March 23, 2009

Fool Me Once....

The Madoff family jewels are back in the news -- but this time they're plastic, according to the New York Post. 

While Bernie was unsuccessful in his attempt a few months ago to distribute expensive jewelry and other items to as-yet-unindicted family and friends, it seems his wife Ruth still craves a bit of bling.  She was spotted shopping not in the tony boutiques of Palm Beach's Worth Avenue, but in nearby alleys off Via Mizner "where they sell knockoff cheapo costume bangles." 

Will she try to pass them off as Cartier and Van Cleef, though?

March 16, 2009

Manners and Morals

When complimented upon a counterfeit watch, should one confess its nefarious origins or simply say "thank you"?

Franck Muller ChronographPhilip Galanes' "Social Q's" column in the Sunday New York Times approaches this question as all good etiquette lessons do, by confronting the perplexed party with a point of view he hadn't considered.  In this case, that of the company that manufactured the original and holds related intellectual property rights.  And, for good measure, society at large.

The answer deftly assumes that the questioner, who actually revealed his full name, feels guilty about wearing a $30 imitation of a "$15,000 beauty," suggesting that this guilt might best be assuaged by writing a letter of apology to Franck Muller.  To underscore the point, the column calls attention to local schools and hospitals deprived of the tax dollars that are the result of legal rather than illegal commerce.

Of course, Mr. James Lister Smith of Mill Valley probably never felt guilty about buying the fake watch at all, just uncertain about whether to lie about it by omission.  But perhaps he feels a bit abashed now.  Or at least tired of everyone at the office this morning asking to see his fake watch and noting its deficiencies.

The original question, naturally, goes unanswered.  Instead, in the hands of the etiquette expert an inquiry about manners becomes one about morals, as he informs the reader that the copy should never have been purchased at all -- without ever saying so directly. 

And so the brilliant and iconoclastic Dorothy Parker, who once described the mastery of etiquette as ultimately reaching  "a point of exquisite dullness," is for once proven wrong.  An apparently simple question of manners is just as often a well-dressed battle of wits. 

March 06, 2009

A Day in the Life of an Indie Designer

Amidst  heated discussions over how many hundreds of millions of dollars worth of knockoffs are sold annually and harrowing reports of copying, counterfeiting, child labor, and organized crime, this mundane daily sales report from a single shop throws the issue into stark, simple relief.  Call it accidental poetry.  

Subject: End of Day 03-04-09

Cold and sunny day.

7 customers walked in.

2 ladies from the UK purchased the Audrey dress and Lana dress, both in black.

They purchased the dresses to manufacture in the UK.

Total $350.00

There oughta be a law.  But until there is, focus your fashion budget on genuine originals from EMC2 or another favorite local boutique -- before some modern day Dorothea Lange starts photographing lonely racks of unsold clothing, sale signs, and empty storefronts.


Many thanks to talented and determined designer Emmett McCarthy for allowing Counterfeit Chic to share this inadvertently eloquent email.


February 11, 2009

Knocked Off and Marked Down

At the start of the downturn, Counterfeit Chic predicted two contradictory effects on the market for streetcorner copies:

  1. Some increased sales potential, as consumers pass up even deeply discounted genuine items in favor of rock-bottom prices on fake. 
  2. A concurrent downturn, as the prominent display of luxury logos -- real or fake -- becomes passe, even among the dwindling number of tourists.  

Turns out there's been evidence of both trends, with at least some counterfeit vendors having experienced brisk pre-holiday sales, while the overall lust for labels has diminished.  This week's New York magazine reports that a falling tide does indeed lower all boats:

One of the hallmarks of the boom was the triumph of "aspirational" branding: a pair of Gucci-stamped sunglasses did not cost three times as much to produce as a pair of Ray-Bans, but commanded three times the price.  Flush with cash (or easy credit), consumers bought the proposition that the brand itself -- the status it conferred -- was worth a 300 percent markup.  Not any more.  Not only are real designer bags hard to move off the shelves but the Canal Street knockoff market is in free fall too.  A zebra-patterned fake Versace bag, which used to sell for $45 in the summer, now barely fetches $25.  With the arrival of the crisis, the price tag on status has come up for renegotiation.  Today's consumer is demanding less and better at the same time.

Of course, design houses can fall back on claims of originality, artistry, and quality -- if the consumer is listening.  And despite rumors of plain brown bags being offered at high-end boutiques, the formerly proud owners of famous brands or counterfeit copies aren't sitting at home with seam rippers and solvents, trying to remove luxury labels.  Still, when wealth imitates frugality and, "No, I found it in the back of my closet," and "70% off" are style signifiers, it stands to reason that pale imitations of opulence would fade still further.

January 27, 2009

Fashion's Financial Fiction

Awards season may be in full swing, but everyone knows that Jason Wu already won the grand prize.  Let other designers court stylists and starlets; Jason's dress was Michelle Obama's pick for the inaugural balls. 

Of course, Jason's big win didn't exactly come with a big check.  The custom gowns that he and his staff spent many late hours designing and constructing were sent gratis, with the understanding that if one were chosen, it would subsequently be donated to the Smithsonian.  Sure, the honor is impressive and the publicity may be priceless, but how many previously unknown inaugural gown designers have gone on to become household names?  (Michael Faircloth for Laura Bush?  Sarah Phillips for Hillary Clinton?)  Jason has the advantage of already enjoying recognition within the industry, not to mention a talent for creating charming dresses -- but giving away ball gowns doesn't pay the rent.

Jason's dress may prove profitable for a number of other labels, however.  The usual suspects -- ABS, Faviana -- have already announced plans to market their own budget versions.  Interestingly, the copyists' rhetoric seems to have changed somewhat of late.  Rather than describe the knockoffs as exact lookalikes, Faviana's proprietor notes that his gown will be made to "our specifications, our patterns," while Allen B. Schwartz will "most likely" cut a similar, pre-existing design in ivory. 

The law hasn't changed -- yet -- and exact copies are still legal in the U.S.  But could derisive reports of sartorial plagiarism, together with copyists' concerns that American law will soon follow other countries in protecting fashion designs, already be leading some companies to emphasize differences rather than similarities?  If so, the Design Piracy Prohibition Act may have begun taking effect before even being reintroduced in the new Congress. 

In the meantime, congratulations and good luck to Jason Wu, Isabel Toledo, Narciso Rodriguez, and all of the creative designers favored by Mrs. O.  It's just a pity that with 10 inaugural balls, we didn't get to see 10 gowns!


Continue reading "Fashion's Financial Fiction" »

December 23, 2008

Notes from the Field

Yesterday, in the final moments before the start of Hanukkah and with less than 100 hours to go before Christmas, Counterfeit Chic inadvertently became part of the river of humanity flowing past and through the aisles of Macy's Herald Square flagship -- and noticed surprisingly few shopping bags.  Sure, there were tourists photographing one another both inside and outside the store, but the store clerks were practically leaning their elbows on the cash registers and yawning. 

This tweet from Rick Marshall confirmed the shopping story of the season:

Retailers are doing crap business, we're told, but the knockoff guy outside Macy's right now has a line a block long. 

But hey, maybe Santa will provide an 11th-hour retail rescue -- Macy's still believes.


December 16, 2008

Glamour Don't

Think you're having a bad fashion day?  It could be worse -- at least you're probably not one of the poor souls identified on the pages of Glamour magazine as a cautionary "don't," your identity semi-protected only by the addition of a black anonymity bar across your eyes.  While Counterfeit Chic usually considers Glamour Dos and Don'ts to be a public service, every now and then a member of this august fashion police force turns out to be a rogue cop. 

Among Glamour's televised "20 Wedding Dos and Don'ts" is an important fashion "don't":  Don't go broke on your wedding dress.  No argument here.  Yes, the dress should be incredibly flattering and worth saving for your granddaughter someday.  No, you shouldn't let the wedding industrial complex convince you that your future marital happiness is directly proportional to the price of your gown.

Some of the budget alternatives suggested on camera include buying secondhand (after all, your pre-owned dream dress was probably only worn for a few hours -- if at all) and looking into your favorite designers' or boutiques' sample sales.   And by the way, there is also a wide range of long, white dresses available without the premium that seems to accompany specialty sales; my own dress was a satin evening gown that the designer happened to have created in white.  Nontraditional color/style choices may yield even better bargains. 

One not-so-Glamourous expert, however, actually advocated buying a knockoff: 

Legal, yes, at least in the U.S.  But it's no wonder that bridal boutiques ban cameras and wedding dress designers resort to copyrighting lace designs and touting the value of authenticity in an effort to gain some traction against design pirates.

Tradition may call for the bride to wear something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue  -- but it's probably better wedding karma if the "borrowed" item is loaned voluntarily. 

December 08, 2008

Overheard in New York

'Tis the season for stockings to be hung by the chimney with care -- but first, they have to be found, taken out of tissue paper, and inspected for leftover lumps of coal from last year.  In many homes, this involves a trip to the attic or the basement, where slightly battered cardboard boxes marked "Xmas" hold happy memories.  New York apartments, however, typically lack such generous storage space, and it was thus that I found myself at a local ministorage facility over the weekend, searching for my favorite stocking.

While surveying a stack of boxes that look like something from an Indiana Jones movie and trying to remember where the Christmas ornaments might be, I overheard a heated negotiation in an adjacent area.  Someone was obviously planning to buy a large quantity of something from someone else -- well outside of the usual wholesale channels. 

I could have minded my own business.  Instead, I quietly drew the door to my unit shut and listened to the following exchange:

"Fifteen dollars."


"Don't you like me, man?"

"Of course, I like you.  But I can't do more than five.  The economy, man."

"OK, seven fifty.  I have everything you want -- J'Adore, No. 5, everything."

[Aha!  Perfume!  And presumably either counterfeit or grey market (genuine trademarked goods flowing through unauthorized channels), unless Dior and Chanel are doing business through the same ministorage-based rep.  And $7.50!  On the street, these guys ask for at least $40 or $50 and usually get $25 or $35.  Madison Avenue could use margins like these at the moment.

The conversation continued for some time, as quantities in the hundreds, brands, and dates were established.  I began to get a bit chilly and to realize that this intrepid girl reporter thing was not getting me any closer to my Christmas stockings.]

"Anything else you want, my friend?  I can get electronics, iPods."


"They all come from China, man.  All the good stuff."

"OK, man, this is good.  I'll find you."

(Sounds of boxes being moved, a clanging metal door, one set of departing footsteps.)

At this point it occured to me that my Christmas stockings might well be at home, put away with the seasonal table linens, rather than boxed in storage.  And in any case, I was in need of a good, stiff hot chocolate. 

As I waited for the incredibly slow freight elevator, a man rolled up beside me with a stack of boxes on a dolly.  I couldn't resist a sideways glance.  They were plain brown boxes, about the size one might use for office files but a bit flatter, with crooked handwritten notations of the contents:  D&G, DNKY, and, sure enough, No. 5. 

I thought it the better part of both wisdom and elevator etiquette to remain silent and nod politely, though as we exited on the main level, I glanced back at the posted rules and regulations for the storage area.  Near the bottom of the list was a prohibition on storing contraband -- though whoever wrote it had banned "trademark-infringed goods" rather than "trademark-infringing goods," which would technically leave my neighbors in the clear.  Still, the law of the land and the law of the ministorage facility are not identical, and I had clearly overheard a deal not likely to be burdened with customs duties, sales taxes, or the usual formalities of commerce.

And I know exactly what I don't want to find in my stocking on Christmas morning. 

DCB Designs

December 01, 2008

Online Watchdog

Many luxury brands are increasing their online presence in an effort to boost sales -- especially this Cyber Monday. 

Omega instead took out a full page ad in today's WWD, advising shoppers to beware the internet lest they end up with watches that are counterfeit or otherwise substandard.


True, distinguishing between real and fake online is a challenge -- but Counterfeit Chic is betting that while Omega may be the last word in watches, it's definitely not the last word in e-commerce.

November 23, 2008

Going Goth

Fashion is an omnivorous medium.  There's no aesthetic, subculture, or human experience that is too obscure, too violent, or too dark to serve as an inspiration for some creative designer.  Given this hunger, not to mention fashion's fascination with the color black, it's no surprise that goth culture is reflected in many couture creations.


An extraordinary exhibit at the Museum at F.I.T., Gothic: Dark Glamour, explores the roots of the modern goth aesthetic in Victorian mourning costume, as well as linguistic links back to the Dark Ages and to the ancient "barbarian" Goths themselves.  From Alexander McQueen's skulls to Rodarte's "bloodstained" tulle to Yohji Yamamoto's sculptural folds, many modern designers have experimented with this visual vocabulary.

While designer Rick Owens recalls his own goth youth, which gives his work an air of authenticity, only a few of the creators and wearers of elaborate goth-inspired clothing have any actual association with modern goth culture.  This creative cultural appropriation didn't seem to bother the actual goth partygoers at the exhibit's opening earlier this fall, though.  On the contrary, most seemed to enjoy both the exhibit and the attention from professional photographers and fellow guests who admired their dark finery. 

The animated goth denizens of South Park, however, are less sanguine about seeing their style copied.  Check out the full episode -- or just a short clip -- to see how the clique that laid claim to morbid posturing responds to the new "vamps" in town.

And then pick up the stylish Gothic: Dark Glamour book for the resolutely disaffected teenager on your holiday gift list.  Just remember to wrap it in black, perhaps with a poisonous sprig of mistletoe for good measure. 

November 17, 2008

Screen Scene

Who needs skin, skateboards, or automobile bumpers when you can express your identity -- or your brand obsession -- by decorating your laptop?  From stickers on the outside to onscreen wallpaper, the possibilities are endless.

Just to make the process easier, inju has invited you to "Pimp Your Mac!" with a series of desktop designs (6 Louis Vuitton and 1 Gucci) posted on Flickr.  And yes, PCs, this paradoxical combination of individuality and corporate conformity --along with its accompanying trademark and copyright violations -- works on any screen. 


In an amusing bit of intellectual property irony, inju has distributed these images under a Creative Commons license.

November 11, 2008

Musings after Magritte

A woman should mix fake and real.  To ask a woman to wear real jewelry only is like asking her to cover herself with real flowers instead of flowery silk prints.

--Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel

Why is it that copying a jewelry design or a floral print fabric may give rise to liability under U.S. law, while creating a representation of a natural gem or flower is likely to cause neither legal nor ethical concerns?  Why is it OK to curl a zipper to resemble a rose, but potentially problematic to curl a zipper to resemble another designer's zipper rose?  Why would Coco Chanel (and the modern fashion house that still bears her name) celebrate fake pearls but not counterfeit logos? 

The reasons for intellectual property protection are complex and sometimes controversial, but such protection does not extend beyond human creations.  God, Mother Nature, or whatever atomic collision created the beauty of the natural world is not, legally speaking, an author or inventor.  Even when a talented horticulturalist breeds a new variety of rose, and is duly recognized by the legal system, the scope of the patent does not extend to an artificial fabric representation of that partnership between plant and human animal, nor should it.

If all beauty arguably originates in nature, from the "fearful symmetry" of both Blake's tiger and his verse to the curves of the Venus de Milo to the fractal patterns in Jackson Pollock's splatter paintings, then all creators are to some extent copyists.  That doesn't mean that there's literally "nothing new under the sun," in the frequently decontextualized phrase from Ecclesiastes.  Nor does it undermine the legal system's reflection of our desire to encourage and/or recognize human creativity.  But it is a worthwhile reminder -- like Magritte's juxtaposition of a floral arrangement and the landscape behind it in "Le Plagiat" -- that art imitates life.  (And vice versa for Oscar Wilde fans, but that's a meditation for another day.)


Le Plagiat (The Plagiary), 1940

Thanks to the fabulous Ariana Lindermayer for sending the inspirational image!

October 09, 2008

Project Runway: Birds of a Feather

It seems that every season of Project Runway involves a copying complaint of one variety or another, and this year is no exception.  In last night's episode, contestant Kenley whines that two of her fellow competitors have knocked her off -- by which she means only that they, too, chose to make short rather than long bridesmaids' dresses (at the urging of design guru Tim Gunn).  Proprietary hemline lengths?  Hardly a compelling argument.  Kenley, however, seems to have a double standard when it comes to copying. 

Watch the strangely restrained critique of Kenley's wedding gown from designer Michael Kors and the confirmation of copying from fashion editor Nina Garcia, along with the aspiring designer's denial...

...and then judge for yourself.  McQueen showed his dress (left) to rave reviews  just months before the filming of Project Runway.

 Alexander McQueen Fall 2008 (left) and Kenley's design (right

But wait, you think.  Kenley may have copied the strapless, fitted, off-white, feather-covered bodice, the full feathered skirt with tulle beneath, and the feathers sprouting from the model's head, but didn't she at least come up with the only other element -- the extra mass of tulle beneath the skirt -- on her own?  Not exactly.  The bird-brained contestant's dress is a mashup of the McQueen above and several of his other feathery looks from the same show, which use that same riot of tulle as an underskirt:

 Alexander McQueen Fall 2008

Still, knockoff or no, shouldn't Kenley's performance over the course of the season -- a series of vintage-inspired frocks regularly ridiculed by her fellow designers -- entitle her to compete for the big prize? 

Let's take a look at her only individual winning design, which does have a rather modern silhouette.  At the time (episode 3), Counterfeit Chic thought it mimicked the couple of dozen Balenciaga looks with which designer Nicolas Ghesquiere had deeply impressed editors for Spring 2008.  Floral prints, strong shoulders, rounded hips, high neck, short skirt -- all in all, a very distinctive and powerful take on spring dresses.  Still, Kenley's version was enough of a departure that, while not the kind of original vision that can make a designer's reputation, it wasn't just a knockoff (though it shouldn't have been a winner, either).  In retrospect, it may indeed have been an indication of what to expect from this Project Runway contestant.

 Balenciaga Spring 2008 (left) and Kenley's winning design (right)

Why, if Project Runway purports to be a search for "the next great American designer," has blatant copying not resulted in early elimination?  Why are crooked hems or dangling threads apparently the greater sins when professional designers are expected to create a unique (and profitable) vision, not sew on deadline?  

Perhaps the unoriginal contestants have simply been good television in one way or another, and thus worth keeping around.  Perhaps the producers believe that some great American designers are copyists.  (No names -- today.)  Or perhaps producer/judge Heidi Klum is loathe to penalize anyone else for copying, given the accusations leveled against her jewelry line by Van Cleef & Arpels in a recently settled lawsuit. 

This laxity with respect to knockoffs must be good news for the team designing Heidi's own line in partnership with Jordache.  Following a recent series of celebs whose eponymous labels are filled with copies straight from their closets, Klum appeared in the New York Times in July 2007 wearing a top from the Lower East Side design duo Foley + Corinna (on model below), whose designs have become copy-catnip.  Then, this past May, she showed up in People magazine alongside looks from her own line, including a suspiciously similar top (below right). 

 Foley+Corinna (left) and Heidi Klum (right)

Maybe next season Project Runway -- on Bravo or Lifetime, whichever channel wins the legal tug-of-war over the show -- will take the opportunity of illustrating to aspiring designers the line between inspiration and imitation. After all, in an information-rich, consumer-savvy market, names are not made on knockoffs.  Not to mention the fact that in every major fashion capital except New York, they're legally actionable.  At the same time, young designers are regularly hired to carry on the tradition of a famous fashion house, which involves a bit more than just ransacking the archives.  Counterfeit Chic can't wait for Tim Gunn's take on that challenge.  

And in the meantime, let's hope that in this season's final episode Kenley's avian abomination gets plucked.

October 01, 2008

Spike this Heel!

This month your favorite law prof has been invited to guest blog at Concurring Opinions, a group site run by a number of fabulous colleagues from around legal academia.  Not to worry, though -- Counterfeit Chic won't be neglected.  And the occasional post may even be relevant to both sites.

So head over to Concurring Opinions now to find out why this Dior sandal, with what is reportedly a Masai fertility figure as its heel, is giving me a mental blister. 

 Christian Dior by John Galliano Spring 2009

August 01, 2008

LV, Sony Strike a Chord

After hitting several false notes, Louis Vuitton and Sony BMG have reached accord on the issue of musicians who have "borrowed" LV's trademarks to add a bit of glamour to their own products.

Sony will pay LV the additional €97,000 still outstanding from French judgments involving Brittney Spears and rap artist Da Brat, as well as an undisclosed sum in compensation for Ruben Studdard's unauthorized use of LV's marks on a CD.  (Remember Ruben?  American Idol season 2?  And did you buy his "The Return" CD and open it to find the signature LV toile inside?  Didn't think so -- which may be part of the reason why the amount of the settlement had not been made public.) 

Perhaps more importantly, Sony has promised to use "best efforts to educate its various record labels as to the Louis Vuitton intellectual property."  In other words, Sony has agreed to take some responsibility for reminding artists that wearing Louis is one thing, but copying its trademarks on CDs, videos, and other merchandise is quite another.

But why all the discord in the first place?  Don't designers and luxury labels actively court celebrity endorsements and even pay famous folks to wear their brands?  Yes and yes.  However, that doesn't mean that Louis Vuitton is ready to reverse the equation and lend its own endorsement to Brittney's latest video or Ruben's CD -- especially without even being aware of it. 

For more on harmonious brand management and the LV/Sony settlement, check out Matthew Lynch's article in today's WWD, complete with a gentle admonition to Kanye West, the self-styled "Louis Vuitton Don."  And thanks for the quotes, Matt! 

July 10, 2008

String Theory

Fans of the British TV series Doctor Who are still debating the details of last Saturday's season finale -- as well as the BBC's controversial enforcement of its intellectual property rights in the show.  And they're not just talking about downloads and DVDs.

