Artist Abigail Glaum-Lathbury reinvents luxury clothing
On a Friday in March, Abigail Glaum-Lathbury walked through the Gucci store on Fifth Avenue, perusing items from a collaboration with Balenciaga called the Hacker Project. The collection was conceptual, a way to explore the ideas of originality and authenticity in the fashion industry. There were bags whose interlocking “Gs” were replaced by back-to-back Bs, and jackets emblazoned with “Gucci” in Balenciaga’s house typeface—codes that, in their myriad reinterpretations, are some of the clearest and most coveted identifiers Luxury.
Ms. Glaum-Lathbury took on a Balenciaga purple stretch top embellished with Gucci’s signature green and red stripes. Its price of $2,700 suggested quality and craftsmanship: fine fabrics, perfect stitching, hand-embroidered details. But the shirt was polyester; The stripes, Mrs Glaum-Lathbury noted, had been digitally printed onto the bias of the fabric. It looked a bit fake, and that was the whole point: the designers were trying to get consumers to think about the value.
A saleswoman approached them and asked, “Do you make dresses?” Designers, he said, are the only people who look closely at the clothes in the store. “Nobody inspects the seams,” he said.
Ms Glaum-Lathbury, 38, is a clothing designer, although her own small and short-lived label closed almost a decade ago. Now an Associate Professor of Fashion Design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she spends her free time on personal and conceptual projects exploring the qualities that make a garment desirable.
“One of many, many things I love about clothing is that it’s inherently social,” she said. An earlier project she worked on, a utilitarian jumpsuit available in more than 200 sizes, was created to stimulate discussion about the quality of disposable, ill-fitting fast fashion; another, which outlined plans for a “community-supported underwear” collective, was intended to stimulate conversations about ethical and sustainable production.
None of these have caught the attention of major fashion brands, but she’s hoping her latest will. Called the Genuine Unauthorized Clothing Clone Institute, it revolves around what Ms Glaum-Lathbury has dubbed “clothing clones”: garments patterned on mirror selfies she took in luxurious dressing rooms. Back in her studio, she edits each image to blur any trademarks or copyrighted patterns—like the signature Gs—and crops to isolate the garment’s outline. She then prints the image onto fabric, creating a pattern for a new garment.
Although the project’s initials mean ‘GUCCI’, Ms Glaum-Lathbury has taken selfies with several designer brands including Marc Jacobs, Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana. (A legal document drafted during the development of their project also references a fashion house in its title, the Guideline for the Evaluation of Design Accents, Embellishments, and Attributes, or PRADAAA.)
The items are not for sale, but patterns can be downloaded for free from the project’s website, as can video instructions for making each garment. And while Ms. Glaum-Lathbury wears the pieces in the world, she’s less interested in their functionality than in how they represent “the intersection of process, history and legality.”
Threading the needle of fashion law
When Ms. Glaum-Lathbury began photographing herself in dressing rooms about six years ago, Gucci recently filed a trademark lawsuit against Forever 21; A bomber jacket sold by the fast fashion firm featured striped webbing at the collar and hems, resembling the style of Gucci, which was trademarked in 1988. It was the quintessential luxury lawsuit against 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 draw legal commentary through every aspect of the Genuine Unauthorized project, including the design of the garments and the website they are displayed on, which is also said to parody the Gucci website. She consulted extensively with a team of law students led by Amanda Levendowski, the founding director of Georgetown University’s Intellectual Property and Information Policy Clinic, to ensure that the Genuine Unauthorized project would not violate the boundaries of trademark and copyright law .
Immersing herself in fashion law has influenced the way she talks to her students about the industry they may soon be entering. She plans to use Genuine Unauthorized as the basis for a book and lecture series. But for now, she’s concentrating on the artistic side.
Ms. Glaum-Lathbury pins selfies to the board in her Chicago art studio in a variety of outfits: a Louis Vuitton coat, a Dolce & Gabbana dress, a Balenciaga sweater, a Louis Vuitton t-shirt, and a Balenciaga shirt dress. Each becomes unrecognizable through their process: a dress within a dress, perhaps fit for a cartoon villain, or individual pieces digitally fused into a balloon-like jumpsuit.
According to Alexandra Roberts, a professor at the University of New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce School of Law, the actual silhouettes of designer clothing aren’t protected by law from counterfeiting, but the prints, logos, and patterns with logos are.
“That’s sort of the point of trademark law,” said Ms. Roberts. “Often people pay just for the name.”
With her focus on branding, Ms. Glaum-Lathbury follows a long line of designers whose work has challenged prevailing notions of originality, brand equity and desire.
In the 1980s, a tailor named Daniel Day printed fashion house logos onto streetwear silhouettes in his Harlem boutique. Although the practice was forced to close its shop a decade later after lawyers representing the brand came knocking, Dapper Dan, as he is known, has been embraced by Gucci ever since.
Another streetwear champion, Virgil Abloh, has often said that an existing garment only needs to be altered by 3 percent to be considered new. While agitating against exclusivity in the luxury space, he also rose to great heights at LVMH before his death in December.
Even the fashion houses themselves have dealt with these questions and brokered collaborations with brands outside the luxury sector.
“I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all approach to questioning or intervening in the many issues plaguing the fashion industry, or that this work is done in just one way,” said Ms. Glaum-Lathbury.
Their work is somewhat similar to that of MSCHF, a Brooklyn-based creative collective whose trolling product releases seem designed to piss off coveted brands like Nike and Hermès. But while her creations aren’t available for purchase, hers are.
Gucci occupies a prominent position within the Genuine Unauthorized project for the same reason Nike differentiates itself from MSCHF. It is “one of the most visible luxury brands,” as Ms Glaum-Lathbury explained. According to brand valuation consultancy Brand Finance, Gucci is currently the third most valuable apparel brand in the world, just behind Nike and Louis Vuitton. (Gucci did not respond to a request for comment.)
Eric Spangenberg, a professor of marketing and psychology at the University of California, Irvine, said that in the luxury market, “people are paying for the experience of buying” — the exclusivity of the store, the customer service, and ultimately the “statuses” that come with one brand is connected. In an era of widespread collaborations and realistic recreations, this status can be found in many places.
After surveying the Gucci store’s inventory, Ms Glaum-Lathbury made her way to Canal Street to look at the fakes being sold to tourists – people who coveted the status that a Gucci handbag offered or at least gave a convincing facsimile.
She picked up a copy of Gucci’s classic beige Ophidia bag and immediately noticed the difference in quality. It wasn’t real leather, and the stitching was much inferior. 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 in,” she said, and then bought the bag.