for Times - even though Times was created for the London Times, not the New York Times.)

DM writes:

How about another podcast on the economic crisis?

DM

Eric writes:

The most interesting part to me was when you discussed why men don't care about fashion nearly as much as women and are frowned upon as gay if they do. You didn't really discuss why this is the case so I'm wondering if anyone else has some thoughts because when I observe a man who cares about fashion, I'm always left thinking the same thing ("must be gay" and if he is straight, "Why do you care?"). While I like to look presentable, I really have no desire to put any effort into looking fashionable and find shopping in general a huge chore. I'm wondering if this is a DNA thing for the same reason you don't see most women listening to Metallica & Pantera or investing a lot of time and effort into sports (exceptions of course). Maybe women feel like they have to compensate for lacking power in society and whereas men don't feel the need to impress others in this regard? Not sure.

Mike writes:

I owned a residential kitchen design and remodeling firm for eight years. I entered this business from the commercial finance world. In the beginning I was somewhat shocked at the lack of intellectual property protection in the industry. Everyone, local cabinet shops, large well known firms, painters, designers, and especially the customers, had no reservations about copying someone else's work.

If you had a potential customer tell you that they were interested in a door style and finish that was produced by cabinet brand A, but you were a dealer of cabinet brand B, it was not a problem as cabinet brand B stood ready to copy the door and finish exactly. They would even produce a sample of the door for you for a very reasonable fee.

(There is an effort underway, primarily in Europe, to strengthen design rights. See ACID for a close look at one organization. Of course I believe this effort, if successful, will result in fewer and more expensive consumer products.)

Additionally, if you produced a layout for a potential customer but that customer decided that your price for the product and services was too high, they would not hesitate showing your kitchen design to other providers. The result being that there were any number of competitors willing to execute your plan. At times I found this very frustrating. At other times, especially when I needed business, I would find myself willing to attempt the execution of someone else's plan more economically (read that use of economically as "cheaper"). Not always successfully, I might add.

Even though I had a showroom full of kitchen displays, I often thought of myself as being in the fashion business. Since most of my business was in remodeling, all of my customers already had a kitchen. They had cabinets that kept the glasses and dishes off the floor. They had a refrigerator that kept their beer cold. What they didn't have was a currently fashionable kitchen.

The interesting part of the way the industry is organized, for me anyway, is that while there are thousands of cabinet companies of every imagineable size producting cabinets across a wide range of quality and price, there are but a handful of companies that make cabinet components and cabinet making machinery. There are only a few large companies that make hinges and drawer guides. There are, comparatively anyway, only a few companies that make panel processing CNC machines and solid stock processing machines. I bet the same is true for the clothing business.

In the podcast there was mention of a couple of fast fashion giants. I bet if you were to examine these firms that were mentioned, along with second tier competitors, you will find a dramatically smaller number of firms that supply them with production equipment and software. I would bet the same is true of the textile manufacturers that supply the cloth to the design houses.

Again, if you look at the similarity of design among automobiles, I would wager that there are far fewer companies making the equipment required to produce an automobile than there are automobile manufacturers.

I could go on, but my comment is too long already. But the next time you go to a mall and witness the bazaar in clothing, think about the significantly fewer numbers of companies behind the amazing selection there in front of you.

It is always interesting the way markets organize.

Adam writes:

The early discussion of how particular trends are set, and of the trial and error where you might end up with the next big thing or you might just end up with something that's silly and doesn't catch on, strikes me as supremely Hayekian.

A summary of Hayek's description of this very process from The Constitution of Liberty can be found here.

Mark R. writes:

Great podcast, except that Ms. Blakley's name is misspelled on most of this page!

[Eeek! Thanks for pointing that out. That's truly embarrassing. It's been fixed now.--Econlib Ed.]

Amarsir writes:
The most interesting part to me was when you discussed why men don't care about fashion nearly as much as women and are frowned upon as gay if they do. You didn't really discuss why this is the case so I'm wondering if anyone else has some thoughts
My understanding is this: traditionally women stayed at home while men went out to work. This caused mens clothing to be more utilitarian while women (at least high-society women) had the opportunity to be more festive in their costuming while fewer demands on their time encouraged such hobbies. Looking back to something like the 16th and 17th century French court, you can see that both genders placed greater importance on fashion since nobility didn't have much work to do in their society.

It also may be following an evolutionary tendency that females attract a man to them, while the male roams and impresses via action.

Why this is still true today is less clear, but perhaps the behaviors will one day begin to merge. Anecdotally I do know several women who bemoan the burden of following fashion while still fastidiuosly doing so.

My own (male) take is that style and fashion should be differentiated, and men should follow the first and avoid the second. Style is about aesthetic sensibilities; matching your body type or the type of function. Fashion is about following the latest trend, where as Russ said you may look "cool" but also risk looking foolish. I try to be knowledgable about style, even if it doesn't come naturally, with the goal that I will present the image I want both now and in photos 20 years from now.

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