It seems that grannies in the U.K. have given up knitting tea cosies and are instead turning out Doctor Who scarves and plush replicas of the various aliens whom the Doctor encounters in his travels.  Since both crafters and science fiction fans are communal types, it's not surprising that patterns for these projects have appeared online, further encouraging the proliferation of DIY knockoffs.  While the BBC is state run, it still has a keen eye on potential profits from merchandising -- and thus cease & desist letters have followed. 

The fiber arts brigade has, of course, questioned both the BBC's judgment -- why anger the fan base? -- and its legal statements.  Is it really illegal to knit your own Adipose baby or peaceful Ood?  Or to take up needles and recreate other TV characters or their signature wardrobe pieces?

From a copyright perspective, it's a knotty problem.  Characters can be protected by copyright, and thus a knitted version would constitute an infringement.  And if the knitted version is an infringement, then distributing a pattern online might very well constitute contributory infringement -- after all, the instructions enable others to knit their own unauthorized copies.  On the other hand, versions of the scarf worn by Tom Baker, the fourth actor to play the Doctor (1974-1981), may not be subject to copyright, since U.K. law protecting fashion designs at the time was far more limited than it is now.  Today, however, original items in a character's wardrobe would be more likely to enjoy copyright protection -- though a striped scarf might still be too generic to qualify.  (In the U.S., characters' wardrobe items would still be unprotected in almost all cases -- although animated characters would have a distinct copyright advantage over their live counterparts.)

As for trademark, relatively few characters are actually registered or used to indicate the source of tie-in products, but the name of a TV series certainly would be.  Thus any use of the name in a trademark manner -- "Buy your handmade Doctor Who toys/scarves here!" -- would constitute an infringement. 

So unless you're prepared to use those knitting needles as deadly weapons, it may be best to hide behind the sofa when that C&D arrives. 

Adipose babies


Thanks to my esteemed colleague, a lifelong Doctor Who fan, for suggesting insisting upon this post!  (It was this or knit him a scarf....)

June 10, 2008

Still More Baked Fakes

It's bathing suit season -- so if you must have cake, why not make sure it's too pretty to eat?

Counterfeit Chic has reported on plenty of baked fakes and DIY knockoffs, but this is the first recipe combining the two.  In theory, the two-minute video will result in your own "Designer Knock Off" purse cake.  In practice, I'm imagining wall-to-wall crumbs and icing up to my elbows.  Still, it's the stuff of sweet dreams:

Legally speaking, yes, that quilting looks familiar -- but from the perspective of several different brands.  The style of the cake, moreover, is fairly generic.  So unless you add interlocking sugar C's or manage to spell out "Marc Jacobs" with your precision piping technique, you're free to rev up that oven.  (Note to SATC fans and denizens of small apartments:  Remove sweaters first.) 

May 15, 2008

Colonialism, Culture, and Copying

Cultural appropriation is a frequent theme in the world of fashion, from YSL's famous Ballets Russes collection to more or less any Dries Van Noten season.  In today's New York Times, Cintra Wilson casts a Critical Shopper's eye at the exuberant creations of Christian Lacroix -- and while she chastises the designer (and his clientele) for failing to age gracefully, the boutique's excesses inspired a series of creative mixed metaphors.  How often does slipping on a beaded bangle lead to colorful post-colonial political commentary?

While the rest of the developed world is circling Africa like a kettle of vultures, the French seem to be getting sentimental about the aesthetics of their old colonies.  It's a casual approach to the perpetual ransacking of pre-conquered cultures, old icons conveted into trendy adornments.  Old Gods are rendered symbolically meaningless at the moment that the dominant culture declares them adorable.  High fashion 1, Africa 0. 

For a lighter look at the connection between borrowed spirituality and material culture, enter the Blingdom of God.  Or pile on a few baubles of your own and enjoy my favorite work by Yeats.  Agree or disagree with his eloquent shrug at the end, there's no doubt that this coat's a  classic:

I made my song a coat 
Covered with embroideries 
Out of old mythologies 
From heel to throat; 
But the fools caught it,    
Wore it in the world’s eyes 
As though they’d wrought it. 
Song, let them take it 
For there’s more enterprise 
In walking naked.

Lacroix Spring 2008

April 27, 2008

Copying for Charity

Click for larger imageJudging from my inbox, more than a few of you have heard that Louis Vuitton has sued Danish artist Nadia Plesner over the t-shirt design at left. 

The image casts a Sudanese child from the troubled Darfur region in the role of Paris Hilton, complete with small pink-clad dog and designer handbag, in order to criticize the media's excessive coverage of attention-seeking celebutantes rather than genocidal conflict.  In Nadia's words, "Since doing nothing but wearing designerbags and small ugly dogs appearantly is enough to get you on a magasine cover, maybe it is worth a try for people who actually deserves and needs attention."  (The lack of undergarments may also evoke Ms. Hilton, but the artist doesn't mention her model's unmentionables.) 

The issue for Louis Vuitton, however, is that Nadia didn't just depict any designer bag, but a version of the iconic Multicolore toile pattern, complete with the LV initials morphed into dollar and pound signs.  The company objected to this use as trademark infringement and asked Ms. Plesner to stop selling the t-shirts.  The letter is interesting in itself, since the tone is fairly unusual for a C&D -- "Hey, we're all artists here, and Takashi Murakami and Marc Jacobs collaborated on that bag," rather than the typical demands for an accounting of all units sold, disgorgement of funds, destruction of all remaining merchandise, and the head of the offending party on a platter.  It even offers a nod to Nadia's "Save Darfur" mission.  Still, LV very clearly wanted the shirts depicting its trademarks off the market -- and Nadia responded with a defense of her freedom of expression.  (She also somewhat surprisingly started out by arguing that her drawing refers to designer bags in general and not LV in particular, but more on that in a moment.) 

After Nadia and Louis Vuitton failed to reach an agreement, the company filed the lawsuit that has drawn far more attention than Nadia's initial project.  Without deciding the case, let's take a look at why there's an impasse. 

Q.  Why do Louis Vuitton's lawyers object to the t-shirt?

A.  The simplest answer is that their job is to protect LV's trademarks.  And, legally speaking, they're supposed to object to unauthorized commercial distribution of those marks.  A trademark holder that doesn't enforce its rights can ultimately lose them, as the marks may be considered abandoned or even generic.  Every time you ask for a Kleenex instead of a tissue or make a Xerox instead of a photocopy, a trademark lawyer somewhere gets another grey hair. 

The same is true for the extremely recognizable Multicolore pattern, which has been copied over and over again and is the subject of ongoing litigation between LV and other manufacturers.  It is the responsibility of LV's lawyers to make sure that the public's association between the Multicolore design and the company is not weakened in any way.  Thus Nadia's claim that her design "is inspired by - and refers to - designers bags in general - not a Louis Vuitton bag" is the last statement that would be reassuring or persuasive to a trademark lawyer. 

Q.  But Nadia created the t-shirts for charity -- doesn't that matter?

A.  Yes and no.  We all love a good cause, and we admire people who actually take action when confronted with evil. 

From a trademark lawyer's perspective, however, unauthorized commercial distribution is a threat, whether or not the profits go to a good cause.  Even charities that hold trademarks have problems protecting their marks from other philanthropic parties with similar purposes.  A representative of a prominent health-related nonprofit organization once told my class that she spends much of her time admonishing other groups that have put her organization's logo on their educational literature or their healthy products.  As she put it, "We're a charity, but we're not in the business of giving away our trademark."  Similar issues arise when trademarks are "borrowed" for religious purposes.  Trademark owners who object aren't necessarily grumpy atheists, just concerned about their marks. 

LV's initial letter to Nadia reflects this tension between sympathizing with social concerns and protecting intellectual property -- hence the unusually moderate request and tone for a C&D. 

Q.  So why didn't Louis Vuitton just give Nadia permission to use its trademark?

A.  One strategic option for any company whose trademarks have been used without authorization is to give permission, and also exercise some control, via a licensing agreement. 

Of course, Nadia didn't ask for permission.  And Louis Vuitton may or may not have been willing to grant it if she had, since its marks are constantly copied and copied again.  Also, while Nadia's stated intent was to criticize media attention to celebrities instead of tragedies, her profits from the t-shirts go to Divest for Darfur, an organization that opposes financial investment that ultimately funds genocide.  The presence of LV trademarks on the t-shirt could mistakenly be read to imply that Louis Vuitton had made investments that were helping to fund genocide -- not a message that the company would want broadcast, even in error.  In U.S. legal terms, LV could argue that Nadia was not only engaged in dilution of its well-known marks by blurring (basically overuse by non-owners) but also by tarnishment (negative association).

Q.  What about freedom of expression?

A.  Free speech is an important right, and one that every democratic society protects in different ways.  Intellectual property law establishes exclusive rights in specific expressions, but also attempts to maintain a balance between freedom of expression and creators' rights. 

In other words, at the same time that the law protects trademarks, it creates defenses for those who wish to use them in discussion (like the use of the name "Louis Vuitton" thoughout this post).  Different countries have different trademark laws and thus different defenses to unauthorized use.  In the U.S., the general standard is "fair use," including parody, while other jurisdictions have specific rules about what is or is not allowed in terms of expression.  To complicate matters even further, fair use of a trademark and fair use of copyrighted material are subject to different standards. 

In general, under U.S. law a visual artist is safer using a trademark to comment on or make fun of the trademark owner itself (parody) than to make other social statements (satire).  After all, it may be necessary to make limited use of a trademark to make a statement about its owner, but statements about other things can be made using other vocabulary.  Of course, whether or not something qualifies as parody or other protected speech may require a judicial decision.  Nadia writes that her goal was to make a statement about media coverage, not about Louis Vuitton. 

In her response to Louis Vuitton, Nadia also mentions Zbigniew Libera, a Polish artist who created LEGO concentration camp sets with blocks donated by the Danish company.  In the finished versions of the controversial work, Libera included a statement that his work was sponsored by LEGO.  The company vehemently denied knowlege of exactly what the artist had intended and filed a lawsuit that was later withdrawn.  The story is a cautionary tale for companies who choose to support artists -- whether by donating plastic blocks or the use of their designs -- but is ultimately quite different from Nadia's choice to act unbeknownst to Louis Vuitton. 

Q.  Do you think Paris Hilton will sue Nadia?

A.  Actually, I try not to think about Paris Hilton. 

But if I did, I might wonder whether she would assert a state law right of publicity claim against Nadia, much as she did against Hallmark.  If Vanna White can win her case against Samsung for posing a robot in a blonde wig on a game show set, then Paris could consider suing an artist for selling images of an African child with Hilton-style accessories.  Paris' case would be weaker here, however, since Nadia is criticizing the media for its coverage of Hilton's attention-seeking behavior and perhaps impliedly criticizing Hilton herself, rather than simply selling greeting cards or electronics. 

Q.  How can artists like Nadia avoid lawsuits by trademark holders?

A.  There's a lot of confusion out there as to what artists can and cannot do legally with corporate logos. Unfortunately, the law in this area is not entirely clear, and greater specificity would benefit both trademark holders and artists.  There are, however, some general principles.

For an independent artist, the safest option of all is not to use others' trademarks.  Any such use is a risk, and defending a lawsuit is time-consuming and expensive, even for an artist who ultimately wins.  (Now you know why so few lawyers have become great artists -- we're trained to think about worst-case scenarios.)

That being said, corporations are significant players in modern life, and as a society we need to be able to engage in commentary and criticism, whether that takes the form of op-eds or visual art.  A trademark is shorthand for a corporate entity itself.  The law thus recognizes and protects some critical or discursive use of trademarks. 

Before an artist uses a corporate trademark, she should think about whether or not her intention is to comment on the trademark holder -- and assess the risk according to the relevant national law.  If the use of someone else's trademark is just to make a visual joke or to sell the artist's own products, then that use is lawsuit bait, and the artist may very well be liable for damages.  And by the way, some companies are more determined than others when it comes to enforcing their rights. 

Of course, an artist's intent may be to transgress boudaries and challenge the law, but she should at least figure out where the line is before crossing it. 

Q.  And how should companies respond to unauthorized use of their trademarks by artists?

A.  As we've discussed, trademark holders are required to attempt to assert control over unauthorized uses, lest they lose their trademark rights entirely.  But for most holders of frequently copied trademarks, enforcement is a matter of allocating limited resources -- and managing public relations.  It's impossible to stop every counterfeit handbag seller on every street corner in the world, or to review every art school sketch to determine whether it's fair use.  Commercial sales in large multiples tend to make trademark lawyers see red; a one-off, transformative use may be worth only a shrug and a sigh. 

Q.  Who's going to win this case?

A.  That's a question for a Danish court -- although a settlement is still possible.  In the meantime, don't try this at home. 

Many thanks to Jenny Leugemors and Jayshree Mahtani, the first two to alert Counterfeit Chic to the story!

Via TorrentFreak.

April 21, 2008


Are you a Betty or a Veronica? 

Betty & Veronica Digest #183

In the opening story of the June 2008 Betty & Veronica Digest Magazine, the longtime rivals for Archie's affections become mutually unwilling mirror images.  Betty's defense?  "Don't look at me like that!  I just bought it, I didn't manufacture it!"  Even the end of the school day fails to bring relief, as the girls stomp off to a pep rally -- in identical cheerleader uniforms. 

It may look like a children's comic book, but for my USD $2.49, it's a pretty sophisticated commentary on originality and social conformity.  After all, true wisdom comes from recognizing that all of life is just a reiteration of high school

April 09, 2008

With Friends Like These...

When it comes to gift-giving, it's the thought that counts -- or at least a few recent Facebook apps seem to think so. 

Instead of buying an online friend a real-world gift, you can now send a virtual version guaranteed to fit perfectly, leave plenty of space in the closet, and never wear out.  My Dream Bags offers Prada, Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, and more, while Send Louis Vuitton (tagline:  You know your friends want it....) caters to the consumer whose brand loyalty is absolute. 

No, contrary to recent rumor, this is not a viral marketing campaign from Louis Vuitton.  And yes, it looks an awful lot like trademark dilution, with a bit of copyright infringement thrown in for good measure. 

Many thanks to Suni Sreepada for catching this one.  Facebook users, she's definitely an online friend worth having!

April 03, 2008

Louis Vuitton's Fake-Fighting Parody

"Life imitates art far more than art imitates life."

Oscar Wilde would've been ecstatic at the juxtaposition of life and art at the Brooklyn Museum earlier this evening -- and not just because it involved an abundance of luxury goods.  As guests arrived for the opening of an exhibit celebrating the art of Takashi Murakami and his collaboration with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, they were greeted by an outdoor scene more common on Canal Street:  logoed merchandise piled on tables or hung on metal pegs, graffiti-covered walls, stalls closed "by court order," and persistent vendors promising "best quality" and "best price."  The difference?  Those piles of LV Multicolore bags were real. 

Brooklyn gentrification gone Wilde!

Over the past 5 years, the Murakami/Vuitton partnership has produced some of the world's most copied handbags.  LV has responded with perhaps the world's most elaborate private anticounterfeiting operation, dedicating a team of 40 lawyers around the globe to pursuing its "zero tolerance policy" against copying.  Nowhere have LV's efforts been more extensive than in New York, where actions against landlords have established a beachhead against the counterfeiters who can seem more numerous than grains of sand. 

Of course, most of the 30,000+ raids that LV has conducted since 2003 have occured in relative silence.  Like other luxury companies, Louis Vuitton would rather draw attention to its products than to its issues with counterfeiting.  (Hence one of the most common questions directed to Counterfeit Chic:  If copying is illegal, why doesn't anyone do anything about it?  Answer:  They're trying.  Really!) 

New York's reputation as a counterfeit capital is hard to ignore, however.  Thus when Brooklyn Museum Director Arnold Lehman and LV Chairman and CEO Yves Carcelle discussed how to put a local spin on the © MURAKAMI exhibition, which had previously opened in L.A., their images of the city's vibrant street life inevitably turned to the dark side of our fabulous sidewalk agora:  fakes.  A popup installation and a bit of performance art turned out to be the perfect way to draw attention to the issue of what Lehman called "intellectual theft, Carcelle termed an "illness of the world," and Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler described as "a serious crime backed up by serious criminal enterprises."  Creative art used to express a commitment to legal protection of creative art -- now that's a New York moment.

While visitors to © MURAKAMI won't have the opportunity to buy a real LV handbag from a fake street vendor, there's nevertheless a seamless blend of art, commerce, and fashion inside the museum as well.  At the very heart of the exhibition, nestled between rooms of larger-than-life sculptures and giant painted canvases, is a tiny gem of a Louis Vuitton boutique.  Not only are all the newest versions of the Multicolore bag available here, but Murakami has also created a signed series of small art canvases in new "Monogramouflage" patterns.  At $6,000 each -- rising to $10,000 after the first batch sells out -- they're an artist's version of a diffusion line.  Or you can wait for the pattern to appear on LV handbags and other products, available at the museum as of June 1.  Another meeting of luxury and the street, a political reference, or a sly wink at the idea of overtly displayed "stealth wealth"?  Whatever the interpretation, the patterns are bound to be popular.

Takashi Murakami

Perhaps my favorite bit of the exhibit, though, wasn't the sculptures or even the guilt-free shopping, with a portion of the evening's proceeds earmarked for Homeland Security.  Instead, it was a moment of surprise as I stood in front of a glass case with an LV Murakami Cherry Blossom Retro handbag over my arm -- and realized that the flowers on my bag were smiling back at an exact duplicate.  OK, mine usually lives in a metal filing cabinet rather than a pristine display case, and its usual outings are to class to illustrate the idea of conceptual separability in copyright (the surface print is protected, the underlying design of the bag is not) rather than to elegant parties, but in that moment, it was wearable art.  And yes, it's real.

March 18, 2008

Obama Fan Strikes Out

He built it, and they came.  Now the Obama supporter who developed a line of t-shirts based on baseball team logos has been forced to dismantle his website,, at the objection of Major League Baseball

While typefaces themselves are not protected by copyright, their use is frequently an essential trademark element.  MLB apparently claimed that Morris Levin's deliberate invocation of the nation's pastime, combined with his use of copycat lettering and color combinations, constituted trademark infringement.  And, as the Smoking Gun noted, even Hillary's official favorite teams -- the Yankees and the Cubs -- were Obamized. 

A word of advice to Levin:  Consider combining a JD with that Wharton MBA you're pursuing.  And don't mess with major league lawyers, unless you're looking for a bench-clearing brawl.   

March 07, 2008

Welcome Village Voice readers!

Lynn YaegerIt's not in Counterfeit Chic's nature to agree to disagree.  Being punished for "talking back" was a characteristic feature of my otherwise bookish and unrebellious childhood -- and perhaps the germ of my parents' impression that I'd be a good candidate for the lawyer in the family. 

When it comes to someone as intelligent, personable, and dedicated to fashion as Village Voice columnist Lynn Yaeger, however, I may have to make a rare exception.  And I certainly have to send you over to Lynn's most recent piece, for which she and I had a conversation about Oscar knockoffs. 

I still find it a bit odd that someone who's cultivated such an iconic personal image as Lynn -- love, love the Goyard tote customized with her portrait  -- wouldn't oppose fakes.  I'm also surprised that, as the fashion oracle of such  a celebrated alternative, downtown media outlet, she'd endorse derivative mass production.  I'd rather she inspired her readers to develop their own creativity, whatever the mainstream commercial trends might be. 

With so many aspiring young designers watching Project Runway and taking fashion seriously as a creative medium, why settle for looking like a bad copy of an overstyled celebrity on prom night?  Get creative, ladies!  (As I may have mentioned to Lynn, John Hughes' tooth-achingly sweet 1986 movie, Pretty in Pink, in which the impecunious Molly Ringwald character is forced to make her own prom dress but gets the guy anyway, should be required watching for the teen fashionista.) 

Lynn and I do agree on one thing, though:  She'd look amazing in Tilda Swinton's flowing Lanvin on the way to the podium to accept a Pulitzer. 

Thanks, Lynn!

February 28, 2008

Walk of Shame: Oscar Knockoffs by Faviana

Sunday's Oscar parties are over and the Monday hangovers have faded, but knockoff artists are still hanging around and sniffing at the leftover crumbs from the fashion banquet.  A Cachet copyist immediately revealed his top targets to WWD, and now the notorious Faviana label has named its own fashion victims, including two of the same dresses as Cachet.  

In addition to seeking secondhand publicity via Access Hollywood, Faviana has gone to great lengths to make sure that the models for its copied samples resemble the actresses who wore the original gowns to the Academy Awards -- or at least their morning-after incarnations.  Imagine Katherine Heigl with her curls gone flat and her roots showing, Jessica Alba with her bodice feathers bedraggled, Miley Cyrus haphazardly smearing lipstick around her mouth after partying with the grownups, or Amy Adams with shiny skin and an extra dessert under her belt, and you'll get the picture.  Or if your mind's eye refuses to conjure such wreckage, just scroll down: 

Katherine Heigl in Escada and Faviana knockoff

Jessica Alba in Marchesa and Faviana knockoff

Miley Cyrus in Valentino and Faviana knockoff

Amy Adams in Proenza Schouler and Faviana Knockoff

Girls, don't let these be your post-prom pictures -- just say no! 

And while the fashion police ponder these aesthetic offenses, does the legal system have anything to say for itself?  The gowns, of course, are unprotected by U.S. law -- but the photos may be subject to copyright.  Since Faviana is clearly using them for a commercial purpose, the company had better have sent its own photographer to snap these red carpet shots -- or at least licensed their use.  Even that wouldn't leave Faviana home free, however, if the actresses in question object to their images being used to hock fashion schlock.  Some of these leading ladies are reportedly paid a pretty penny to appear in the real thing, and it's unlikely that any one of them would agree to pose for a Faviana ad or to deputize a double to do so.  Perhaps the fashion houses can't take direct action against blatant copyists -- but there's nothing to say that they can't persuade their lovely mannequins to do so. 

