Imitation in the Cake Industry, Part 1

Be yourself, because an original is worth more than a copy!

This is a bit of a controversial topic, because on one hand, you have a squad of Cake Artists that are “Team Original” - All! The! Way!  They're a sassy bunch, and pride themselves on always being creative and unique. You also have the slightly more subdued group of decorators that are perfectly happy recreating existing cake designs - designs that they or their clients found on Pinterest or Google Images - and usually a cake created by another Artist. You'll see that these decorators are therefore quite versatile and fluid in the manner in which they create their cakes.  Do these guys have a signature style?  Not really. Do they create beautiful cakes? Of course they do!

It’s your choice as to which way you swing on this matter, but I’m going to be speaking from the point of view of Team Original here. Would you believe that I wasn't always this stubborn with sticking to my own style of work? In the early days I was far too shy to say “no” to recreating existing designs, even those that I didn't particularly like the look of.  I just did as I was asked! I’m glad that I have eventually learned to be true to myself, and create only those cakes that I am truly passionate about.  I have found my happy place!

I am often told that my work is instantly recognisable, and that when I “pop up” in an Instagram feed, that folks can always tell which cakes are mine.  I have evolved my own style, and while that has taken several years, I am so humbled to find that clients are now specifically seeking to include me in their special celebrations, and they also give me some fabulous creative freedom.  So how did I get here?  Well, take a seat, make yourself comfortable, and I’ll tell you a little story…

Hey, can you please make THIS EXACT CAKE for me?

*Insert generic photo from Pinterest here*

When I was a newbie to the cake industry, back when I originally started my business, I was so eager to please that I would conform to everything the client had requested. If the client sent a photo asking for me to make “this cake” for them, I’d always oblige.  Even though it suffocated my artistic streak, I’d go and create something very similar to the original, with some sneaky tweaks so it wasn't an exact copy, and I would post the photos on socials with a “design credit” tagging the original artist. For the uninitiated, it’s #goodmanners to always include a #designcredit for cakes based on another Cake Artist’s design.  So while my clients were without fail delighted with what I had created for them, because it was obviously quite close to their own favoured choice of design, I personally didn’t feel much joy or pride in my work, because after all, it wasn’t entirely mine.

I slowly realised that the most fun was had when I baked for friends, family & colleagues, who would kindly say “just surprise me, I love absolutely everything that you make!”.  And those times where I had free reign, with no pressure to conform to a particular style, were where I could really have fun and be truly creative.  I could experiment with different colour palettes and textured effects, and add any embellishments that I wanted, to create something fun & fabulous.  I learned that artistic licence is THE BEST!

I eventually grew a spine…

I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve seen other cake decorators posting in “Cake Groups” on Social Media, asking “how do I recreate *insert element here* like on this cake?”.  Their client had requested a specific style, and, just like me as a little newbie a few years back, they were keen to give the client exactly what they wanted.

My 2 cents on this matter is, that aside from taking away any element of “artistry” from the design & planning process, which in itself is a challenge that I find so enjoyable, the act of duplicating a design is so much harder than it looks.  Unless the original cake was created by a robot, and you also happen to be a robot, it's near impossible to recreate something made by hand!  Sure, you can take inspiration from an existing design, especially if the client loves the colour palette or other elements in the original design, but you don't have to duplicate it exactly.  I have seen a number of cake decorators imitate my Signature "That Square Cake" designs down to a tee (and don't get me wrong, I am very flattered that anyone would want to do this in the first place), but when it is copied, right down to identical flower placement and exact location of gold leaf accents and coloured paint splatter it makes me wonder - is it actually more stressful attempting to copy exactly, if your client has these potentially unrealistic expectations?  And even if you could perfectly replicate an existing cake design, do you really want to? Wouldn't you rather create something unique and "yours"?

And just to throw another idea into the mix, have you ever thought “hey, what if the client doesn’t know what other design options are out there”? I often get requests for designs that are just not "me", but will make alternative styling suggestions to clients, and you know what?  More often than not, they love my ideas and will go ahead with the order!

And learned that it is ok to say “no”…

My business has been established for long enough, that I can say “no” to a client’s request, without remorse or fear of “losing” bookings. A lot of clients assume that all Cake Artists can create any and all styles of cake, and don't realise that the majority of us are either Buttercream or Fondant Specialists (with a few rare unicorns among us who can somehow do both).   There are also styles within mediums that we favour and tend to gravitate towards - for me, that’s brightly coloured, heavily flowered creations, because I am obsessed with blooms!

If the client is set on a particular style, and they are not willing to budge on their request, I will simply decline the order.  I’m not available to recreate that style, that's just not how I roll.  There is no joy in making cakes that are not fun to create or that don't suit your aptitude (and I’ll say that’s sculpted, novelty and fondant cakes for me) and usually I’ll offer a helpful referral to another Cake Artist who specialises in that style. I would much rather work to design a cake #myway, to suit a particular theme; or to match a colour palette for a milestone party or bridal bouquet; or even better, to work with the “surprise me” request that I get from so many of my repeat clients that simply trust me to create something spectacular for their special occasion.

So how do you find “your style”?

This is something that comes with experience, and if you go and make enough cakes, you’ll come to learn what your style is.  As they say in the Disney movies, follow your heart, and you'll shine bright as the sun. What do you truly enjoy making, and where do you feel yourself swaying when certain requests come your way?  Are you excited to create something in that style, or do you have that nagging feeling of dread, when you have to work with a certain theme?

Here are some points to consider:

  • What techniques & mediums do you enjoy using?  Do you love using stencils? Do you love a splash of colour?  Is your passion with kids cakes, or floral cakes, or wedding cakes? Are you Team Buttercream, or Team Fondant?
  • What shapes do you love?  Are you a fan of creating tall tiers, multi-tiers, different height tiers?  Is it hip to be square or do you love a sculpted cake?
  • Who is your ideal client?  What do you love to celebrate? Do you love birthdays? Or weddings? Do you like creating little treats or dessert boxes for clients to order “just because”?
  • Who or what inspires you?  How do you put your own signature on your creations? How are you different from other Cake Artists? What makes your work “yours”?

I hope this little article gives you some inspiration, encouragement, and confidence to be different.  Sure, we could all just copy existing designs, and put our name to them (with a little #designcredit if you’ve got manners), but what is the fun in that?  Be a game changer, the world has enough followers!