Haute Couture & Haute Cuisine

I’m certainly not the first to point out the similarities between haute couture – rarefied apparel that no normal person would have an occasion to wear – and haute cuisine – exquisitely prepared food that costs a fortune and simply disappears by evening’s end. This last July, the French Ministry of Culture sponsored a posh event at the Palais Royale that celebrated two of France’s most respected exports: in justifying the dual focus, organizers argued that
Though the raw materials may be different, artisans in both trades must master techniques, a “savoir-faire” and possess a vision to reach the height of their craft . . .
But most foodies and fashionistas don’t realize that there’s an even more elemental connection between cuisine and fashion: neither have a great deal of copyright protection.


chanelcupcakesIn Lear Center research on the role that copyright plays in the fashion industry, I came across a few articles mentioning the similarity between recipes – which cannot be copyrighted – and fashion designs, which don’t qualify either. I thought it was fascinating that such creative industries managed to innovate and stay fresh even though fashion designers and chefs have no control over the appropriation of their work by others. The same cannot be said of painters, sculptors, photographers, graphic designers, musicians or writers.

So, as a foodie and a fashion lover, I was delighted to be invited to a unique conference in Barcelona, co-sponsored by Telefónica, Spain’s most prominent telecommunications company, and the El Bulli Foundation, Ferran Adrià’s effort to perform cutting edge research about food and innovation. Gastronomy & Technology Days (check out the Twitter hashtag<strong>#gastrotechdays) brought together an incredibly diverse international group of writers, researchers, software engineers and hard-core food bloggers to discuss the intersection of food and technology.

The talks were occasionally mind-bending (e.g., “Hacking the Food Genome”) and participant Rachael McCormack tweeted that the conference was “like TED but with better coffee.” Video will be available soon I’m told, but until then, I thought I’d lay out some of the key points from my keynote speech about the similarities between fashion and food.

It turns out that both fashion and food qualify as utilitarian creations in the eyes of the legal system. Copyright is reserved exclusively for “artistic” creations and so, despite the incredible ingenuity and craftsmanship of an evening gown or a perfectly poached lobster, neither receive protection, falling instantly into the public domain.

(You can check out a summary of my argument about the positive side-effects of this seemingly irrational and unfair exclusion in the fashion industry in this TED talk: I’ll focus a bit more on cuisine here.)

Both fashion designers and chefs get to enjoy an open creative process: Chefs can sample from the entire history of cuisine when they make a new dish or revive an old one. Imagine if a chef had to perform copyright clearance for the use of a certain combination of ingredients or a particular procedure?

Of course the fact that chefs may sample from their peers without legal ramifications contributes to the development of trends, which we think of as a defining feature of the fashion industry. In the U.S. we’ve seen all kinds of seemingly random trends in food, from tart yogurt to cupcakes to gastropubs to pork belly, which is now a staple on high-end menus.

And even more so than fashion, cuisine is a very ephemeral creation: once it’s eaten, it’s gone. The photograph lives on, as does the copyright on the photo, but the dish itself is literally consumed (which is one reason why authors rights protection has been denied chefs who’ve requested it in France).

And of course, just like in fashion, there are tremendously influential tastemakers who have a great deal of power defining what is tasty and modern and what is not: Ferran Adrià, Gaston Acurio, Heston Blumenthal, René Redzepi are among the handful of chefs single-handedly influencing cuisine around the world. And, as they well know, the critics play a huge role in that determination. Zagats and Michelin, for instance, wield the same kind of power that Voguemagazine does in fashion.

But critics and celebrity chefs and the fashion elite do not singularly determine what we eat or what we wear. Everyone wears clothes and eats and prepares food – everyone, whether they like it or not, participates in the culture of fashion and food, and so, inevitably, you see a lot of creativity and innovation on the street level, where people mix and match tastes and create appetites for new combinations of flavors and designs. (The food truck scene in Los Angeles is a perfect example of this.)

Of course the fact that people can copy one another has a huge impact on the creative process. One lovely side-effect is that high-end designers and chefs find themselves challenged to create truly innovative and surprising things that they believe will be hard to knock-off. Chefs who wish to remain at the top of their game acknowledge that they must be relentlessly creative, coming up with new ideas and new flavor profiles to keep their customers (and the critics) coming back for more.

A very strong reputation-based system has developed in creative industries like fashion and cuisine, which demands that professionals who want to be taken seriously cannot simply copy their peers. They must develop a signature style recognizable to others, something that copyists will be chastised for taking without attribution. (In a recent trip to Jose Andres’ splashy restaurant Bazaar in Los Angeles, my friend said that when they brought the liquid olives to the table the server proudly announced them as the creation of Ferran Adrià.)

With the rise of social media it has become even more important that fashion designers and chefs beware of copying from other sources without acknowledgment because they will be found out and their reputations could be destroyed.

Another way in which high-end fashion designers have dealt with an industry that allows legal copying is by knocking-off their own work: Far from cannibalizing their own product sales, these designers realized that they could expand their clientele and their brand by marketing a variety of products at vastly different price-points through mass-market retailers such as Target and Topshop. Missoni’s most recent partnership with Target was so successful that all the servers crashed and Missoni items selling at bargain-basement prices on Target are being sold for a premium on eBay.

We find a very similar dynamic in cuisine, where innovative chefs have created powerful personal brands (think Wolfgang Puck or Mario Batali) that they’ve leveraged in order to create products at lower price-points. As in fashion, chefs have discovered that developing a strong trademark can offer lucrative benefits when copyright protection is unavailable to them.

This makes a great deal of sense to me: in taste-based industries, what customers long for in fashion and in food is someone to help them navigate the tremendous number of options. They want someone with a proven track record to tell them, “this is beautiful” or “this is tasty.” And, as chefs and designers are well aware, if the customer disagrees, they’ll just follow someone else.

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