For the moment, however, sweatshop season is in full swing -- and Counterfeit Chic has another pressing question to ponder.  Have I spent too much time staring at various trademarks, or (no offense to the charming and talented Proenza Schouler boys here) does the bodice of Amy Adams' gown recall the silhouette of Mickey Mouse? 

Many thanks to Steven Kolb for the links!

UPDATE:  Some wise words from Professor Rebecca Tushnet:

You know I respect your work, even if we may disagree on some things.  So I hope you'll take this as a friendly question:  did you really have to suggest that the decidedly skinny model in the last Faviana picture was fat?  Aside from accuracy -- and I admit, I don't follow fashion and I don't see such huge differences between the glowing stars and the nameless models -- I wish you wouldn't suggest that having an extra dessert is a problem.  When I see something like that, I have to wonder how fat you think I am and what you think that means about my moral standing.  Criticize the copyists all you want.  But it's hard for me to read attacks on the models for being, in my eyes, a perfectly reasonable -- skinny actually -- shape. 

And a response:

Point taken, Rebecca -- you're quite right, esp. with the skinny model debate and issues involving eating disorders in the industry and among the young women it influences still unresolved.  The model certainly isn't fat or even particularly curvy, though as I looked at the picture, I didn't like the shape created by the belt on the copy -- a straight belt or waistband in general is apt to create a strange tummy bulge even on a thin person where a curved belt or waistband won't (but requires more fabric and care in construction).
There's no moral implication about extra dessert, though -- just make mine chocolate.  I was  thinking of the various ways in which one's carefully constructed look can degrade over the course of an evening out -- mussed hair, lipstick re-applied after a few drinks, the need to loosen the belt after a gourmet dinner, etc. -- and I still find it amusing that the knockoff company tried to find doubles for the actresses but did such a sloppy job of styling them. 
Still, there are too many attacks on women based on unrealistic standards of body shape and size, and I don't mean for this post to be taken as one of them.  For the record, womanly curves and angles are both fine, and healthy is the ultimate ideal.  Thanks for the reminder that we're not yet living in a world where we can take that for granted.

February 26, 2008

Loss of Cachet

With so many actresses playing it safe at the Oscars, it was a lean year for the red carpet scavengers seeking knockoff fodder. 

Michael Ruff of Cachet, however, has gone on record with WWD about his top targets.  Naturally, there will be long red dresses -- a trend that will be noted by real designers seeking inspiration and design pirates alike.  The soon-to-be Cachet copies include Heidi Klum's John Galliano, Anne Hathaway's Marchesa (red carpet bait as soon as it came down the runway; it was just a matter of which actress), and Katherine Heigl's Escada:

The company also announced plans to replicate Jessica Alba's aubergine Marchesa (though presumably not in pregnant proportions), as well as Jennifer Garner's Oscar de la Renta and Penelope Cruz's Chanel:

Ruff may be barking up another tree, though, if Harvey Weinstein, the movie mogul and now spouse of Marchesa co-designer Georgina Chapman, hears about his plans.  Last year, when another manufacturer boasted of his intent to copy a Marchesa straight off the red carpet (this one, perhaps?), Weinstein played the good boyfriend and beat up the guy called his extremely famous trial lawyer.  Somehow, the would-be copyist changed his mind.  Now Cachet claims it's going to copy two Marchesas...

The copying is, of course, legal in the U.S. -- at the moment.  Perhaps Harvey's bulldog invoked trade dress protection, since the dress was immediately famous; perhaps he considered the probability of distribution to a foreign jurisdiction where the copying might be actionable; perhaps he simply threatened to dog the copyist's footsteps with various legal challenges for the rest of his natural life.  Whatever the tactics, they're unlikely to be successful -- or even available -- in most cases.

For the moment, then, Cachet is simply cackling over its Academy Awards loot and calculating its prom-season profits.  The beading and other details on some of the gowns are too expensive to copy, Ruff notes, "But with the others, especially the one-shoulder dresses, we will be able to do something more exact."

January 03, 2008

Parody Panties

BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow certainly found an interesting souvenir on his trip to Shanghai: 

But does calling the panties a parody make it so? 

Not necessarily.  Painting the word "fake" on a counterfeit handbag -- or a real one, for that matter -- can be construed as cultural commentary, given the prominence of the great fake debate.  Printing the word "parody" on Mickey Mouse panties doesn't seem to be commenting on much of anything, since discussion surrounding trademark infringement rarely involves cartoon undergarments.  Moreover, the target customer for girls' briefs in China (presumably not Mr. Doctorow, but one never knows) may not read much English or understand the word "parody" -- but Mickey himself needs no translation.

Perhaps in another context the panties could be considered a commentary on the famous mouse's squeaky-clean image.  Then again, Disney seems to have no objection to slapping authorized versions of its characters' smiling visages on fans' bottoms.

At the end of the day, the Mickey knickers are just another twist on the disclaimer myth:  Hmmm, copying is illegal, but parodies that involve some copying are legal, so maybe if I label my copy a parody, I'll get away with least until Disney launches a retaliatory panty raid. 

Nice try.

Many thanks to Counterfeit Chic reader Rory Solomon for the tip!

December 17, 2007

What Not to Wear, Canine Edition

Fans of the U.S. television show What Not to Wear (yes, a knockoff of the British original) will recognize host Stacy London in her spinoff show, Fashionably Late.  Some of the red carpet gowns that Stacy recently featured may also look suspiciously familiar -- though the long-limbed models are of the four-legged rather than the two-legged kind. 


This isn't the first time that Counterfeit Chic has covered the Little Lilly canine couture copies -- or noted that while Lara Alameddine's doggie dresses themselves do not violate intellectual property laws, use of celebrity photos or an image of a trademarked award might.   

America Ferrer's Monique Lhullier gown and copy

Interestingly, despite the outcome of the widely publicized "Chewy Vuiton" case, American designers have thus far shown little interest in limiting knockoffs intended for pets.  The proposed Design Piracy Prohibition Act makes no mention of animal clothing in its definition of fashion designs, so presumably even an exact copy of a Shih Tzu's sweater or a poodle's poncho would be fair game after passage of the bill (apart from any logos or labels).  A canine version of a couture gown might might meet the test for determining infringement of the original, but it is by no means certain that the adapted version would be sufficiently similar to the original to trigger protection -- even if marketed as a copy. 

Perhaps the canine couture market is too small to attract attention, or perhaps our biological predisposition to favor neotenous creatures makes us unwilling to censure anything that makes adorable little dogs even more so -- at least the eyes of those who regularly match their pets to their handbags. 

But with all due respect to Ms. London's guest, Counterfeit Chic's four-legged friends appear to prefer wearing only their own original -- and fabulous -- furs.   

November 27, 2007

Black Friday Fakes and Cyber Monday Scams

Amid nervous projections of retail malaise this holiday season, counterfeit goods are bound to prosper, right?  After all, consumers dismayed by high gas prices, a soft housing market, and other inhospitable indicators may well turn to fakes for their style fix.

Think again.

According to the New York Post, Manhattan street peddlers are feeling pinched by lack of interest from potential buyers and increased attention from the police.  One watch dealer complained that his folding-table display generated $800 in sales on the day after Thanksgiving last year -- but only $200 this Black Friday.

And what of Cyber Monday, the day when we return to the office and begin our online holiday shopping, sometime between interminable meetings and emails from the boss?  Judging from the amount of Monday morning spam offering genuine replica goods, counterfeiters are out looking for a holiday score -- but, according to MarkMonitor's information-packed Brandjacking Index, so are phishers and gift card scammers.  It remains to be seen whether the heightened perils of typing in a credit card number on a shady site and pressing "enter" will affect internet shopping patterns.

In the meantime, enjoy the office parties and eggnog excesses.  Oh, and watch out for this guy...

Steven Hirsh photo of Alabama tourist Mike Dunn

...whom the Post snapped showing off his new $20 "Rolex."  If he's your Secret Santa, you're better off with a lump of (candy) coal.

November 26, 2007

Counterfeit Coffee Break 6

Today's counterfeit coffee break poses a corporate conundrum:  What if you've been knocked off by God?  (Or at least someone who speaks to -- and about, and perhaps for -- Him regularly?)

A New Yorker article on the spread of megachurches to the once staunchly Protestant and now culturally Catholic New England area features Pastor Frank Santora, his Faith Church, and its invitation to spend your day of rest with an infusion of caffeine.  It's not clear from the article whether SonBucks actually sells coffee -- unlike at StarBucks, the baristi are reportedly volunteers -- but the reporter observed members of the congregation as they "drifted into the sanctuary, some carrying their Styrofoam cups with them."  Why settle for communion wafers and wine when you could be giving thanks for a cappuccino?

Of course, SonBucks coffee raises ethical and doctrinal questions as well.  "Thou shalt not steal" others' trademarks to sell coffee (Exodus 20:15), but then again, "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9).  And if God created everything in the first place, what's a little trademark infringment and/or dilution among the faithful? 

Still, I wouldn't necessarily stand under the SonBucks sign in a thunderstorm....

P.S.  For more examples of logo-based evangelism, check out this post from Copywrite (via Likelihood of Confusion).

November 20, 2007

Gourmet Spam

Every bright new technology casts a shadow -- and for email, that dark side is spam.  You can fight it with filters, you can unsubscribe from as many lists as possible, you can delete it...or, like artist and illustrator Linzie Hunter, you can embrace it.

Linzie was inspired by the spam one-liners in her inbox to create a series of "experiments with hand lettering" -- a nice complement to her digitally created work.  Think there's nothing in particular to be gleaned from junk email?  Behold the soul of a spam:

Repl1ka Watches from Linzie Hunter's Spam One-liners

"Repl1ka watches," with its clever emphasis on the "look," is Counterfeit Chic's favorite, naturally -- but don't miss the rest of Linzie's incredibly creative cultural commentary!

UPDATE:  Select prints available at Thumbtack Press -- for less than the cost of many "repl1ka" watches!

November 07, 2007

Funny Girls

Think the idea of dressing your wee bairns in genuine designer labels is a bit premature?  So does Deadly Girl Couture -- but the label isn't above poking a bit of gentle fun at the idea. 

Check out Gucci Coo, Louis Spitton, Pradada, Dolce & Grandpa (and Dolce & Grandma, naturally), and finally Burpberry -- complete with the Burberry knight transformed into a rocking horse.   

Deadly Girl Couture Burberry parody

Best of all -- and perhaps helpful should the need of a parody defense arise -- there's not a bit of plaid in sight. 

Of course, the Deadly Girls will no doubt want to keep close watch on a case involving the similarly brand-conscious comediennes over at Haute Diggity Dog (appellate decision pending after oral argument before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on September 26 -- stay tuned). 

Many thanks to brilliant and distinguished Fordham law grad Brit Payne for the tip. 

October 22, 2007

Watch Out!

Pssst!  Want to buy a watch?

According to an article by Liza Casabona in this month's WWD Accessories supplement (not available online), seizures of counterfeit watches are on the rise.  So far this year, watches and watch parts account for 10 percent of the goods seized by U.S. customs, following only apparel and footwear, and up from 2 percent for fiscal 2006.  And that's not including online sales of "replica watches," or the legally more complex issue of jewelers altering less expensive versions of genuine watches to look like their pricier counterparts by, for example, adding diamonds.  (Thus far, the brands are winning their trademark infringement cases, based on the argument that the modified watches are misrepresented as original workmanship and do not carry disclaimers.) 

Perhaps counterfeit retailers have finally decided to target all the guys hanging around on Canal Street while their female friends are buying fake handbags.

And yes, those quotes are from your favorite law prof -- thanks, Liza! 

P.S.  Doubt the trend?  There's even a website that reviews replica watches:

October 21, 2007

One, Two, Three, Many

When I was very little, my mother periodically drove by a McDonald's that, under its golden arches, proudly proclaimed, "Over X Million Served."  Every so often, the figure would rise.  I never actually saw anyone on a tall ladder changing the numbers, but the statistic was a source of fascination nonetheless.  How many zeros in a million?  Was that only hamburgers, or cheeseburgers too?  What would they look like piled up?  Did the number include that franchise only, or the whole chain?  If we went in and ordered a lot of hamburgers, could we get the numbers to change?  And how did McDonald's keep track? 

At some point, the millions became billions, and then the sign changed.  It read simply, "Billions and Billions Served."  I stopped paying attention.

Fabulous photo of a cultural phenomenon

Source:  Elena777 on Flickr

Industries fighting counterfeiting clearly understand the power of large numbers.  The problem is that illegal goods are somewhat harder to track than McDonald's hamburgers.  Do counterfeit sales add up to $600 billion per year, or is the number closer to $200 billion (exclusive of domestic manufactures and downloads)?  Last year Felix Salmon, who also writes for Conde Nast Portfolio, made an effort to track the source of the most widely quoted counterfeit figures.  His conclusion?  "All counterfeiting statistics are bullshit."  On Friday the Wall Street Journal's Numbers Guy, Carl Bialik, raised similar questions about piracy's "fuzzy figures" and the difficulties inherent in generating hard numbers. 

Nobody seems to deny that there is massive global trade in counterfeit goods.  Nor is there any question that back alley sales represent lost tax revenues, in addition to other complaints.  Quantifying the fake trade, however, is an elusive task. 

Why, then, the insistence upon numbers?  Perhaps it's just because journalists and lawmakers always ask for them.  Of course, from an efficiency standpoint, it make sense to understand the scope of the problem before committing resources to legal enforcement.  But more importantly, advertisers have known for year that numbers are both attractive and persuasive.  Just ask Mr. Heinz and his 57 Varieties

So, how big is the counterfeit trade?  Let's just say, billions and billions sold. 

September 12, 2007

Counterfeit Coffee Break 5

It's been a while since our last counterfeit coffee break, but if you -- or any of the under-12 set in your general vicinity -- need refreshment, this one's for you.

Advertising Age reports that Burger King, in a response to health concerns regarding fast food, has introduced apples cut to resemble french fries and served in a paper container.  So far, so good.  The catch?  Burger King has named its new apple offering the "Frypod."

Open your mouth and download soon, before one badly labeled apple spoils the whole barrel.  I'd guess that unless Burger King's use is authorized, Apple won't consider the name's resemblance to "iPod" particularly salutary. 

September 04, 2007

Power Dressing

Remember when Condoleezza Rice was the most powerful woman in the world -- and dressed the part?  In a memorable column, Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan described Condi in her stiletto-heeled boots and long, military-style coat as "draped in a banner of authority, power and toughness." 

Photo Michael Probst - AP

Alas, 2 1/2 years later it seems that Condi's strong, independent voice isn't what many had hoped -- and neither is her wardrobe.  Did Air Force One lose her luggage on the way to Iraq, forcing her to borrow one of her boss's suits, or has she become our fearless leader's mini-me

Photo Jason Reed - Reuters 

Copying Clothes Over a High-Speed Connection

What would life be like without the mixed blessings of the internet?

In today's New York Times, Eric Wilson goes behind the scenes at Simonia Fashions, one of many companies waiting for the first photos from New York Fashion Week to appear online.  Not because the proprietors are interested in fashion's new creative direction, mind you, but so that they can pick out the most popular designs and get cheap copies into stores -- often before the originals are available for sale. 

Naturally, the retailers selling the knockoffs disclaim any actual knowledge of copying, pointing back to their suppliers as the source of the controversial clothing. 

In the U.S. all of this occurs without interference from any of those inconvenient intellectual property laws that might actually protect creative fashion designers.  Interestingly, the company featured in the article outsources its manufacturing to India, where design protection does exist.

It's enough to make one long for the good old days days of rough pencil sketches and descriptions sent via telegraph.

Tory Burch (left) and Simonia Fashion's Blue Plate special (right)

Bonus point:  Who is the "expert working with the designers’ trade group" who in the article offered a rock-bottom, minimum estimate of the percentage of knockoffs in the apparel and accessories market?  You guessed it.  And just for the record, since some of you have asked, I do not now nor have I ever represented the CFDA; all of my opinions are my own and are the product of my academic research.  All of my work on this issue, moreover, has been pro bono -- both in the literal sense of "for the good" and in the more colloquial sense of "free of charge." 

August 30, 2007

A Shocking Reward

At the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts, behaviorally challenged students are "treated" with powerful electric shocks for acting aggressively, rising from their seats without permission, swearing, nagging, and perhaps even "failing to maintain a neat appearance."

And when they do behave?  There's also a system of rewards, including points that can be spent on, among other things, "knockoff Prada purses." 

Only one of these practices is illegal.

Thanks to Professor Rebecca Tushnet for sending the truly disturbing story from Mother Jones

August 23, 2007

i believe...

...that Elizabeth Arden's PR department is working overtime to deal with this -- ahem! -- oversight in its ad campaign for the Britney Spears Believe fragrance.

True, nobody is likely to confuse Britney with a charity (of late a charity case, perhaps), and fragrance and socially conscious t-shirts hardly fall into the same category.  The use of a typeface and colors so extremely similar to Mondonation's just doesn't pass the smell test, however.  Stealing is bad; stealing from a social enterprise is worse. 

What does it say about the modern era when you wake up and put on a save-the-world-type t-shirt, only to find yourself a walking billboard for celebrity perfume? 

July 02, 2007

Creators v. Consumers

From Rob Walker, the gifted journalist and consumer guru who called attention to Prestigious' "Stop Rockin' Fake Shit" T-shirts, comes notice of a new blog, StartRockintheFakeSht.  As the name implies, the anonymous authors both support knockoffs and call into question the value of authentic merchandise -- and some seem angrier than others. 

But why such polarized views on rockin' fake shit?

It's all a matter of perspective.  First consider creation.  An aspiring creator who manages to sell a painting, a story, or a dress can't necessarily afford to be copied by a commercial venture that recognizes the value of the work and can engage in cheap mass production-- but doesn't want to pay the creator.  Even established creators may suffer from the presence of a large quantity of knockoffs in the market, since they dilute the value and perceived quality of originals.  "Fake shit" thus harms creators, especially if not enough consumers insist on having an original, authentic work. 

Now consider consumption.  An aspirational consumer who wants a design wants it NOW -- and doesn't necessarily want to pay the creator's price or accept the concept of limited production.  Such desire may be cast in anti-elitist or faux populist terms, but at base it is not about basic life needs (even, in most cases, information); it is about individual aesthetic gratification.  Such a consumer will envy wealthier or better connected consumers who do have access the item, especially if it is an obviously expensive "status good."  (It is, however, inaccurate to cast all targeted originals as extremely expensive; both creativity and copying occur at all price points.)  From the perspective of the covetous consumer, then, "fake shit" offers instant gratification and mocks both consumers and creators of genuine goods.

Intellectual property law intends to benefit both creators and consumers -- by focusing its protections on creators.  Ask any U.S. IP student about the purpose of the system, and you'll (hopefully!) be reminded of the Article 1, section 8, clause 8 of the Constitution, which empowers Congress:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries....

The immediate benefit is to creators, to "Authors and Inventors."  The collective benefit is to society at large, which gains from "the Progress of Science and useful Arts" and from having creators with the opportunity develop their skills.  The eventual benefit is to individual consumers, not because they can immediately rock fake shit, but because more creativity means more choices overall in the long run. 

We are all consumers.  And virtually all of us (Mother Theresa or the Dalai Lama aside) have been covetous consumers at some point or other, whether or not our desires would have been satisfied by knockoffs.

In modern industrialized economies and in the internet era, more and more of us are also creators.  We are no longer dependent on agriculture or manufacturing to support the economy; we rely instead on industries that generate intellectual property.  Moreover, while a creative class still supplies us with music, movies, literature, and other artistic diversions, there's also YouTube, MySpace, and Second Life.  Both in our work lives and in our private lives, creative endeavor is not specialized but universal. 

And if we are all creators, then the debate over whether to stop or to start rockin' fake shit takes on a whole new dimension. 

June 19, 2007

A Heideggerian Lament

Or, if knockoffs could speak.

Source:  New Yorker, June 25, 2007.

June 18, 2007

Don't Cut that Cake!

Is there any part of a wedding that can't be faked?

Between amateur knockoff artists sneaking forbidden cameras into their appointments at bridal boutiques and deceived brides lamenting the gift of faux engagement rings or wedding bands posing as pure platinum, it's enough to turn the most starry-eyed romantic into a counterfeit-spotting cynic.

Still, there's something amusing about the latest entry in the imitation bridal market:  fake cakes.  Covered in icing and decorated to look like the real thing, these tiers of Styrofoam are intended for display at the reception.  After the happy couple cuts into a secret spot containing a slice of real cake, the fake is removed to the kitchen -- preferably with some dramatic staggering by the waitstaff -- and slices of an ordinary sheetcake are served to unsuspecting guests.  Then, in the case of, the stand-in is returned to its specially designed shipping crate and sent back for the next time.  Sort of like your great-aunt's porcelain monstrosity of a wedding present, destined to be re-gifted over and over again. 

Tune in next time for the blow-up groom....

Many thanks to Karen Quartuccio for the tip!

P.S.  A public service announcement for budget-minded brides:  You may have missed last year's fast fashion feeding frenzy involving Victor & Rolf's wedding gowns for H&M, but other cheap chic chains are getting into the act.  This weekend's WSJ gave top marks to Isaac Mizrahi's "Trapunto Bell" design for Target, USD $159.99.  Why settle for a knockoff when the real designer will provide one for you? 

June 14, 2007

Happy Belated World Anti-Counterfeiting Day!

Oops.  It was yesterday -- but at least the greeting cards will be on sale by now.

UPDATE:  Wait!  Don't put the party hats and crepe paper streamers away yet -- WAC Day this year has been postponed 'til June 26.  (Yes, that's the acronym.  No, I didn't make it up.)  Many thanks to Ruth Orchard, Director-General of The Anti-Counterfeiting Group, for sending the news. 

June 13, 2007

C & D

With prints back in fashion and knockoffs in the news, the fashion community has begun to keep an eye out for suspicious sartorial similarities.  Check out these contributions from nitro.licious, Fashionista, and Fashion Theory, respectively:

Anna Sui v Forever 21

Tibi v Mandee

Marc by Marc Jacobs v Forever 21

And now the legal question:  If the original dresses (left) were subject to design protection in the U.S., as they are in Europe and Japan and as proposed in the recently reintroduced Design Piracy Prohibition Act, would the copies infringe that protection?

Answer:  No.  The dress designs as a whole weren't copied; only the fabric patterns are the same.

Q:  So these copies are legitimate?

A:  No, I didn't say that.  If they're actually copies, they may very well violate the U.S. law as well as that of other countries.  The question is, which type of law?

copyrightEach of these fabric prints may qualify for copyright protection, in the U.S. and pretty much everywhere else.  That's how DVF could bring her much-discussed lawsuit against Forever 21.  New legislation won't change that in any way.  Just like images created with ink on paper or paint on canvas, prints created with dye on fabric are subject to copyright protection -- and have been under U.S. law for over half a century.

Much of the time, however, this copyright is held by the company that created the fabric, not the designer who created the garment.  Some designers sell a large enough volume and are successful enough to design their own prints on a regular basis, in which case the designer holds the copyright, but most designers simply purchase material from fabric mills.  If the order isn't large enough to be exclusive, this can result in 2 designers using the same fabric -- just as if 2 individuals went to the same store and bought a few yards each from the same bolt of fabric.  This isn't noticeable if the fabric is, say, black wool crepe, but printed cotton is another matter. 

If the prints on the left were created by the designers of the original dresses (presumably Anna Sui's claim, since she's brought a lawsuit against Forever 21), then the copies may very well infringe copyright.  If, however, the printed fabrics were simply bought from the same source, no problem.   Another possibility is that the fabric prints were copied but are in the public domain, like older vintage works -- again, no problem. 

Whatever the story with these particulalr fabric prints, the original garment designs cannot be protected in the U.S.  Of course, in these examples the garment designs weren't copied, so the question of infringment would in any case be limited to copyright in the fabric prints (or possibly patent, but that's another matter). 

designWhat design protection offers is the ability to protect not just the print, but the overall design of the garment.  The idea is to give fashion designers rights to protect their designs.  At the moment, fabric designers get protection in the U.S., while fashion designers don't. 

In other words, if our intrepid fashion bloggers are correct, then the copyists responsible for the images on the right aren't exactly legal luminaries.  They engaged in unauthorized duplication of the only protected part of the original dresses -- the fabric prints -- while ignoring the unprotected garment designs. 

Call in the lawyers -- it's time to send out the C&Ds. 

May 27, 2007

Credit Card Cover-Up

As the insightful cultural critic Rob Walker notes in today's New York Times, "[M]aybe there's something inevitable about converting the credit card from a tool for acquiring expressive objects into one of those objects." 

Of course, this shift has been occurring for some time -- "affinity cards" advertise anything from the bearer's alma mater to her favorite sport, and the alchemy that transformed plastic from silver to gold to platinum in quick succession has culminated in the coveted, by-invitation-only American Express black card.  Today's "Consumed" column, however, reports on a new twist:  CreditCovers, essentially a line of stickers that allows consumers to personalize their credit cards.

Rob is duly skeptical of the creators' claim that these credit card "skins" are somehow "subversive" or rebellious -- just how radical is it to spend $4.99 on a design in order to adorn the means by which we borrow and spend money? 

Credit Covers Louis the XIV design

Perhaps an even greater irony is that the two current top-selling designs, "Louis the XIV" (above) and "Burs & Berries" (below), strongly resemble the LV Multicolore toile and the Burberry Nova Check, respectively.  Better still, both designs are attributed to "The Truth," actually one of the company's founders.  In other words, CreditCovers invites customers to display their individuality and escape the corporate uniformity of financial tools by purchasing presumably unauthorized versions of other corporate symbols.  The resulting semiotic haze nearly obscures issues relating to trademark law -- not to mention the comedic complications that might ensue if one were to "personalize" a Main Street Bank card and then present it to a store clerk at Vuitton or Burberry. 

Credit Covers Burs & Berries design

Nevertheless, CreditCovers has managed to both capture and capitalize upon a founding principle of self-definition within modern consumer culture, perhaps best expressed by artist Barbara Kruger

Until the trademark counterfeiting claims are filed, that is. 

May 14, 2007

Art and Artifice

Against a backdrop of global concern over counterfeit goods and artistic frauds, Forged Realities, a recent art show in Beijing, took on the question of real v. fake.  Ten artists, including Stephanie Syjuco of Anti-Factory and the previously featured Counterfeit Crochet Project, contributed works in the categories of fake goods, fake narrative, and fake artworld (in contemporary China), under the curatorial direction of Pauline J. Yao.  

To open the exhibition catalog, Yao offers the following quotes:

Truth becomes fiction when the fiction's true;

Real becomes not-real when the unreal's real.

--Cao Xueqin

Starting out from the demand of "forgery in place of original," passing through the contemplation of "forgery or original," and even surpassing the dialectics of "forgery and original at the same time," we finally arrive at the viewpoint of "forgery as original," which at the moment offers perhaps the greatest perspectives:  In an age when the confidence in authenticity and trust has been shattered, to direct a beam of light at the twilight concealing the distinction between forgery and original, with a painful brightness that provokes clarification and reaches the most secret corners of personal existence, with a brightness to which we cannot close our eyes, this is perhaps the most that art can do. 

--Janos Gyorgy Szilagi

Just the thing for a Monday morning meditation.

Crochet Bag Project displayed in Forged Realities


April 22, 2007

Love-Hate Relationship

If Consumer Reports suddenly decided to review illegal products, the author of a new blog called "It Takes a Fake" would be an ideal editorial prospect. 

The site's inaugural project involves ordering counterfeit Louis Vuitton Speedy 30 bags from 5 "replica" sites and reviewing them for quality and authentic detail.  Thus far, only one has arrived, and it failed to impress -- indeed, it is destined to be returned, with hopes of receiving a refund (less a 30% restocking fee, not atypical for sites that sell poor-quality fakes likely to be rejected by buyers). 

A real Louis Vuitton Speedy 30

If the site's mission is real, and not a bizarre viral marketing scam ultimately intended to endorse particular counterfeit retailers or, alternatively, to expose the shoddy nature of their goods, it points to a certain psychological dilemma.  "Lisamarie" -- whoever she may be -- is in thrall to pricey designer goods, to the point of starting a blog about them, yet at the same time resents them.  Although deeply invested in the details of a real Speedy, which retails online at USD $620, she would rather order multiple fakes and spend hours examining and writing about them.  Given that she reports paying a rather steep USD $132 for the first specimen, the copies could collectively cost more than the real thing -- surely a false economy.

This peculiar obsession, however, is cast as a public service project:

[It Takes a Fake] is for those who are not afraid to say,,, I like to fake it. I will search and research the best in the world of faux\fake products. From fake bags to fake boobs. From the best to the worst, what your money will get you. I will find and post the best places to go and get the #1 fakes you want. I will find the best for your buck.

Of course, sites selling fake handbags appear and disappear with such regularity that, even should the reviewer find a bag that meets her standards, the purveyor's site may be long gone by the time that Lisamarie's readers get there.  Indeed, somewhere an intern for LVMH's legal department may even now be bookmarking her site. 

Lisamarie does "not care to hear about the laws and all the negative thought on knockoff bags," so I'll spare the warnings about getting involved in resale of fake bags or taking kickbacks from recommended sites.   But if I've noticed FBI visits to this site, a purely academic endeavor (Hi, guys!  How's it hangin'?), then surely a conduit to counterfeiters will attract notice as well. 

April 17, 2007

Welcome Ranch & Coast Readers!

Thanks to the aptly named Cody Goodfellow for exploring "the dark side of style" in this month's Ranch & Coast magazine, with quotes from your humble blogger.  If only I'd been in sunny San Diego for the interview! 

March 22, 2007

Memo: Legal to Merge with Marketing

OK, it's not fashion per se -- but anything with ZERO calories is bound to develop an editorial following, even if a few lawyers are baffled

Of course, the Coca-Cola Company is no stranger to the quest for authenticity:

  • 1942 - The only thing like Coca-Cola is Coca-Cola itself.
  • 1969 - It's the real thing.
  • 1985 - America's Real Choice
  • 1989 - Can't beat the real thing.
  • 2003 - Real
  • 2005 - Make It Real.

Interesting social history lesson, no?  And what does the latest campaign say about American society in 2007?

Many thanks to Michael Li for sending the photos!

March 19, 2007

Oh, the Humanity

New Yorker cover 19 March 2007At the outset, Larissa MacFarquhar's New Yorker profile of anticounterfeiting attorney Harley Lewin is like listening to cocktail party braggadocio.  There are the anecdotes from the startup years, the war stories, a bit of namedropping (from both Lewin's days in "the rock-and-roll business" and his current client roster, including Diane von Furstenberg), and a snappy tagline or two:  "Counterfeiting is more profitable than narcotics, and your partners don't kill you."  In other words, exactly what you'd expect.

This being the New Yorker, however, there's also a bit of existential wistfulness:  "Surrounded as he is by fakes and fradulence, Harley pursues authenticity."  Cue the recollection of hiking the Appalachian Trail during college, and mention of the tallith that six or seven generations of Lewin boys have worn for their bar-mitzvahs. 

And by the end, the characters whom Lewin pursues seem to morph into extras from one of the magazine's bleak, postmodern short stories: 

The man's wife appeared on the landing.  She looked as though she hadn't slept in weeks.  Her hair, dyed a streaky blonde, was a mess, and her face was creased and ravaged.  Harley told her that his client had started a lawsuit.


Then she and her husband stood outside on the porch and each smoked a cigarette.  They didn't speak.  He bounced a Ping-Pong ball.  She stood in her bare feet in flip-flops despite the cold.


[Lewin] caught sight of a photograph of someone he was pretty sure was the wife on her wedding day, and was startled to see that she had been quite beautiful not so long ago.  He thanked the cops, got into his rental car, and headed for the airport.  [END]

Only a writer of New Yorker caliber and sentiments could wring such human pathos from a story about lawyers, cops, and fake handbags.  Film rights, anyone? 

March 07, 2007

Canine Couture

Apparently our stylish canine companions aren't satisfied with copycat accessories anymore.  Now they're demanding couture knockoffs -- and Little Lilly is ready to oblige, with a "Red Carpet Collection" for polished and pampered pets. 

Does your dog fancy herself a JLo type in bejeweled "Marchesa"?  If not, how about a version of Nicole's Balenciaga, Penelope's Versace, or Reese's Nina Ricci?  And your little stud will surely make an impression at the dog park in "The Leo," an elegant tuxedo sans bow tie.  One wonders, naturally, about the gowns that didn't make the cut -- presumably the real dogs here.

Is all of this legal?  The outfits, certainly.  If the designers can't prevent the creation of knockoffs for two-legged fans, they won't be able to control the four-legged versions.  The use of celebrity photographs?  Probably not, unless the photos are licensed and their subjects have agreed to the use of their images to sell doggie duds.  And the golden image of Oscar himself?  Once again, not likely.

Still, the costumes alone are a revealing monument to capitalist culture -- and a whole new way of worshiping the "bitch-goddess, success."

March 04, 2007

More Baked Fakes

Among the creative pastry chefs tempted by tasty trademarks, Elisa Strauss' c.v. is particularly impressive.  She is an alumna of Vassar, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Institute of Culinary Education -- and Ralph Lauren. 

Are such intense concentrations of calories permitted within the rarefied confines of the fashion world?  Apparently so, at least on special occasions.  The baker got her big break when she created a birthday cake for Ralph in the shape of his favorite sports car, a Bugatti.  Designer Elisa thus became Chef Elisa, and Confetti Cakes was born. 

The company's stylish history is apparent in some of its most elaborate confections, like this "Coach" handbag cake...

...or the sweet recreation of a shoe shopping spree, right down to the logo on the bag. 

Did Elisa perhaps pick up more than styling tips during her time at Ralph Lauren?  The designer himself was the losing party in a notorious French lawsuit filed by Yves Saint Laurent, who accused Lauren of stealing one of YSL's signature looks.  Of course, when it comes to copying, logos and clothing designs are subject to different legal regimes -- and Coach doesn't bake cakes.  Still, one wonders the copycat culture that led to Ralph receiving his just deserts hasn't also flavored Elisa's desserts. 

Of course, Confetti Cakes bakes everything from elegant wedding cakes to iced toys.  And with custom cake prices starting at $800, a true fashionista would probably skip dessert and go for the shoes anyway.

March 03, 2007

And the Winners Are...

The Hollywood awards season ended last week with profuse thanks to the Academy, but the Oscar gown knockoff season is just beginning. 

Red carpet scavenger-in-chief Allen Schwartz has deemed Nicole Kidman (in Balenciaga), Reese Witherspoon (in Nina Ricci), Jennifer Lopez (in less-than-flattering Marchesa), Cameron Diaz (in Valentino), and Penelope Cruz (in Versace Atelier) to be the 5 most knockoff-worthy models. 

Of course, ABS isn't the only copyist out there -- just the loudest.  For example, retail website has given the nod to gowns worn by Jennifer Hudson and Jessica Biel (both Oscar de la Renta, although Ms. Hudson's peculiar space age jacket didn't make the cut), as well as that of Helen Mirren (Lacroix) and a few others you'll no doubt recognize. 

Bringing up the rear are new websites like SeenON! and StarStyle, which attempt to link TV viewers with everything from Oscar gowns to appropriate underpinnings.  Perhaps they're the new people's choice awards -- or maybe they fall into the category of "too much information." 

February 22, 2007

Yankee Go Home

Although fashion journalists play an important role in disseminating information and enforcing social norms against copying, among other things, their negative comments are seldom appreciated.  New York Times critc Cathy Horyn, in particular, has drawn designers' ire of late, and she has reportedly been banned from the shows of Carolina Herrera, Nicole Miller, and Dolce & Gabbana. 

After Horyn's description of the trousers in Giorgio Armani's signature collection as "limp and clingy as gym pants," she may be exiled from the realm of Armani as well.  Although she denies ANSA's report that King George exiled her from the Emporio Armani show, which she hadn't planned to attend anyway, her diplomatic immunity has certainly been revoked.

Today's WWD quotes the Italian designer's reaction:

I wonder what kind of eyeglasses she's wearing....  She has the right to write; I have the right to keep her out....  If she would have said, 'I don't like it,' I would have accepted it. That would have been a commentary, while instead what she published was bull----.  I'm a true creative, not like the Americans who copy.

Ouch.  It seems that nobody likes Americans these days -- not that we've made ourselves particularly welcome. 

But who are these American copyists to whom Signor Armani refers?  It sounds like there's another story here.

Armani takes a bow

February 20, 2007

Mardi Gras Masquerades

Of all of the Carnival celebrations taking place this Fat Tuesday, from Rio to New Orleans, Venice is most renowned for its elaborate masks. 

But are those ubiquitous papier-mache or porcelain souvenirs really Venetian?  Not usually -- in fact, many still bear "Made in China" labels -- nor is most of the glass ostensibly from Murano or the lace from Burano genuine.  On my last trip to Venice, I spoke with a shop owner who had the following sign in his window:

Dear customer:  In this store you will find only original Murano glass, not horrendous copies made in China and other countries.  Therefore, if you're just looking for cheap souvenirs, this is not your shop.  Thank you. 

Marcello Ravanello, of Nason & Moretti, needed little prompting to express his disgust with the foreign imports masquerading as local products.  To further emphasize his civic and artistic pride, he even provided me with a (very short) list of art glass competitors who also sell the real thing. 

Of course, false appearances are the nature of a masquerade -- as apparent from 17 seconds of footage from last year's celebration in New Orleans, available here.  Truly a tradition worthy of Bakhtin

Happy Mardi Gras!

February 19, 2007

Critcal Mass 2

The fashion flock has left New York and passed through London on its way to Milan and Paris, so it's high time for Counterfeit Chic to gather up a few Fall 2007 copying-related comments from sharp-eyed fashion critics, editors, and others:

Derek Lam Fall 2007

The New York Times' Cathy Horyn and International Herald Tribune editor Suzy Menkes saw ghosts of Alaia everywhere (as did others, particularly at the Derek Lam show).  As Horyn noted:

About the only designer in New York who doesn’t attempt to resuscitate the dead is Narciso Rodriguez. I mean, if I see another Adrian, Mainbocher, Alaia or quietly finessed McCardell look…

Menkes went one step further, writing off the New York season almost entirely:

Ultimately, the New York shows remained stubbornly grounded, for instead of soaring to a new place, the collections were often tied to a retro futurism that took off with a Balenciaga show one year ago.

WWD reported on the response of Pierre Berge, Yves Saint Laurent's longtime partner, to the YSL references in Marc Jacobs' collection:

"It's true that it's inspired by Saint Laurent," Berge mused.  "But it lacks the great precision of Saint Laurent."  Pausing, he added, "Still, it's better to be inspired by Saint Laurent than by John Galliano!"

Writing for Daily Fashion Report, Marilyn Kirshner described Michael Vollbracht's program notes for Bill Blass, which astutely headed off any charges of copying by acknowledging his sources in advance:

Several outfits were described as "Halston-like" or "Norell-like" and in his program notes, [Vollbracht] explained why he is "obsessed with the two legends."  As he put it, he "fell in love with his (Norell's) sequined mermaids years and years ago when I was a very young designer."  And Halston?  "Because his simple philosophy looks so good in this era of over-designing."  And he continued:  "And of course Blass - because it is my job to knock him off."  Michael not only has a sense of humor...but he's honest.

It would appear that copying is a dangerous game, at least when it comes to the critics, but "homage" may get the benefit of the doubt.

Perhaps my favorite comment, though, came from Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at F.I.T.  When I ran into her at the Barneys party for the relaunch of the late Madeline Vionnet's label, she immediately reminded me that Vionnet herself had waged an ardent campaign against copying.  Good thing that the house's new design director, Sophia Kokosalaki, is doing a beautiful job! 

January 24, 2007

Manufacturing Authenticity

Which is more "authentic," a counterfeit or the real thing? 

75 years ago, when John Dewey gave the series of lectures at Harvard that ultimately became Art as Experience, he argued that works of "art" are too often perceived and analyzed in isolation, apart from human interaction with them. 

Abe Burmeister at Abstract Dynamics makes a similar point about consumer goods.  Bored by the hype of artificial scarcity and the carefully cultivated images of luxury brands, he writes, "When it comes to telling a story you see, the counterfeits are the real deal, whatever authenticity they lack on the branding and legal sides they more than make up on their backstreets round the world journeys."  Interesting perspective, even if it perhaps underestimates the agency of global counterfeiters -- and no doubt a cultural analysis of the movement of fakes from original target selection to unmonitored factory to consumers with mixed motives would be quite revealing. 

On the other hand, do I perceive a bit of reverse snobbery here?  If we peel back the layers of public image management, the culture of creative designers and their material responses to the moment (high-tech accessories, eco-friendly fashion, and the occasional political statement, as well as more abstract responses to the zeitgeist) is an equally fascinating subject of study -- as are their clientele.  Certainly the recent popularity of fashion shows, the creation of documentaries and fashion reality TV, and the transformation of designers into public figures indicates a desire among consumers for this particular art as experience.

So which is more "authentic"?  Even if authenticity means gritty or small scale, as opposed to glossy or corporate -- e.g. Williamsburg, Brooklyn, rather than Manhattan's Upper East Side, or a local diner rather than Starbucks -- it's not clear that the massive trade in copies of certain goods is any less planned or manipulative than legal channels (even if it's less regulated, taxed, etc.).  The image of the rogue counterfeiter may be imbued with a certain subversive appeal, but the reality is at least as commercial and corporate as the real thing (without the advertising budget, true, but without the creative expression either).  Rodeo Drive and Canal Street both have "street cred" -- just in different forms.

As Rob Walker has observed (with great insight), selling oneself is no longer the equivalent of selling out.  A new generation has discovered branding as a personal attribute, and as the person becomes the persona, our conception of the authentic may have to change as well. 

January 16, 2007

Pelosi's Power Pearls

Jackie wore fakes that charmed her children -- and that ultimately sold at auction for $211,500.

Barbara Bush wore fakes to hide her neck wrinkles -- courtesy of star costume jewlery designer Kenneth Jay Lane.

Nancy Pelosi sworn in 4 January 2007Now another important woman in Washington has made pearls her signature -- only this time, they're real. 

Nancy Pelosi, the first female Speaker of the House, apparently shares my weakness for South Sea pearls, including the champage strand that she wore with a plum suit for her swearing-in.  It seems that with real power comes real jewelry (even if the ornament of choice for women in politics is soft, round, and usually pale -- but that's an analysis for another day).

Of course, if you're still working your way up to that kind of authority, tips for sourcing pearls of much better price abound -- real or fake.  Then again, authenticity -- like authority -- may be relative

January 13, 2007

Diamond Conflicts

If there's a sparkle in your eye that can only be matched by a certain stone, but you're concerned about the evils of conflict diamonds, don't sigh and reach for that cubic zirconia yet.  You could opt for a certified rock with peaceful provenance -- or you could wait for the latest crop of lab-grown diamonds to be harvested.

As Counterfeit Chic discussed last spring, several companies have developed cost-efficient methods of creating gem-quality diamonds without waiting millions of years for Mother Nature.  They're physically and chemically identical to the real thing, not associated with bloody civil wars, environmentally friendly, and less expensive.  An update in the Wall Street Journal also indicates that their size and commercial availability are increasing -- watch the red carpet this Hollywood awards season for details.

Of course, the diamond industry is preparing for a war of its own, not least over nomenclature.  Are the new stones "cultured" or "synthetic"?  Expect an administrative and legal battle over that one, all in the name of consumer protection.  If the history of pearls is any indication, however, devising a retronym for what we now call simply "diamonds" is an equally compelling task -- "mined diamonds" or "real diamonds"? 

Of course, the industry would probably find almost anything preferable to "blood diamonds."

December 31, 2006

Ditto Date

From lovely Charleston, South Carolina, where the high temperature today was approximately 75 degrees Fahrenheit (faux winter, anyone?), Counterfeit Chic brings you a cheap date for New Year's Eve:

New Yorker April 24 2000

Happy New Year!

December 25, 2006

Faux Flickering Flames

One of New York's most cherished modern Christmas traditions is the WPIX-TV Yule Log, a 6 1/2-minute film of a roaring fire in a handsome brass grate that is broadcast for hours on end, accompanied by a holiday soundtrack.  The faux flames, which burned from 1966 to 1989 and then returned to the screen in 2001, are the perfect holiday touch for apartment-dwellers and others more accustomed to gathering around the television than the hearth. 

Naturally, there's a knockoff -- the high definition version on INHD.

In the spirit of Christmas copying, Counterfeit Chic offers the "Canal Street Yule Log," a seized property "burn" sent courtesy of a fabulous reader.   It may not flicker, but you get the picture.  Holiday screensaver, anyone?

And like the real fake flame, you can pan out every so often to get the big picture:

Now, who's got the marshmallows?

December 21, 2006

Forming Norms

I like fashion to go down to the street, but I can't accept that it should originate there.

--attributed to Coco Chanel

Acapulco Gold sweatshirt on Samuel AyideWhile Mlle. Chanel may or may not have actually dissed streetwear, the consummate modernist borrowed a number of her early designs from plebian sources -- sailors' sweaters and men's athletic gear, among others.  One can only imagine what she might have done with the humble hoodie.   (Marc Jacobs' cashmere versions come to mind, but surely that's just the beginning.) 

In the post-Coco era, the street remains a fashion laboratory that has produced myriad small labels offering unique designs.  This is fast fashion at its speediest, a limited-edition set of alternatives to both widely available luxury brands and mass-market imitations.  As the New York Times reports, however, these urban labels reference both 1980s hip-hop roots and the LVs, CCs, and GGs that collectively spell economic success:

The newest companies are reinterpreting the hoodie, introducing variations with brashly vibrant and often menacing imagery:  all-over prints with bullet-hole graphics, chain-link fences and basketball netting, guns and roses, cobwebs and flamboyantly irreverent reinterpretations of Vuitton, Chanel, or Gucci logos, each a graphically subversive comment on those corporate fashion behemoths. 

The small scale of these creative endeavors means that the barriers to entry are relatively low; almost anyone can aspire to be the next hot streetwear designer.  On the other hand, even as the trade in redesigned luxury logos causes corporate brows to furrow, streetwear labels are themselves finding knockoffs to be a problem:

The peril, [10.Deep partner John Fishel] said, is that bootleggers and designers may flood the market with look-alike wares before a small company has a chance to stabilize. 

So where's the line between creative inspiration or parody and mere imitation?  In the upper echelon of the fashion industry, designers risk losing artistic credibility if they're caught copying.  The same is true of original streetwear -- perhaps even more so, since value is so closely tied to a perception of authenticity.  In other words, haute couture and urban streetwear have more in common, normatively speaking, than either might imagine. 

December 07, 2006

Red Herring

For a century and a half, fashion designers have deliberately set out to produce multiple copies of the same dress.  While they also create one-of-a-kind pieces for special occasions or runway publicity, the business model pioneered by Charles Worth still obtains.  Designers propose a series of looks each season, and then produce either made-to-measure copies for couture clients or standardized copies for the ready-to-wear industry. 

Despite the reality of mass production, however, we still consider it a faux pas for two women to attend the same event wearing the same outfit.  Never mind four. 

At Sunday's Kennedy Center Honors reception in Washington, First Lady Laura Bush and three other women showed up wearing the same red Oscar de la Renta -- which Laura also chose for her official holiday photo.  Laura apparently slipped away to change into another outfit, but not before CBS cameras captured the clones on film:

Laura and George in an official photo

Send in the Clones

Of course, it's wholly unremarkable that the President and most every other man in attendance were presumably wearing near-identical costumes.  Sartorial self-expression in the modern era is not only for the most part the domain of women, but a social requirement.  Men are stereotyped as intellectual, women emotional; men defined by their minds, women by their bodies; men serious, women frivolous; men relatively unconcerned with fashion, women ... lucky. 

No, really.  How boring is it to be expected to show up in the same dark suit for business or tuxedo for formal occasions day after day, year in and year out, with only the occasional flashy necktie to break the monotony?  Men outside the mainstream -- gay men or entertainers, for example -- have a bit more leeway to make stylish statements with their attire.  Nearly all women, on the other hand, have a whole range of colors, silhouettes, patterns, and styles in which to dress themselves while still remaining appropriately attired.  Freedom of choice and the expectation that it will be exercised can be a burden, but on the whole it's a wonderful opportunity.

So perhaps the most immediate question is not why it's embarassing for women to turn up dressed alike, or why we maintain the fiction of uniqueness in the face of mass-market fashion, although both of these issues are fascinating.  Instead, we might ask what social forces caused four affluent women with access to the vast resources of the fashion world to choose the same rather matronly, $8,500 ensemble. 

Maybe they all just liked the outfit.  Or maybe the groupthink endemic to the executive branch has made its way into the wardrobes of its First, second, third, and fourth ladies as well.

December 04, 2006

Counterfeit Quiz

Would you buy a counterfeit?  And if so, would you admit it?

Nicole Hasselfeld, a student at the University of Redlands in California, has created an animated game to provoke discussion of the answers to these very questions.  Counterfeit Mania will take you on a gender-specific shopping trip for the real -- or fake -- objects of your desire, rewarding you along the way with unexpectedly funny pop-ups and stock characters.  There's even an opportunity for buyer's remorse, prompted by some frequent justifications for buying, or not buying, copies.  Once you've acquired your prize, Nicole will leave you with a few suggestions for futher reflection -- so head over to her blog afterwards and share your thoughts. 

The animation is clever, the topic is timely, and best of all, Nicole credits Counterfeit Chic with inspiring her project.  So what are you waiting for? 

November 28, 2006

From Silk Purse to Sow's Ear

Why settle for wearing a novelty Chistmas sweater when you could inscribe holiday cheer directly on your skin with the GR8 TaT2 Maker

This holiday gift sensation is at the top (or perhaps it's the bottom) of Professor Alan Childress' shopping list -- click here for his fabulous review.  Somehow it doesn't sound as if the Childress children will be applying faux gang tats on Christmas morning.

But wait -- haven't tattoos been rehabilitated as an art form?  What about all of those opportunities for personal expression, declarations of cultural affiliation -- or even "commercial" messages?  The possibilities are endless:

Of course, such creative efforts may prompt irate trademark holders to wish for a whole new definition of prison tattoos. 

November 27, 2006

The Making of a Fashion Editor

New Yorker 30 March 1998

November 16, 2006

Spying in Style

During World War II, propagandists on both sides turned to clothing and textiles to spread their messages.  From a jacket warning, "You never know who's listening," to scarves and posters reminding citizens to "keep it under your hat,"  anti-espionage themes were prominent.

Today, stylish spies like Mata Hari and James Bond are the stuff of history and fiction, but espionage is alive and well in the world of fashion.  In recent weeks I have heard tales from several different indie boutiques in New York, all of which have had experiences with not-so-subtle industry copyists.  The bored-looking man taking photos of dresses, the woman carefully examining the interior construction of a dress and taking notes, the imperious customer snatching up creative designs without regard to size and then paying with a corporate card -- any of these may be corporate spies.  Vendors displaying their newest designs at trade shows are particularly vulnerable, as the brave and passionate Knitgrrl Shannon Okey describes. 

Even the virtual world is crawling with copyists -- or copybots, as the case may be.  Not only do designs from the real world cross the digital divide, but virtual world designs (which sell for real money) are frequently copied.  Marty Schwimmer at The Trademark Blog has a brilliant report on the latest online design thief, a program named CopyBot has been released into SecondLife.  This program, which takes the onscreen form of a character, can copy anything within its proximity -- clothes, hairstyles, you name it.  A character who unsuspectingly approaches the CopyBot may thus find her outfit cloned or, as Marty puts it, "an avatar dress shop becomes as vulnerable to counterfeiting as any commercial enterprise."  Most interesting of all, it's been captured on video, morphing into various avatars as it approaches them -- the ultimate illicit intelligence-gathering, and a fascinating must-see

A creator may try to keep her newest ideas secret, at least long enough to sell her work or fashion an original avatar.  But it's tough to "keep it under your hat" when the hat itself is the target.   

November 13, 2006

Web surfers, like, like

Are you more attuned to visual cues than verbal ones?  Or do you simply want to find a bag that looks like the one your favorite celebrity was carrying last week?

If so, the new search engine is designed for you.

Not only can you search by description -- say, "gold evening bag" -- but once you see an "almost right" photo, you can also isolate parts of the image -- the handle, for example -- and find similar items.  Unlike other search engines, the response to your queries comes in the form of thumbnail pictures, so you can scan through and select only the ones with immediate visual appeal.  You can also click on a photo of a celebrity for recent pictures and then find accessories similar to those that he or she was wearing.  If you buy one of the items that you've found, gets a cut.  The selection of both celebrities and categories of goods is limited thus far, but plans for expansion are in the words. 

Copycat caution?  It seems that has thus far set out to avoid liability by not linking to "replica" sites that infringe the trademarks of famous brands.  Searches for "counterfeit" and "knockoff" came up empty, and "replica" appeared to generate only legitimate goods that include the word in their descriptions (e.g. "WWII replica olive drab combat pack").  But what about poor-quality, obvious copies that infringe neither U.S. copyright nor trademark law, but are nevertheless the bane of original designers?  Such slavish copies are certainly out there, but hopefully good taste will prevail, among Counterfeit Chic readers at least.  Still, I would imagine that even though the search engine is a technology that is "capable of substantial noninfringing use," as the copyright analysis would prescribe, well-known and frequently knocked-off companies are keeping in their sights for now. 

All in all, attempts to address the fact that shopping for fashion items is a visual exercise, while searching the internet has until now relied on more precise verbal cues.  While the site is designed to help users follow trends, it's own approach to style is rather more groundbreaking. 

Many thanks to the generous and vigilant Frederic Glaize of Le petit Musee des Marques for sending me the tip last week.  There is also an article on in today's New York Times.

November 06, 2006

Line-for-Line Knockoff

Some people are shopaholics, others are fashion victims, and a few are even consumer triumphalists (marching under the venerable banner, "Veni, Vidi, Visa!").  But there's only one Professor of Obsessive Consumption, graphic design prof Kate Bingaman of MSU.  After spending 28 months documenting her purchases with whimsical line drawings, she is now in the process of drawing her credit card statements -- a task that will continue until they are paid off. 

But in the meantime, shopping trips continue to inspire, as evidenced by the Louis Vuitton lookalike cosmetic bag that Kate found -- and caricatured -- during a recent trip to Wal-Mart:

Walmart Vuitton knockoff

Many thanks to Rob Walker for introducing me to Kate's website via his own marvelously all-consuming online venue, Murketing.  And if you happened to miss Rob's "Consumed" column in yesterday's New York Times Magazine, by all means pull it out of your recycling bin.  This week is on the vogue for eco-friendly bamboo, which appears to be driven in part by the fact that bamboo is so good at mimicking other things.  Counterfeit chic, indeed!

November 03, 2006

Shod for Success

As a law professor, I regularly receive questions from students about appropriate dress for interviews, etc., which I am happy to answer.  Still, while clothing is not only about individual self-expression but about communicating membership in particular social groups, it is nevertheless a bit disheartening that the sartorial aspects of one's legal education are directed to little more than conformity.  (Learn to think like a lawyer, learn to speak like a lawyer, learn to dress like a lawyer....)

It was thus with great glee that I read the response of the internet shoe bard extraordinaire, The Manolo, to the proud but concerned mother of a newly minted young attorney.  It takes true talent to craft a recommendation so simultaneously accurate and scathing.

The Manolo suggests Albion by Ben Sherman

The Manolo was, of course, too polite to address the other question implicit in the request for advice.  Mum, if your darling boy is so successful, why are you still picking out his shoes?

October 09, 2006

Genius Steals

There is no more overused word in current fashionspeak than "genius," particularly in adjectival form -- as in, "The new Louis Vuitton collection by Marc Jacobs is so genius!" 

But is it true that "talent borrows, genius steals"? 

The leadoff accessories on LV's Paris runway yesterday were cheap plastic tote bags of the variety sold on the street around the globe, but marked with a Louis Vuitton travel stamp.  In other words, this was Marc inspired by streetwear, as he has been throughout his career.  Given the rate at which expensive LV bags are copied, it's an amusing challenge to turn the tables.

But hasn't the fashion flock seen this particular visual joke before?  Recall last February, when Jack Spade introduced a wry commentary on knockoffs in the form of a "Chinatown Collection" -- the exact same cheap plastic tote bags, with personalized monograms (like the stylish "CC" for "Counterfeit Chic," below) and a Jack Spade label.   

So has LV knocked off Jack Spade's ongoing parody of knockoffs?  And would that make Marc Jacobs a genius, a thief, or both?

October 05, 2006

Custom Copies

Among fashionable city dwellers and world travelers, there persists a tale of a semi-hidden guild of tailors and seamstresses capable of producing made-to-measure knockoffs for a song.  Just bring along your favorite garment or even a magazine clipping, stand still for a few measurements, and the deal is done.  The identities of such talented needleworkers, often located in Hong Kong or one of many urban Chinatowns, are passed sotto voce among friends and colleagues intent on limiting access to their treasures. 

Are these copies legal?  Yes -- at least in the U.S.  Just as design pirates can mass-produce cheap copies of designer gowns, custom tailors can create perfectly fitted, high quality versions for individual customers.  Are designers as concerned about single copies as they are about fast-fashion fakes?  Presumably not -- the market for custom tailoring is small, and only a small percentage of it involves direct copying as opposed to original designs or adaptations.  Moreover, relatively few people have access to made-to-measure tailors.

Until now.  Once again, modern technology in the form of the internet has changed the rules of the game.  From the marvelous Kathleen Fasanella of Fashion Incubator comes word of a new eBay shop, TopRunway, offering to make copies of Roland Mouret's blockbuster Galaxy dress and similar styles.  The listings offer a choice of fabric swatches and detailed instructions for taking your own measurements, and promises delivery worldwide within 10-19 days.  The prices?  Hovering around U.S. $50 for a dress.  The location?  "Asia, China."

In Kathleen's words, "'Borrowing influences and concepts is one thing.  This is another."  As she also noted, however, the only legal offense (again, under U.S. law) is the use of a runway photo from Getty Images.  The clever copyist didn't even use the Roland Mouret name in advertising the goods, thus avoiding a potential trademark claim -- although the description of the dress as a "Galaxy" might raise a question. 

It appears that in the realm of knockoffs, we've entered the era of mass-produced made-to-measure. 

September 27, 2006


Do indie designers -- fashion and otherwise -- mind being copied by large commercial enterprises?  Especially without attribution?  Rather than hang around debating the question, check out the forthright and righteous site You Thought We Wouldn't Notice... for direct responses to "biters" (and great pictures). 

September 25, 2006

Logo Sampling

The Black Style Now exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York is a multifaceted tour of African-American influence on fashion, from celebrity style icons to historical photos and media images to talented designers and their work.  Among these original creations I particularly enjoyed seeing Jeffrey Banks' "classics with a twist" and Sistahs of Harlem's "street couture,"  as well as Stephen Burrows' landmark contributions from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

But I was stopped in my Counterfeit Chic tracks when I reached the hip-hop section of the exhibit.  The association between established fashion brands and rap or hip-hop artists is frequently noted, as is the copyright controversy surrounding the practice of "sampling" bits of others' music to create new works.  Less popular attention, however, has been accorded the contemporaneous practice of "sampling" luxury logos to create new fashion.

Dapper Dan In describing this glazed calfskin topcoat screened with the LV logo, the curator notes, "In the early 1980s, Harlem-based design entrepreneur Dapper Dan recognized the selling power of luxury.  He created customized high-end products that incorporated highly recognizable accessory logos like those of Gucci and Louis Vuitton, featuring them in non-traditional ways.  His clients included Biz Markie, Salt-N-Peppa, Big Daddy Kane, Roxane Shante, and Don King.  Before Nike itself started making clothing, Dapper Dan created apparel with the Nike logo.  The result:  one-of-a-kind clothing that provided the wearer with instant visibility."

In artistic terms, music sampling and the incorporation of luxury logos into new works of fashion appear to flow from a similar approach to creativity.

In legal terms, however, the "sampling" of a designer logo is distinct from music sampling.  In addition to the difference in intellectual property regimes -- trademark for the former, copyright for the latter -- it is far more likely that the sampler will use an entire logo as compared with a few seconds of a musical work.  

But should trademark owners object or look the other way?  It's a matter of degree and of business strategy.  Depending on the quality, transformative nature, and scale of distribution of the work, creations like Dapper Dan's aren't necessarily bad for the trademark holder.  In the right hands, street fashion can make established labels newly trendy by association, much the way that fan fiction strengthens ties between consumers and an existing creative structure.  The MCNY curator's description even raises the question of whether Nike was inspired by Dapper Dan, in addition to the reverse.  In the wrong hands, however, sampling is little more than simple counterfeiting -- a trademark holder's worst nightmare.  Moreover, trademark owners must police their marks or risk their becoming generic.

As in the case of music, African-American styles from zoot suits to modern urban streetwear have historically been more likely to be appropriated by mainstream culture than to appropriate it -- a circumstance over which creative designers have no legal control.  The rise of luxury logos and their appeal to hip-hop culture have prompted examples of appropriation in the other direction.

P.S. For more on the branding and modern culture, check out Rob Walker's insights on Murketing or his NYT Magazine Consumed column on "Tribute Brands."

September 19, 2006

Critical Mass

Law enforcement can't do it.

Many retailers won't do it.

The U.S. Congress hasn't tried to do it -- yet.

But the sharp pens and sharper tongues of fashion critics are working hard to reinforce the social norms against copying within the fashion design community.  While designers are legally free to copy one another's work, at least in the U.S., doing so runs the risk of harming a designer's reputation.  The fashion press celebrates new looks or the fresh expressions of an established designer's signature style, but woe to the previously celebrated designer who borrows too liberally or literally from another. 

Consider the following reputational slaps on the wrist during the recently concluded New York Fashion Week:

Calvin Klein Spring 2007From WWD:  Guests at Calvin Klein didn't realize they were in for a ride, but on Thursday, Francisco Costa charted a direct course for Helmut-land.  He opened with several subtle dresses layered in wafting gauze, but the unsubtle nature of his homage to Helmut Lang was stunning.  From the show space to the clothes themselves, Costa echoed a very specific phase in Lang's career:  his artsy, ethereal stage.  Dresses fluttered with too-familiar streamers and were cut in a very distinctive palette that had some wondering aloud if Helmut's longtime collaborator Melanie Ward was backstage (she wasn't).  It's unfortunate for Costa that, after stepping out of Calvin Klein's shadow, he'd step into Lang's.  But simply put, he should know better.  But for those who don't know better, or who just don't care, there were attractive pieces to be found....  And yet, like the song says, it's never as good as the first time.

Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune agreed:  At Calvin Klein, Francisco Costa, far from projecting forward, seemed to be shrinking back into fashion history with a collection that had some pleasant pieces, but seemed in thrall to other designers. With the bright, white space and high-tech vision that belonged to Helmut Lang in the 1990s and the full-shouldered silhouette of Claude Montana in the 1980s, Costa seemed to be turning back the clock.

Suzy also had cautionary words for Michael Kors:  The vibe was Degas meets Donna Karan in the 1980s. But the best looks were Kors's own: his luxurious sportswear given a touch of sweetness when a chiffon skirt twirled over a stretch bodysuit.

And in the New York Times, Cathy Horyn expxressed disappointment in yet another desinger's offerings:  Catherine Malandrino certainly has a signature in her French-casual sportswear.  It was hard, then, to comprehend what she was up to on Thursday:  models on a raised runway in funnel collars of the Claude Montana genre.

Certainly not every homage to another designer is blameworthy, and general trends are often inspired by particular eras or masters from the past.  No law could or would try to limit this sharing of inspiration.  But within the creative echelons of the fashion community, where the opinions of editors matter, the reputational gatekeepers accord acclaim to originals and blame to copies. 

September 05, 2006

Knockoff Nudes

Visit this week's New Yorker cartoon caption contest (#63) -- and vote for the third entry! 

And in the meantime, here's a much earlier knockoff:

Roman copy of Myron's Discobolus, 5th century BCE

Of course, given the modern American physique, it's no wonder that so many knockoff artists prefer to produce clothes....

August 24, 2006

Bare, Heaving Chest

Ahem.  Now that I have your attention....

Tattoos have gone mainstream, shedding much of their tough or subversive image -- but "preppy tattoo" still seems like an oxymoron.  Until you see the folllowing, that is:

Apparently Peter McBride's Polo tattoo (which makes me think somewhat disturbingly of what would happen if one were wearing a Polo during a nuclear attack and the material were to fuse with the underlying skin) is part of a trend toward corporate logos as body art.  Sure, a Harley-Davidson tattoo is practically a cliche, but few people have enough brand loyalty to inscribe our favorite logos on our skin.  Or so I thought.

But is my Georgetown Law student David Barzelay, who kindly sent the link and has a bright future in intellectual property law, correct when he says, "This guy's chest is a big, sad, shaved, and heaving violation of the Lanham Act"?  Or is this fair use of the trademark in the form of artistic expression?  And does it make a difference whether we're considering the actions of the tattoo artist (selling the image and its application) or the action of the tattooee (presumably just displaying the mark in an expressive fashion -- unless he's in another line of, er, sales)?  (Note to the Ralph Lauren empire:  Discreetly tattooed, clean-cut gigolos are probably NOT a good fit with overall brand image.)  In order to determine the likelihood of consumer confusion here, we may need to ask a few questions.  Unless they fall into the category of "too much information."

Either way, this is an interesting example of a broader cultural phenomenon.  Well-known trademarks are part of our modern language, and their significance stems not only from the efforts of the trademark owner but also from the meanings developed or imparted by consumers.  In a branded world, trademarks are source indicators for goods or services – and so much more. 

P.S.  For an earlier post on tattoos – this one on their copyrightability – and an interesting law review reference, click here

August 15, 2006

Murketing Questionnaire

Head over to Murketing, Rob Walker's interesting and insightful blog on consumer culture, for a Q&A with your own Counterfeit Chic.  The topic?  An indie commentary on counterfeiting in the form of a Prestigious T-shirt that screams, "Stop Rockin' Fake Shit!" 

Think of it as the equivalent of a lawyer's classic pinstriped suit -- for the court of public opinion. 

Many thanks to Rob for the thought-provoking questions!

August 13, 2006

Knocked Off or Knocked Up?

When is a knockoff merely an inferior copy of the original and when is it something more?

Ever since writing about Michael Kors' upscale version of the ubiquitous Jack Rogers "Navajo" sandal, I've been thinking about the relationship between authenticity and quality in the realm of fashion.  (Of course it's not at all clear that the "Navajo" sandals are actually Native American, but that's another kind of authenticity -- part of the subject matter of my book, in fact.) 

When experts give advice about distinguishing real from fake, one of the key elements is usually quality.  Loose stitching, crooked seams, poorly attached tags?  Probably fake. 

But what about luxury copies -- or more often interpretations -- of mass market products?  Check out the classic Bean Boots by L.L. Bean (below, left), going toe-to-toe with Manolo Blahnik's well-heeled 1994 version:

Both are celebrated as examples of fine style and craftsmanship, but the Manolo is a deliberate (and far more expensive) copy, albeit a transformative copy.  And that's only one case:  both Blahnik and Norma Kamali before him have created high-heeled versions of the iconic black-and-white Chuck Taylors, for example. 

So how is a luxe reinterpretation different from a Canal Street counterfeit?  In the case of the Manolo boot above, the designer isn't trying to fool anyone, either with the design or with a fake label.  The referent is obviously L.L. Bean, but the transformative details -- high heel, pointed toe, leather in place of rubber -- are among Blahnik's own signatures.  In addition, the two styles retail at quite different price points and presumably serve different functions, though one might imagine an eccentric matron pruning roses in her Manolos.  In the end, the high-fashion version is an homage to the original and to the timeless New England style that it represents, as well as a clever visual pun.

Ah, but is the luxury version legal?  Under current U.S. law, copying a design is not generally actionable, and the example above isn't even an exact copy.  End of story?  Not necessarily.  In theory, L.L. Bean might have claimed that Manolo Blahnik had infringed on its trade dress.  The design of the Bean Boot is, after all, so closely associated with L.L. Bean that it arguably indicates an association with the company (i.e. has developed "secondary meaning").  On the other hand, 90mm heels are not exactly part of L.L. Bean's oeuvre, so the likelihood of consumer confusion is somewhat remote.  Since I don't know of any actual objection by L.L. Bean, or a licensing agreement for that matter --  please let  me know if you've heard otherwise -- we can only speculate about a possible legal outcome.  (Personally, I hope that the nice folks up in Maine had a good laugh and registered a boost in sales to fashionisti.)

All of which leaves the world of creative "knockups" pregnant with possibilities, legal or otherwise....

July 17, 2006

Baked Goods

Like the industrial age before it, the digital age in America appears to have sparked an arts & crafts movement.  There is a difference, however:  a century of exposure to brand marketing has added logos and trademarks to our vernacular and thus to our efforts at creative expression.  In other words, welcome to the age of do-it-yourself knockoffs.

Some of these DIY projects take the form of artistic commentary on consumerism and luxury brands, while other projects seem more purely commercial.  Consider Rylan Morrison's jewelry line White Limousine, featured in this week's Time Out New York magazine.  The designer/student/nanny uses Shrinky Dinks -- thin, flexible plastic sheets that can be decorated, cut into pieces, and baked into hard disks -- to form unique made-to-order baubles.  I vaguely remember as a small child having an artistically inclined babysitter who entertained us with the same product.  But take a closer look at Rylan's designs:  many of them incorporate product images or corporate logos.

Would anyone mistakenly believe that Chanel and Mercedes-Benz had teamed up to produce plastic jewelry in a toaster oven?  One would hope not.  Nevertheless, White Limousine and similar endeavors raise questions about where art ends and commerce begins, the concept of consumer confusion, and what constitutes expressive use of a trademark that has become a household word.

July 01, 2006

Disposable Fakes

Some time ago one of Counterfeit Chic's favorite readers, La BellaDonna, sent the following inquiry:

Susan, if you have the opportunity at some point, I would appreciate your views regarding something I've seen posted more than once: consumers who had bought copies of luxury goods said that their fakes outperformed/outlasted/were better made than the originals.

I know that I myself have bought the occasional watch or sunglasses from street vendors, but to my knowledge they weren't "fake" anything - just generic "watch" or "sunglasses" because I scatter them far and wide, like confetti, in passing. What issues, if any, do you have with street-vended goods that aren't pretending to be anything else?

My immediate response to the final question was, "No problem whatsoever!"  Personally, I'm thrilled that in the city during a sudden rainstorm, street vendors selling cheap black umbrellas spring up like mushrooms in the woods after the rain.  Perhaps if I were a sartorially gifted British gentleman, I would be privy to the secret of keeping track of an elegant bespoke silk umbrella with a carved handle.  As it is, I'm happy to have access to umbrellas, sunglasses, etc. that aren't fake, just convenient and effectively disposable. 

But what about buying fakes in order to avoid losing the real thing?  That's the strategy of columnist Harry Hurt III, who in today's New York Times describes a trip to Chinatown to find a counterfeit facsimile of the Patek Philippe watch given to him by his wife.  He hadn't actually lost the watch yet, but only because it remained locked in a jewelry box for safekeeping.  Naturally, the giver was't pleased by this state of affairs; hence, the shopping excursion.  In HH's words:

I climbed out of a subway hole, looking and feeling like a loser.  And I was a loser.  Not just any old loser.  I was a loser of fine watches....

Well, yes, that about sums it up.  If you've lost Rolex, Cartier, Patek Philippe, "and then some" over the past three decades, it's time to give up -- or more to the point, for your spouse to give up on buying you expensive gifts.  Perhaps there's a subconscious issue with measuring the passage of time, a dislike of expensive adornment, or a more-cerebral-than-thou insistence upon disregarding personal possessions.  In any case, a fake Patek Philippe won't fool Mrs. HH, especially since you've just turned it into a column. 

Which is not to say that there's no place for "travel jewelry" or other self-respecting substitutes for luxury items.  A half-hearted attempt to fool one's spouse, however, isn't a particularly worthy mission.

As for copies that are superior to the originals, they should serve as a wake-up call to high-end companies that claim to compete on quality and style rather than price.  With good design available at all price points, the real deal ought to at least offer superior craftsmanship.  Otherwise, a luxury logo becomes "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound an fury, signifying nothing."  In other words, a retail tragedy.

P.S.  Let me take this opportunity to compliment La BellaDonna on choosing one of my favorite screen names ever.  A "beautiful woman" and a deadly poison once used for cosmetic purposes?  Talk about a complex character!

June 15, 2006

Museum-Quality Fakes

Counterfeit Chic has previously pondered why it is that museums and museum-goers prefer the display of original works over copies, particularly when the vast majority of viewers can't tell the difference. 

Apparently the Nassau County Art Museum has no such existential concerns.

WWD reports that a new exhibition, "Art and Fashion:  From Marie Antoinette to Jacqueline Kennedy," required a degree of curatorial resourcefulness:

Unable to borrow any of Kennedy's dresses from her White House years from the Smithsonian Institution, the NCMA turned to local students to re-create her signature look, said director Constance Schwartz. Fashion students at Nassau Community College designed the dresses for the exhibition.

The museum also posthumously honored one of Jackie's favorite designers, Oleg Cassini, with a lifetime achievement award.  Which is only appropriate, given that he was accused of making knockoffs of European designs for Jackie.

In other words, the museum may have commissioned copies of copies for the display.  Maybe the gift shop carries originals?

Art Imitates Art

Sometimes copyists adorn our bodies, other times they decorate our walls.

The remarkable Kathleen Fasanella of Fashion Incubator sent the following item from the Economist:

A golden figure in Tokyo’s art world has been stripped of one of Japan’s most prestigious prizes. Yoshihiko Wada, a 66-year-old artist, had staged an acclaimed exhibition of oil paintings in Tokyo last year and this spring won Japan's Art Encouragement Prize for his work. But after two months of basking in considerable glory, Mr Wada surrendered the prize in May amid an investigation by Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs that his paintings, which depict urban Italian life, might plagiarise the work of Alberto Sughi, an Italian artist.

The panel that awards the prize reconvened to decide whether Mr Wada’s paintings too closely resembled those of Mr Sughi. After just two hours of deliberations, the panel concluded that the likeness was too strong to be ignored. Mr Wada denied plagiarism but returned the prize “to protect its honour”.

According to the BBC, Wada claimed that the two artists had inspired each other.  Sughi, however, said that he thought Wada, who visited Sughi's studio several times and took photos, was a tourist.

Compare Sughi's "Piano Bar, Italia" (1996), top, with Wada's "Muso" (Reverie) (2004). 

Alberto Sughi, Piano Bar, Italia (1996)

Yoshihiko Wada, Muso (Reverie) (2004)

I'm no expert, but it looks like Wada's got the blues.  (Yes, groan.)

June 11, 2006

Human See, Human Do

Anthropocentric cliches are a bit beleaguered of late.  Animal lovers  take umbrage at various unflattering references to humans acting like denizens of the barnyard, and now psychologists have banished that withering dismissal of copycats (oops, make that copyists):  Monkey see, monkey do.

While organizing some files this morning, I came across an essay by Carl Zimmer about the work of two research scientists at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten, and Yale grad student Derek Lyons, who was inspired by their findings.  In a nutshell, it appears that when learning how to solve a puzzle, humans will watch others and imitate all steps -- even the unnecessary ones -- while chimpanzees will simply figure out the most efficient method and skip extraneous steps. 

According to Zimmer, Lyons "sees his results as evidence that humans are hard-wired to learn by imitation.....  As human ancestors began to make complicated tools, figuring out goals might not have been good enough anymore.  Hominids needed a way to register automatically what other hominids did, even if they didn't understand the intentions behind them.  They needed to imitate."

Presumably the next step would be to decide which cool, cutting-edge hominids to imitate. 

All of which may help explain why so many people end up following trends, flattering or not.  It's only human.

Dr. Jane Goodall & friend

May 30, 2006

Counterfeit Antique Chic

If you were "as rich as Croesus," would you wear costume jewelry?

Apparently the original King Croesus preferred the real thing -- and would probably not have been pleased that an undisclosed number of objects representing his 6th century BCE reign have been stolen from a Turkish museum and replaced with fakes.  Among the missing items from the collection, which the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned to Turkey in 1993, is the winged seahorse broach at left. 

Counterfeit Chic asks, "What's the big deal?"  Or, to put it somewhat more eloquently, why does it matter whether an artifact under glass in a museum is the real thing or a virtually identical copy? 

Archaeologists or historians will plausibly argue that only the real thing -- whatever that thing happens to be -- can truly yield information about ancient creative techniques or be subjected to scientific tests to determine age, composition, etc.  But for most of us, an expert replica is equally informative.  Why, then, would we make a special trip to see an historic object but hardly glance at the version in the museum shop?

Alexander Stille takes on this question in his book, The Future of the Past, describing the common Chinese practice of making and displaying museum-quality copies of artifacts -- and the culture clashes that can ensue when Western curators refuse to accept these substitutes in traveling exhibits. 

The concept of "authenticity" is complex, evolving, and culturally determined.  For many of us, there is an intuitive preference for an original over a copy, even when we are objectively unable to tell the difference.  In the case of the golden broach, there is a qualitative difference between real gold and gold-colored metal, but in a museum display the properties of gold versus a substitute are irrelevant. 

At the end of the day, it is often the item's totemic value that matters -- the little winged seahorse has touched history, perhaps even adorned the body of a celebrated figure from the past.  Turkey wanted it back from the Met, and the Usak Archaeological Museum wants it back now, for much the same reason that people bid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the faux pearls previously owned by Jackie Kennedy. 

Reality may be relative, but it carries a high price.

May 29, 2006

A Girl's Best Friend (or Faux)

Caution:  Bad lawyer joke ahead.

Q.  What's the difference between a lawyer and a pit bull?

A.  Jewelry.

OK, back to the intellectual property & jewelry issue.  If copyright law is supposed to protect creative works, shouldn't fine jewelry and costume jewelry receive the same treatment?

Not so fast.  The answer is yes -- but it took a couple of lawsuits by storied costume jewelry manufactuers in the 1950s to make that clear.  In Trifari, Krussman & Fishel, Inc. v. Charel Co., 134 F. Supp. 551 (S.D.N.Y 1955), the defendant argued that the copied Trifari pieces were mere "junk jewelry" and not subject to copyright.  The court disagreed with the contention that costume jewelry could not be copyrighted, citing the applicable regulation listing "artistic jewelry" among protectable "works of art."  The opinion continued:

Costume jewelry may express the artistic conception of its 'author' no less than a painting or a statute....  Simply because it is a commonplace fashion accessory, not an expression of 'pure' or 'fine' art does not preclude a finding that plaintiff's copyrighted article is a 'work of art' within the meaning and intendment of the Act.

Although the court focused on the copyrightability of costume jewelry generally, rather than on the distinction between precious gems and paste suggested by the defendant, this opinion was the first to clarify the status of costume jewelry under U.S. law.  A few years later, another court reached the same conclusion in Boucher v. Du Boyes, Inc., 253 F.2d 948 (1958).  Faux jewelry may be more democratic than its "real" counterpart, but it is no less an art form.

In fact, while costume or travel jewelry often imitates more expensive pieces, sometimes the tables are turned.  In his artistic memoir, Faking It, Kenneth Jay Lane offers several anecdotes about wealthy admirers of his costume jewelry who have had it copied -- in precious stones.  Apparently no legal action ensued.

May 18, 2006

Knockoff Nuptials

Ever since Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, Western brides have been opting for white wedding dresses -- and a vast industry is eager to oblige.  For the New York bride-to-be, and many others across the country, the epicenter of the bridal industrial complex is Kleinfeld's.  The wedding gown emporium recently moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan, prompting the New York Times to take notice and send in "Critical Shopper" Alex Kuczynski. 

Within the satin- and lace-covered retail acreage, the proprieties must be observed.  Among these is a rule intended to foil would-be copyists masquerading as customers:

As a grandmother fumbled hopefully with a camera, the bridal consultant approached and put a hand on her arm.

"No pictures," she said, her smile settling into a thin line of reproach.

That's right.  "The use of cameras and the sketching of gowns is prohibited at Kleinfeld," reads a placard in each dressing room.  "This policy is strictly enforced."

In the world of bridal gowns, which, year in and year out are basically long and white-ish, individuality is key.  And no designer wants a one-of-a-kind sample copied by the tailor down the street, who would probably do it for a cost many multiples less.

Like other items of clothing, wedding dress designs are not protected by intellectual property law.  One designer did manage to find a loophole, however.  In Eve of Milady v. Impression Bridal, 957 F.Supp. 484 (S.D.N.Y. 1997), Judge Shira Scheindlin granted a prliminary injunction against an alleged copyist of the distinctive lace designs on certain bridal dresses.  The reason?  While clothes are not subject to copyright, fabric designs are considered protectable forms of writing, and the court found lace patterns to be a form of fabric design. 

All in all, a civilized dispute resolution -- surely more so than some of those likely to take place this Sunday at Kleinfeld's annual sample sale.

May 17, 2006

"Real" Espadrilles?

For several summers the humble peasant shoe known as the espadrille has been adorning the feet of the fashion flock, initially as a traditional flat shoe and more recently in ever higher, more fanciful, and more expensive versions. 

But at what point is an espadrille no longer an espadrille?

To start by giving credit where it's due, espadrilles apparently go back several centuries and are associated with the south of France and with Spain, especially Catalonia.  In their most basic form, they consist of woven rope soles sewn to a canvas upper.  Today many have rubber bottoms attached to the soles, but true purists eschew such modern innovations.

So what if we embellish and reshape them?

Cross them with flip-flops?

Sam & Libby espadrille

Turn the heel into a wedge?

Kors espadrille

Dip the whole thing into a turquoise dye bath?

Dior espadrille

Raise them to sky-high levels and invite cobbler extraordinaire Christian Louboutin to personalize them?

It seems that authentic peasant fashion, like cucina povera, has come a long way from its humble roots.  But the good news for longtime espadrille makers is that traditional or "artisanal" versions can cost more than five times as much as modernized copies -- though still orders of magnitude less than the "designer" versions.

So will whoever is wearing "real" espadrilles please stand up?  Or better yet, walk away and "borrow" a new trend?

May 16, 2006

Counterfeit Coffee Break

This afternoon, faced with a daunting stack of final papers and exams to grade, Counterfeit Chic slipped out to a local coffeeshop (which shall remain nameless) for a restorative cup of tea.  Naturally, I paused to consider the latest sugary temptations -- and did a double take.  There, displayed behind glass, were row upon row of chocolate cupcakes with a bold black-and-white label:  Faux Hostess.

As the survivor of a nutritionally strict childhood, I'm not much of an expert on branded snacks -- real or fake.  My esteemed colleague and spouse, however, has considerably more experience in this regard and offered his palate in the service of research.  According to his analysis, the copycake was visually a dead ringer for the Hostess original:  chocolate cake, shiny chocolate ganache icing, signature 7-loop white icing stripe, cream-filled interior.  More detailed examination revealed a superior taste (more intensely chocolate) and denser texture.  While he expressed a certain nostalgic longing for the cellophane wrapping around the original, not to mention the lower price, it seemed that the copy was actually a sweeter treat.

Back online, it quickly became apparent that my favorite caffeine merchant is not the only producer of contraband carbohydrates.  Recipes (and accompanying trademark disclaimers) abound, leading one to wonder:  what is the point of spending extra money and time in the kitchen to imitate an inexpensive, mass-produced, convenience food available from virtually any grocery store?

And are the superfake bakers likely to get burned by the Hostess legal department?

May 14, 2006

Flower Power

From Chanel camelias to Louis Vuitton cherry blossoms, flowers commonly adorn luxury goods -- real or fake.

But sometimes it's the authenticity of flowers themselves that is at issue.  Japan imports millions of carnations from China each year, with demand rising dramatically just prior to Mother's Day.  This year Japanese Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Minister Shoichi Nakagawa announced an inquiry into whether Chinese flower growers are cultivating and shipping proprietary varieties of carnation without obtaining permission from their owners.

So if you forgot to send Mum flowers, you may have a ready-made excuse.

May 09, 2006

Knocked Off Knockoffs?

Apparently the global "fast fashion" giant H&M doesn't like being copied any more than its luxury siblings do. 

H&M has hired MarkMonitor to keep tabs on online auction sales of H&M counterfeits and grey market goods (legitimate H&M products sold through unauthorized channels):

"We suspected that our products were being sold illegally online and have not had the tools to track down and identify the perpetrators until we used Auction Monitoring," said Bjorn Norberg, General Counsel at H&M. "With MarkMonitor's solution, we can automate and more efficiently uncover the profile of those responsible and take immediate action to shut down their illegal auction listings. MarkMonitor will help us to better utilize internal resources by effectively scaling a previously time-consuming process, enhance the overall security of the company with in-depth monitoring of online fraud activities, and minimize revenue losses from counterfeit and gray market goods, so we can continue to provide quality fashion at the affordable prices that we are known for."

So on the one hand H&M is fighting counterfeiters, and on the other hand it's fighting the perception that some of its designs are themselves -- ahem -- less than original.  Of course, partnering with Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney to do one-time, immediately-sold-out special collections for H&M goes a long way toward establishing design street cred.  Now, about the rest of the clothes....  But then again, if H&M is being copied, it must be doing something right.

Hat tip to the aptly named Runway Scoop, a font of interesting fashion industry information and commentary. 

May 05, 2006

Designed Piracy

Did you ever wonder at what point in fashion history we decided to start using our chests as billboards?

There were tabards emblazoned with coats of arms in the Middle Ages, of course -- under all that armor, it probably helped to know who riding toward you on horseback with a lance.  But according to The Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, it wasn't until the 20th century that the humble T-shirt became an expressive medium.  MGM used the T-shirt to promote The Wizard of Oz in 1939, and Thomas Dewey (the guy who "defeated" Truman, remember?) distributed T's during his 1948 campaign.  It took the multiplication of messages and identities in the 60's, though, to turn the T-shirt into the current quotidian hybrid of apparel and self-expression.

From an intellectual property perspective, the T-shirt is a good illustration of the doctrine of "conceptual separability."  This U.S. copyright principle basically says that you can protect the design on the surface of a functional item, but you can't protect the item itself.  In other words, you can copyright the picture on the front of your T-shirt, but not the T-shirt as a whole. 

Of course, some designers may be philosophically opposed to protection.  Check out this design:

And remember back to 1999 and the DeCSS T-shirts, which were imprinted with source code for de-scrambling DVDs to make a point about free speech -- and thus became part of several trade secret lawsuits?

Perhaps the next step is to take a page out of Abbie Hoffman's book and print "Copy this T-shirt!" T-shirts. 

April 30, 2006

Kaavyat Scriptor

When the Harvard Crimson reported last week that sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan's novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life (2006), contains a number of passages that are "strikingly similar" to two books by Meghan F. McCafferty, Sloppy Firsts (2001) and Second Helpings (2003), the alleged plagiarism drew national attention.  On Friday, the New York Times reported that publisher Little, Brown would recall the offending book, which had apparently been part of an extraordinary $500,000 two-book deal and had been optioned by Dreamworks for a movie.  Viswanathan has apologized to McCafferty.

Deliberate or not, the plagiarism was obvious.  But apart from the money and publicity, it was nothing that doesn't happen among students every day.  The academic year is ending, final papers are due, and professors (some of whom have been known to be a bit sloppy about citation themselves) are on the lookout for suspiciously familiar works.  The resources available online are all-too-tempting for some students, but the web also makes them easier to catch.  My experience, unfortunately, is that most students who copy are genuinely sorry -- that they've been caught.

The more interesting issue, however, is what constitutes illicit copying within a specific genre.  Even while apologizing, Kaavya maintained that she was writing about her own experiences.  When the book was withdrawn, she and the publisher announced that they would republish with the offending passages rewritten.  As one publishing executive noted in the Times on Thursday, "The teenage experience is fairly universal." 

Had Meghan McCafferty filed a copyright claim, however, a federal court would've been called upon to determine not only how literally certain passages had been lifted (not exactly a challege here), but also the relevance of the similar plots (girl trying to get into elite college), which cannot in the abstract be copyrighted.  This inquiry takes on additional significance in the postmodern era (nod to Foucault) and in light of the involvement of a "book packager" like Alloy Entertainment.  (Check out Professor Laura Heymann's engaging article, "The Birth of the Authornym.")  Can we still tell an "original" from a "copy," assuming that we ever could? 

Actually, yes.  Authors, professors, lawyers, juries, and judges manage this all the time, whether the component parts of the creation are words, musical notes, or lines of software code.  Despite the near-universal fashion among U.S. law professors of attacking intellectual property protection as too extensive -- a position with which I have some degree of sympathy -- even academics don't usually argue that literal copying can't be identified.

In the case of fashion design, however, some people seem to be arguing exactly that.  Communications Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, for example, told the Marketplace radio program that if fashion is subject to intellectual property protection, "there will be so many ridiculous lawsuits where courts will have to decide between the differences in ruffle (a) and ruffle (b) or hemline (a) and hemline (b)."    

My guess is that Vaidhyanathan wouldn't have found a copyright lawsuit involving words rather than ruffles "ridiculous," even if he has joined many others in disputing the legitimacy of intellectual property protection overall.  Personally, I'd find hemlines easier to distinguish than I would musical progressions.  But the point is that a copy is a copy.  And while pointy-headed intellectuals (myself included) and lawyers may engage in lofty debate about what constitutes copying, a creator's peers -- at Harvard or on Seventh Avenue -- know the score.

April 14, 2006

Smug Shopping? Call it "Label Ethical"

Feeling a bit guilty about blowing a significant portion of the rent on a designer handbag? 

In last month's issue of New York Moves, Bethany Seabolt offers the perfect rationale.  Her article, "The F-Word," chastises New Yorkers for setting a bad example when it comes to buying -- and bragging about -- counterfeit goods.  After describing harm to designers, the criminal element, and lost tax revenues, she concludes:

These tourists are wandering Canal Street so that they can mimic the images that our City sends out.  My impulse is to help high-end retailers develop an ad campaign along the lines of "If you can't afford us, we don't want you," but somehow I think that's not the image they're going for.  Seriously though, New York women can set the trend for this solution just as we do for so many other things.  I propose the buzzphrase Label Ethical.  We'll all say, "Oh, nice bag.  Is it label ethical?"  Remember, clothes may make the man, but the woman makes the handbag. 

So that bag isn't a splurge -- it's a symbol of City-centric urban pride, fashionable superiority, ethical sensitivity and social activism all wrapped up in one.  From that point of view, it's positively a bargain.

April 13, 2006

Commentary in Crochet

In A Tale of Two Cities, Madame Defarge spends her days knitting an encoded commentary on the Ancien Regime, marking allegedly guilty individuals for execution.

In Anti-Factory's Crochet Bag Project, San Franciso-based visual artist Stephanie Syjuco takes up yarn and needle to forge another (and somewhat less bloody) social commentary -- this time on counterfeit handbags.  By choosing the "lowly" craft of crochet, she intends to highlight the distinction between commercial and vernacular expression and focus attention on "issues of piracy and bootlegging in today's globalized economy." 

The ultimate goal of Stephanie's fascinating project is an art installation -- including not only her own work, but yours as well.  To the barricades!

April 10, 2006

Harajuku Lover?

Love the culture?  Write a song about it.  Then, use it to sell a handbag.

The putatively blonde singer/songwriter Gwen Stefani has previously proclaimed (and commodified) her attraction to Tokyo's Harajuku shopping district and the creatively costumed teens who populate it on her Love.Angel.Music.Baby album, as well as with her own entourage of four "Harajuku Girls."  Now, in addition to her celebrity designer line, L.A.M.B., Stefani has launched another fashion label:  Harajuku Lovers

Last year when the album appeared, MiHi Ahn at Salon, among others, argued that the singer had missed the point:

Stefani fawns over harajuku style in her lyrics, but her appropriation of this subculture makes about as much sense as the Gap selling Anarchy T-shirts; she's swallowed a subversive youth culture in Japan and barfed up another image of submissive giggling Asian women. 

OK, it's a good bet that Ahn won't be buying a Harajuku Lovers handbag, panties, or hoodie.  But should others be able to?

After writing a book on the subject of cultural appropriation and most recently spending the weekend at an international intellectual property conference hosted by the extraordinary Professor Peter Yu at Michigan State, where we discussed (among other things) the possibility of using IP to protect culture, I find the answer as complex as ever.  Are the stereotype and the commercialization of culture by an outsider offensive?  Yes.  Should we prohibit it?  My usual (and evolving) answer is (1) to adopt strategies that allow members of a culture to designate what is authentic (yes, that's a tough one too) and what is an imitation, and at the same time (2) to allow borrowing except in limited cases of sacred or secret aspects of culture that would be significantly harmed by appropriation. 

In this case, the Harajuku district and its denizens will presumably endure Stefani's affection, much as Kyoto will will withstand the Western attention generated by the novel Memoirs of a Geisha (and the award-winning costumes in the movie version) or Lanvin's kimono-inspired spring fashions.  After all, even the most creative street fashion draws inspiration from somewhere, and the Harajuku Lovers products are more about branding than literal copying.  And who knows what the reaction of Harajuku locals will be -- perhaps Stefani's line will be embraced (or even knocked off).

Still, I think I'll take my culture without the pop packaging.

April 06, 2006

Why Teen Voguettes Don't Grow Up to be IP Lawyers

Moving beyong the commercial counterfeiting question, the March 2006 issue of Teen Vogue asks, "Are Your Best Friends Stealing Your Style?"  (Yes, I spent a good deal of time in a waiting room earlier this week.) 

After predictable descriptions of girls copying one another's style -- the sort of thing that reminds us of why high school was so emotionally fraught -- the article segues into advice regarding the appropriate response to a copyist (or at least one with habits somewhat less frightening than Single White Female).  A degree of self-policing is apparent; "Haley" doesn't challenge her friend "because that would be mean."  In addition, girls are urged to recognize that copying is the result of admiration or to adopt a "healthy attitude" and not stress.

While I'm in favor of anything that reduces anxiety levels in life generally, and among adolescent girls in particular, I have to wonder whether this is commonsense advice or an effort to instill an ideal of nonconfrontation.  "Haley" the girl may find social approval in remaining silent, seething, and anonymous for now, but what about "Haley" the woman?

Then again, my high school colors were orange and black, so maybe copying was simply out of the question.

April 01, 2006

No Fooling

Among many human societies in general and Western culture in particular, we respond to literal copying as "bad" and creativity inspired by earlier works as "good."  To some extent, the law reflects this generalization.

But in legal terms, what is an infringing copy and what is simply the result of "inspiration"?  Over at Handbag Fetish, Aznstarlette wonders whether can get away with selling handbags marked with designer logos by adding the following disclaimer:

What is an “Inspired Designer Handbag”?

Please be aware that most internet sites do not carry the highest quality, but we do. It is very difficult to get this AAAAA quality.

An inspired handbag is designed to create the look of an authentic designer handbag to 99.9%. In no way do we represent our handbag as authentic or affiliated with any brand names. We simply ask that you compare the quality of our handbags with any other. All of our handbags are made with the materials of the originals. You will be pleasantly suprised with the quality of the bag you receive.

Nice try.  If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck.... 

In other words, just calling a bag incorporating an unauthorized trademark "inspired" doesn't make it legal.  In fact, even without the trademark, a line-for-line copy of a very recognizable bag (like the Fendi Spy or Balenciaga Le Dix motorcycle bag) might be considered trade dress infringement.  Think of it this way:  a law enforcement officer will not hesitate to seize a kilo of cocaine marked, "The enclosed is not intended to be a controlled substance." 

Or as Rene Magritte might put it:

(OK, OK, the idea of The Treachery of Images is that a picture of a pipe is not actually a pipe -- but you get the point.  Reality cannot be altered by a false disclaimer.)

So no, many of the designs offered online are NOT legal -- which is why these sites appear and disappear so quickly. 

March 10, 2006

Skin Deep

For some, the art of personal adornment reflects mood, occasion, or the latest trend.  Others take a more long term view.

But are those who express themselves through body art also at the mercy of knockoff artists?  Not necessarily, at least if they're intellectual property-savvy.  Check out Amina Munster's tattoos (caution:  there's quite a bit of skin involved!) and her copyright certificate

The concept of body art as intellectual property raises a whole series of questions:  who owns the copyright, the tattoo artist or the tattooee?  What if the tattoo is also a trademark?  How does a unique tattoo affect rights of publicity?  What are the plausible remedies for infringement of someone's IP-protected tattoo?  For more on these questions, see Thomas F. Cotter and Angela Mirabole, Written on the Body:  Intellectual Property Rights in Tattoos, Makeup, and Other Body Art, 10 U.C.L.A. Entertainment Law Review 97 (2003).

And one more question:  Should a tattoo be protected only as originally applied or as it, er, morphs over time?  (I'm thinking of an individual who opted for a "nice, discreet" flower tattoo around her navel -- before she was pregnant.  Let's just say that the bud blossomed.)   Any modern art theorists out there?

Late to the Party

BREAKING NEWS:  The paper of record has just realized -- gasp! -- that knockoff manufacturers are copying Oscar gowns.   Round up the usual suspects

March 07, 2006

More Simulacra and Simulations

In response to the Sims' Oscar knockoffs, Marty Schwimmer of The Trademark Blog asks succinctly, "Right of publicity issues?"

The short answer:  Of course. 

The longer answer:  Welcome to the state law morass that governs rights of publicity.  In general, celebrities who have developed valuable personnae have the right to protect it from unauthorized commercial exploitation.  (Everyone's favorite case on this subject, for the amusing facts if not the outcome, seems to be Vanna White v. Samsung Electronics America, 971 F.2d 1395 (9th Cir. 1992), in which Vanna sued the company over an ad with a robot representing her.) 

What does that have to do with a Sim knockoff of an Oscar gown?  If the virtual gown for sale is depicted on the actress who wore it to the Academy Awards, that's an interesting question.

Designers don't compete to dress celebrities out of concern that the poor girls can't dress themselves -- there are stylists for that.  Rather, the free gowns, shoes, handbags (and rumored monetary compensation) are offered in the hope that the celebrity will be photographed and the image will be frequently editorialized.  Money simply can't buy the kind of exposure that a Best Actress winner's dress will receive for free.  So the nominees, presenters, and other beautiful people are in effect renting their celebrity status; their bodies become billboards advertising fashion houses.  The ultimate idea is to draw attention to the brand and sell more dresses -- real, not virtual. 

So, if we view the agreements between designers and actresses as a financial transaction, the use of an actress' image to sell a virtual gown might violate her right of publicity.  After all, what if Reese Witherspoon wanted to make money by modeling virtual gowns (as a Sim, she's certainly tall and thin enough)?  It's a good thing that at the moment her real world far eclipses any virtual one.

For more on law in virtual worlds, check out James Grimmelman's interesting and intelligent article and blog.

And for further reflection on the philosophy of copying, see Jean Baudrillard -- whose text also has a cameo in The Matrix


From Silver Screen to Computer Screen

Maybe you wouldn't wear a knockoff -- but would your avatar?

The Academy Awards are a bonanza not only for knockoff apparel manufacturers hoping to sell copycat prom dresses to starstruck teenagers, but also for clothing designers in the virtual world.  And they're even quicker than their real-world counterparts.  According to USA Today, fans of The Sims video game were already trading knockoffs of Oscar gowns yesterday, with Keira Knightley's aubergine Vera Wang (below) the most popular ...

... and Reese Witherspoon's winning vintage Dior not far behind.

What's next, the Isaac Mizrahi for The Sims collection?  (If Barbie can be a client, why not a Sim?)

The real-world knockoff trade is aided by the fact that designers can't protect their creations through U.S. intellectual property law, but what about the wearable 2-D copies?  Well, strangely enough, designers can claim copyright in sketches of their clothes, though not the garments themselves.  And if a clothing designer chose to work online with design software, like an engineer or an architect, those online creations could also be protected -- as could so-called derivative works adapted from them.  But since the Oscar gowns at issue here aren't protected to start with, and the copies are drawn from life, it would be hard to argue for protection.  So, ironically, it would be easier to protect virtual clothes than real ones. 

But for the moment, how cool is it for Vera Wang or the house of Dior to have even virtual characters vying to wear their Oscar gowns?  These ladies don't demand exclusives with the house, seek compensation for wearing a dress (forget about actually paying for one), fail to show up for fittings, change their minds at the last minute, refuse to return loans....  Long live the virtual couture client!

Many thanks to Marty Schwimmer at the interesting and clever Trademark Blog for giving me a heads-up. And don't forget to check out his new joint venture, the Shape Blog, on design protection -- it even has a section on clothing!

March 04, 2006

Virtual Counterfeits

Can you sell counterfeits of an imaginary object?  Absolutely, if demand exists in a virtual world -- like that of EverQuest2. 

According to New Scientist, prices for equipment like the Dark Shield of the Void dropped precipitously after some gamers discovered a way to make unauthorized copies.  And when we say "prices," we're not just talking Monopoly money -- armor, weapons, and even characters are bought and sold for real as well as virtual cash. 

So are the virtual cops on the case, or is this the online equivalent of Canal Street?  Apparently programmers try to catch and correct bugs in the system as soon as possible, but in the meantime gamers themselves play the role of fashion police:

Computer gaming expert and keen gamer Edward Castronova at Indiana University, US, says duplication flaws are not uncommon in online games and notes that the virtual communities in such games can often regulate themselves, agreeing not to exploit such flaws to maintain playability.

"Sometimes social norms can be effective," he told New Scientist. "Everyone may know that a dupe exists but it's like 'who cares?'"

In other words, fighting with a fake Wand of the Living Flame is like showing up at Fashion Week with a knockoff Vuitton

Could there be real-world legal consequences?  Well, software is subject to copyright, so its possible that if hackers copied and modified code there could be a cause of action.  In addition, such behavior could violate licensing agreements. 

But illegal or simply illicit, the concept of distinguishing a "real" virtual object from a "fake" one is a mindbender.

February 27, 2006

L'Ultima Cena della Moda

The Ultimate Dinner Party?  Creative blogger/designer Verbal Croquis has turned us all into hosts and hostesses for this week's Carnivale of Couture, courtesy of The Manolo

With the perhaps perverse idea of bringing together couture originals and copyists, Counterfeit Chic requests the honor of the following presences:

Coco Chanel, the site's PS/AA and a woman with a great deal to say on the subject of copying, most of it favorable.  But what would Mademoiselle think of

Karl Lagerfeld, who has risen to fame and been hailed as a genius while copying her work for the house of Chanel?  Would she be flattered, or treat him like a dull schoolboy?  Of course, the Kaiser doesn't only copy Coco.  He joins

Fida Naamneh, an Israeli Arab designer who deliberately embroidered three of the 99 names of Allah onto the low-cut dress that was her final project in college.  (Hat tip to Blingdom of God.)  Her choice of decoration was intentional, whereas Karl's use of Qur'anic verses on a bustier was apparently accidental.  Appropriation of cultural property can be volatile, however; both designers aroused the ire of followers of

The Prophet Mohammed.  While his writing long predated copyright claims, he might have a few things to say about its use on women's clothing.  In fact, we'd like to ask him a few questions about his actual words and their subsequent influence on women's dress in general.  (No group pictures, we promise.)

Having crossed into the surreal, we'd enjoy the guidance of artist Salvador Dali, a frequent collaborator in the 1930s couture creations of

Elsa Schiaparelli.  Her famous lobster dress and shoe hat were the result of such art-into-fashion experiments, which eschewed the minimalism of her archrival Coco Chanel.  Indeed, Schiap's response to Chanel's praise of copying (and her empire of faux bijoux) is apparent in the belief that "fashion is born by small facts, trends, or even politics, never by trying to make little pleats and furbelows, by trinkets, by clothes easy to copy, or by the shortening or lengthening of a skirt." 

Let the games begin!  Dinner is served.  And if the presence of the prophet doesn't promote at least temporary peace between Schiap (irresistable force) and Coco (immovable object), this may indeed be Fashion's Last Supper. 

P.S.  Counterfeit Chic was fascinated by the French and Italian legal responses to another Ultimate Dinner Party of sorts (above), presented last year by the French fashion house Girbaud.  Presumably this Carnivale will be somewhat less controversial.

February 19, 2006

Looking Like $10 Million

For the lucky 7th Carnivale of Couture, I am Fashion has declared us all lottery winners -- and then sent us shopping. 

Before indulging, however, my first impulse is to give a bit back to a good cause.  For last week's Carnivale, I shared a few musings on socially mandated copying in the form of the de facto business uniform.  For many low income women hoping to enter the workplace, however, an appropriate interview suit seems as unattainable as the job itself.  Enter Dress for Success, an organization that helps women secure and retain jobs -- by making sure they have the right clothes in which to do it. 

Does imitating the "right" look matter that much?  Well, it worked for Melanie Griffith in Working Girl (1988).  Instead of letting her boss (Sigourney Weaver) steal her ideas, she transformed herself into the boss, from hair to accent to power suit.  Best line?  "If you want to get ahead in business, you've got to have serious hair." 

Melanie Griffith in Working Girl

Melanie Griffith BEFORE (left) and AFTER.

What about personal expression?  Should women, or men for that matter, have to conform to succeed?  Well, in an ideal world -- or within limits, or after hours, or after you've gotten the job -- creativity rules.  In the meantime, Dress for Success is giving its clients a valuable gift.

P.S.  Lest this post sound a bit "goody-two-shoes," let me assure you that were I to win the lottery, I would never limit my shopping to just two shoes -- but sharing the wealth never hurts.  Here endeth the lesson.  Let the shopping begin!

February 16, 2006

Countercultural Copying

Ever wonder how Argentine-turned-Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara ended up as a T-shirt? 

Check out the exhibit at the International Center of Photography in New York (through February 26).  Not only are there Che T-shirts from around the world, but also additional evidence of the comandante's commercial appeal, ranging from cigarette lighters to Cherry Guevara ice cream.  (Hello, Ben & Jerry's?)

Photographer Alberto Korda snapped the original shot, "Guerrillero Heroico," in Cuba in 1960, but failed to pay much attention to the copyright.  He apparently never received any royalties for use of the images, but did win at least one out-of-court settlement against an advertiser and claimed to be against the commercial exploitation of the image.  Presumably Che didn't receive any compensation either, even assuming that would have been consistent with his revolutionary Marxist politics.  Today Che's face is a steady source of revenue in Cuba, where T-shirt vendors greet arriving tourists at the airport. 

The specific message of the image, however, has decreased in inverse proportion to its popularity.  Viva la revolucion? Power to the people?  Overthrow the capitalist pigs?  Or just a dramatic, vaguely rebellious image?  You decide.

And meanwhile, take a look at the conservative competition.

February 12, 2006

Suitably Attired for Fall 2006

So many fabulous clothes, but what to wear?  For this week's Carnivale de Couture, the talented Kim at i am pretty nyc suggests a look back at New York Fashion Week (before looking forward to Europe, of course) -- and there's no shortage of choices.

For most of us, though, the morning shuffle through the closet is influenced less by the runway than by our peers.  We want to express ourselves, but generally not to the extent of looking inappropriate or extreme.  Designers exercise their creativity, knockoff artists copy designers, and the rest of us copy ... each other.  That may mean co-workers, the other moms on the playground, or fellow ladies who lunch, but as fashion historian Anne Hollander notes:

It's in fact clear that "uniforms," so vigorously despised in much current rhetoric about clothes, are really what most people prefer to wear, garments in which they feel safely similar to their fellows.  Once in uniform, they can choose their personal details, feel unique, and then sneer at the members of other tribes who all seem ridiculously alike in their tribal gear. 

Some industries are, of course, more sartorially uniform than others.  (I've had the privilege of discussing this issue with both colleagues and students over the years, and I imagine I'll share a few specific thoughts at some point.)  Paul Fussell has the basic plotline:

Despite some relaxation of rigor, it remains true that the dark business suit (or its female equivalent) is still close to obligatory, at least in businesses that have little truck with novelty, like serious law, most banks, and the upper reaches of the securities markets.  The well-advertised dress-down or casual Friday has, of course managed to impose its own uniform conventions....

Law schools probably don't count as "serious law" in terms of sartorial demands -- certainly very few profs would limit themselves to dark suits on a daily basis.  Still, a good suit or jacket is quite useful in getting through the day.  I was pleased to see that some wonderful young designers who spent previous seasons playing with girlish dresses or eveningwear have actually taken on the challenge of the suit (joining perennial American favorites like Donna Karan, a designer who, despite her recent journey through monastic, cocoon-like shapes, built her empire on dressing working women and has returned to the task of late). 

Check out the creative version offered by Doo-Ri Chung (a designer whose work I stumbled upon and loved before I knew her name or even gender) (left) or the more traditional but still clever work of Brian Bradley for Tuleh (right). 

Doo.ri Fall 2006Tuleh Fall 2006
















Yes, they're -- gasp -- plaid (or tartan if you prefer), but looks like this can go a long way toward banishing those old memories of parochial school uniforms.   Which, come to think of it, may have something to do with how many of us respond to the grown-up versions -- at least until Fall 2006.

February 06, 2006

From Air Kisses to Double Clicks

Ten years ago, the internet was still a relatively new phenomenon.  And the venerable house of Chanel was not pleased when photographs from its collections appeared online immediately after the shows, enabling copyists around the globe to deliver those styles to stores even before the real merchandise was available.  Before the Fall 1996 collection, audience members received the following warning (in hard copy, of course):

Unless duly authorized, any use, directly or indirectly, through any intermediate or not, with or without charge, in any part of the world, specifically on the Internet, on CD-ROM and on any other multimedia networks and devices, of any images of all or any part of the collection presented in this show, including any images of the models appearing in this show, is strictly prohibited. 

Not satisfied with mere legal warnings, Karl Lagerfeld deluged the audience with so many looks and silhouettes that knockoff artists couldn't select an iconic image from the collection.  The next season, the designer received boos from photographers when he sent his looks for Chloe down a maze-like, difficult to shoot runway. 

Fast forward a decade to the Fall 2006 collections.  Cutting-edge sites like Fashion Tribes are podcasting daily, and IMG is streaming the shows.  And Kaiser Karl himself has teamed up with Apple to offer a free podcast of the first runway show for his eponymous line.  (Look for quilted, logo-stamped Chanel earphones next.)

Karl Lagerfeld

When Fern Mallis, executive director of New York Fashion Week organizer Seventh on Sixth, was asked whether the the increased access would contribute to counterfeiting, she replied:

With media being so fast now...people can get on websites and see collections instantly.  This is really about the entertainment value and the energy and buzz of it. 

So let a thousand flowers bloom -- and keep the lawyers ready just in case.

How would the quintessentially modern Mademoiselle Chanel herself respond to all this?  In her words, "Fashion does not exist unless it goes down to the streets."  Or merges onto the information superhighway. 

February 03, 2006

Counterfeits for Katrina Victims -- Again

Copying others' charitable activity?  Probably a good thing, from both an evolutionary and a moral standpoint.  Trademark lawyers, however, may beg to differ.

As Mayor Bloomberg reported at the Harper's Bazaar / Kirkland & Ellis Anticounterfeiting Summit on Wednesday, New York is donating counterfeit fashion items seized by the NYPD to victims of Hurricaine Katrina.  The audience applauded politely, but the mayor didn't exactly receive a standing O. 

La Retrosessuale, one of the fabulous women of ShangriLaw, has clearly retained her generous humanistic instincts despite being subject to a legal education.  She writes that "it is better to let these knockoffs go to use than rot in a plasticine grave somewhere." 

Hardcore intellectual property owners and their lawyers wouldn't be so sure.  Nobody is about to run the public relations risk of taking candy from babies -- or clothing from Katrina victims -- but all trademark owners weren't necessarily thrilled that the small percentage of counterfeit merchandise actually impounded by law enforcement is back on the streets.  And the anticounterfeiting stance of both the federal government and the New York City government may be compromised by these actions.

Last fall, the Legal Times kindly published my editorial on the subject, available here (along with additional blog commentary). 

Which leaves us with the perennial question:  are lawyers human? 

January 25, 2006

Some Knockoff Artists Go to Jail, Others Go to Hell

The wildly irreverent and funny Blingdom of God site reports today on the Vatican's decision to enforce copyright in papal writings, including a brand-new encyclical about sex (who reads the others, anyway?).  To back up its claims, the Vatican reportedly sent one publisher a 15,000 euro bill for about 30 lines of text (including legal fees).  With prices like that, those had better be some pretty inspired words. 

The strange part of the Vatican's new awareness of intellectual property rights is that Christianity probably wouldn't have gotten very far if copyright (or related performance rights) had been around 2,000 years ago.  Christian culture, once it moved beyond its Jewish roots, was all about missionary work and permissive appropriation of the message, not excessive control.  Go out and spread the gospel?  Not if you have to pay royalties. 

Blingdom asks, where will all of this end?  What about knockoff papal rings and other jewelry, easily available at tourist shops outside the Vatican or online?  And how many Hail Marys do you have to say if you get caught buying?

Benedict XVI's ring

January 23, 2006

Double Take

Last Monday at the Golden Globes, Reese Witherspoon looked lovely in a Chanel couture dress.  The problem was that another young, blonde acress, Kirsten Dunst, had also looked lovely in the same dress, at the same event, three years earlier.

Why should RW be upset that Chanel -- or her own stylist -- hadn't warned her of the earlier borrower?  After all, the idea behind fashion houses loaning gowns to frequently photographed starlets and socialites is to sell more of those gowns (as well as to draw attention to the brand as a whole).  And for those who can't afford the original, the knockoff artists who stalk winter awards shows will provide replicas in time for the prom.  A measure of the loan's -- and the celebrity's -- success is the number of people who covet the dress.

But wait.  Even a teenage prom-goer in a knockoff Oscar dress doesn't want her chief rival -- or even her best friend -- to show up to the same event in the same dress.  (And as McLuhan would remind us, the all-at-onceness of a modern media world reduces a three-year gap to naught.)  Just like RW, the prom-goer's cache comes in part from being the first among her peers to claim a particular design as her own.  As a celebrity actress, RW is more valuable if she presents a unique image.

In that case, why did Chanel pimp the same dress?  Well, the repeat play was likely a mistake, since Chanel doesn't want to send the message that wearing its gowns is a ticket to embarrassment on the red carpet, whatever the reason.  (A week later, rumors abound regarding which other "vintage" Chanel dresses have had multiple recent outings.)

On the other hand, Chanel is more interested in its own image than RW's, and the house is known for repetition of iconic designs.  If a dress is worn by an interchangeable series of young starlets, that perfect dress becomes the star.  The response of the Chanel publicity machine to the situation is revealing in this regard:  "A Chanel dress never goes out of style.  It's timeless."

Unlike the actress of the week.

January 22, 2006

Knockoff New York Tour

Today in Chinatown a group of chilly tourists clustered eagerly around their Big Onion tourguide.  Were they interested in urban history, hungry for culinary tips, or preparing to celebrate Chinese New Year?  Possibly.  But the topic of the moment was knockoffs, and the tourguide was ready with information about local availability of international brands like Rolex.  "The North Face jackets are really good," he added helpfully.  "I couldn't tell the difference."

January 21, 2006

Tom Waits for His Rights

Tom Waits is known for his distinctive, gravelly singing voice -- and his ongoing legal battle against commercial attempts to copy it.

The New York Times reports that last Friday a Spanish court awarded Waits damages in a lawsuit against Audi for imitating his voice and music in an advertisement; another case is pending against Opel in Germany.  But these are just the most recent of Waits' efforts.  Well over a decade ago, he won a similar case involving both U.S. federal and California state claims against Frito-Lay, 978 F.2d 1093 (9th Cir. 1992).

Waits has also been using that famous voice to repeat what his lawyers presumably told him, using the European civil law version of the legal argument: 

 "I have a moral right to my voice. It's like property - there's a fence around it, in a way."

He also added a personal note, however:

Mr. Waits said there were two kinds of imitation. "I don't mind if someone wants to try to sound like me to do a show," he said. "I get a kick out of that."

"I make a distinction," he added, "between people who use the voice as a creative item and people who are selling cigarettes and underwear. It's a big difference. We all know the difference. And it's stealing. They get a lot out of standing next to me, and I just get big legal bills."

So all those of you singing in the shower are safe, for now.

Tom Waits

P.S.  No word on whether Waits intends to expand his legal efforts to any future copying of his wardrobe.

January 20, 2006

Overheard at Barneys New York

Three tall, expensively highlighted, surgically youthful women stood together this afternoon in the Prada boutique at Barneys, speaking loudly. 

First:  Ooooh, that's the only dress I saw at the collections that I absolutely have to have.

Second:  Miuccia Prada is so genius!

Third:  Well, Theory always knocks off Prada, so then it's reasonable.

Apparently they hadn't noticed the salesperson behind them -- or didn't care.  Either way, Prada needs to reconsider its back row.

January 12, 2006

Even if It's Fake, Don't Fake It

Question:  The fab new handbag you're about to buy for Spring 2006 is __________.

Answer:  (a) true

               (b) faux

Answer Key:  Actually, it's up to you.  (You knew it was a trick question, right?)  If you want the genuine article, that's between you and the all-powerful salesperson in charge of the waiting list.  If you make up your mind to buy a knockoff, most likely neither intellectual property laws nor social arguments can stop you.  But whether you're going high or low, buying or selling, don't even try to pass the faux version off as the real deal -- faking it is a major Fashion Don't.  (And the core of a legal don't as well.) 

Todd Goldman lithograph

A couple of years ago, after I dropped a reference to counterfeits into a talk, a fashionable and smart colleague walked up to me and said, "You're so right!  It's all about the handbags!"  Professor X went on to tell me about the fake Burberry she'd just bought.  "But," she added, "it's not about pretending.  It's about showing everybody that it's fake, how you can tell, where you bought it, and what you paid for it."  The same thing happened when I shared a cab in New York with another professor, and then again at another conference, and so on.

Translated into legalese, Professor X was referring to the fact that claims of trademark or trade dress infringement (see FAQs for details) are decided in large part on the basis of "consumer confusion."  The core idea is that if consumers aren't confused about who really manufactured the product, there's no violation.  Lies from an online seller are one thing; obvious counterfeits on Canal Street are another.  (Of course, it gets a lot more complicated than that, and in court luxury companies produce a lot of evidence to show that replicas do cause confusion and related harms).

Among fab fashion editors and dedicated fashionisti, faking it seems to be equally taboo -- for different reasons.  Last year a talented and thoughtful editor at a major magazine explained to me that despite all of the "Splurge or Steal?" and "The Look for Less"-type features, she and her colleagues almost never carry fakes or even inexpensive brand-name versions of the latest "it" bag.  She added, "Well, there is one girl who carries a fake Birkin and acts like it's real, but everybody knows and talks about her." 

The bottom line:  Some adore the real deal, others revel in replicas.  But faking it is definitely a Fashion Don't

P.S.  I can't think about FDs without mentioning the worst perennial Fashion Don't. Ever. Wear. Strappy sandals with sheer stockings.  We've evolved past webbed toes by now.

P.P.S.  Thanks to the superfabulous Manolo for turning our FDs into a Carnivale of Couture!

January 10, 2006

Requiescat in Pace: Kal Ruttenstein

Bloomingdale's will honor its dearly departed fashion director, Kalman Ruttenstein, tomorrow at 11:00am in a memorial service at Carnegie Hall in New York. 

Kal Ruttenstein

Although Kal was a well known and much loved star-maker in the fashion firmament and was recently honored by Legal Momentum at its annual Equal Opportunity Awards Dinner, the same designers he championed sometimes had cause for complaint.  In the interests of keeping Bloomindale's current and offering cutting-edge fashion at multiple price points, Kal not only stocked brand-name knockoffs but even solicited them from bulk manufacturers.  Sometimes these copies of runway fashion appeared at Bloomie's even before the real thing did.  As the New York Times reported in Kal's obituary, "Gianni Versace once banned Mr. Ruttenstein from a fashion show because Bloomingdale's carried similar men's wear designs under the store's own label." 

Let's hope that Geoffrey Beene isn't staffing the Pearly Gates when Kal arrives.  The celebrated designer, who passed away in late 2004, so disliked being copied that he kept a file on those allegedly guilty of copying him.

January 08, 2006

Times Past

Each week in the New York Times Sunday Styles section, Bill Cunningham offers a look at fashion "On the Street."  Today it seems that women are walking out of 17th-century Spanish and 19th-century Japanese portraits onto catwalks and sidewalks, each wearing enough billowing silk to create a small (albeit luxurious) tent or a hot air balloon.  (With these options available and Heidi Klum showing off her lovely rounded figure on Project Runway, it looks like  great season to be pregnant!)

Cunningham traces modern appearances of this infanta silhouette back to Balenciaga in 1957 -- and offers a belated slap on the wrist to Givenchy for doing versions of his own a mere six months later.  He also shows recent versions by Marc Jacobs and Olivier Theyskens of Rochas, as well as the modernized sacks and chemises offered by Balenciaga's current designer, Nicolas Ghesquiere.

Balenciaga Spring 20006

Which leads me to several questions:  is copying the historic designs of the founder of your own house more acceptable than borrowing the style vocabulary of another designer, especially your contemporary?   Is perpetuation of the house DNA really creativity, or just good brand management?  And why exactly do so many people call Karl Lagerfeld's work for Chanel "genius" when so much is really the work of Mademoiselle herself -- is it just his rejuvenation of the brand and sense of the zeitgeist? 

January 05, 2006

Project Runway: The (A)moral of the Story

Last week on Project Runway, Daniel Franco was praised for acting like a responsible team leader -- and then cut.

This week, the elimination came down to Lupe, who created an original design that unfortunately might have landed socialite Nicky Hilton on the worst-dressed list (refrain from catty comment here),

Project Runway - Guadalupe's dress

and Marla, who was strongly criticized for copying a Chloe dress that Nicky had worn previously.

Project Runway - Marla's dress

So who's out, the original risk-taker or the safe knockoff artist?  Exactly.  The copyist stays.  What kind of a lesson is that for future designers (or their lawyers, for that matter)?

January 04, 2006

Trends are "In" for 2006

Hemlines are up/down for spring.  Flats/platforms/wedges are the new "it" shoe.  White/brown/griege is the new black. 

We dress to express, but at the same time we want to be au courant.  Nobody likes a copycat, but nobody likes an oddball either.  Pity the designer who is accused of being unoriginal; pity her even more if she shows color when the fashion gods have declared that neutrals are the way to go.  And thank heaven for the various glossy fashion bibles that keep us up to date on the latest rules.  Without collective change, there would be no fashion industry.

The only sure prediction for 2006 is that somehow, most of us will figure out how to dress like everyone else does.  Trends are "in."

As the superfabulous Manolo reminds us, "The fashion it is not the nuclear rocket brain surgery."  Still, there may be something to the whole cognitive science thing.  Some 30 years ago, animal behaviorist Richard Dawkins came up with the idea that bits of cultural information in our minds, or "memes," are like our genes -- they want to replicate.  If an idea is unappealing, nobody copies it and it dies; if it's a good one, it gets passed around.  So we all end up humming the same tunes, repeating the same buzzwords, and wearing the same fashions.  Or -- if you believe Dawkins -- the fashions wear us.

Of course, nobody likes to be colonized by a collection of self-replicating ideas.  As the brilliant Almost Girl -- a woman destined to be the preeminent fashion theorist of Gen Y -- reminded me yesterday, we should take our celebrity academic theorists with a grain of salt.  So, go ahead and wear whatever you like in 2006.  Then the trends will have to follow you.

January 03, 2006

Is Grey the New Black?

Law is often ambiguous or subject to interpretation, but sometimes the black letter rules are clear:  it is illegal to place false labels on knockoffs or to sell replicas as the real thing.  We can debate the merits of the law, discuss the purpose of the law, or ignore the law, but the law still sees certain actions in black and white terms.

There is still, however, quite a bit of grey area in the law -- areas of uncertainty, where both the rules and questions of right or wrong are unclear.  (I suppose law is like mold; the fuzzy grey areas are the ones growing fastest.)  For example, how should we categorize a clearly labeled handbag from an established but inexpensive brand that resembles a much more expensive, exclusive design?

Wilsons Leather BagDesigner Ella has raised this issue recently in not one but two blogs, Pursed Lips and Kiss Me, Stace.  She fell in like (let's reserve love for a grander passion) with and bought the Wilsons Leather Turn-Lock Handbag -- which just happens to resemble the iconic Hermes Birkin (now there's a love object!).  Enter guilt -- but not too much guilt, as one retails for $60 on sale and the other starts at nearly $10,000, if available.  In addition, Ella finds the details of the Wilsons more suitable for her needs.

From a legal perspective, Wilsons is pushing the envelope but probably doesn't have too much to worry about.  There are substantial differences between the two bags (the Wilsons zips at the top, for example), so a court would probably consider the likelihood of consumer confusion to be low.  Futhermore, Hermes has much more pressing concerns in the realm of copying.

From a normative perspective, is there anything wrong with the Wilsons?  Well, that's up to each consumer to decide.  After all, all designers are "inspired" by others, whether they admit it or not, and there are only so many ways to make a receptacle for carrying around the bits and pieces of daily life, a.k.a. a purse.  Still, certain designs are more recognizable and more creative than others.

An informal study of what degree of copying is considered "wrong" within the fashion community leads me to list the following basic objections:

1.  Too literal.  Inspiration is fine, line-for-line copying is cheap and uncreative. 

2.  Too close in time.  It's one thing to reinterpret a 1960s Courreges, it's another thing to knock off last season's Prada.

3.  Too similar a market niche.  H&M or Zara can get away with much more than, say, Ralph Lauren copying YSL.  Issues of competition aside, we simply expect more from expensive design.

Too much grey area?  Well, that's why we have lawyers -- and editors, critics, tastemakers, fashionisti, bloggers, discerning consumers, and you.

January 01, 2006

Culture Clash

Today's New York Times Magazine offers the following out/in list for 2006, courtesy of Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah:

Appiah's article goes on to challenge the thinking of cultural "purists" like those at Unesco who, he believes, wish to stop globalism and trap local peoples in their old cultural ways, all in the name of preserving human diversity.  According to Appiah, "Talk of authenticity now just amounts to telling other people what they ought to value in their own traditions."  Similar arguments have been made by proponents of international trade and economic development for some time.  Stop fighting Coca-colonization -- people everywhere want to drink Coke.

Original or not, Appiah has a valid point.  Or rather, half of a valid point.  Certainly, choices regarding the hybridization of culture should be the provenance of the people living it; moreover, some behaviors defended in the name of "culture" are indefensible from a liberal humanitarian perspective. 

Appiah ignores the other side of the issue, however:  many individuals do identify themselves as part of a group and do wish to protect the authenticity of the group traditions, especially against outside appropriation.  Some things, the argument goes, should not be copied, should not be copied badly, or, if they are copied, should acknowledge their source (financially as well as verbally).  Appiah's own native Ghana, for example, has had difficulties protecting its traditional textile patterns against cheap foreign copyists.  Corporations can protection their "traditions" in the form of trade secrets or trademarks; why shouldn't communities be able to engage in analogous branding exercises, with international encouragement and assistance?

Culture is, of course, fluid.  As I have written elsewhere, there are many social benefits that stem from this fluidity.  Under a global scheme that respects only individuals and "contamination," however, the processes of collective cultural creativity are devalued and creators' ability to balance the authenticity of cultural products against harmful forms of outside appropriation is lost. 

December 31, 2005

Year in Review III: Counterfeit Conversations

There may be neither societal consensus nor legal clarity regarding copying, but that doesn't prevent it from being an ongoing topic of discussion within the luxury goods industry.

From a January 2005 feature in Harper's Bazaar magazine and accompanying Anticounterfeiting Summit in New York to a November/December 2005 WIPO symposium in Italy -- and many events in between -- concerned parties have come together to knock knockoffs.  And they hope you're listening.

Police raids and lawsuits have some effect on the distribution of counterfeits, but where there's consumer demand, there will be supply -- witness the "world's oldest profession."  If people stop buying illegal fakes, however, manufacturers will no longer bother to produce them. 

But how to reach the fashion-savvy but impecunious or price-resistant consumer?  The quality argument is often unpersuasive, especially to the person just seeking a disposable fashion fix.  Appeal to the rights of designers generates little sympathy when they are charging $15,000 or $20,000 for a handbag.  Laws aimed at punishing consumers, like the new legislation in Europe, are unpopular and difficult to enforce.  Attaching social stigma to counterfeits, however, is a relatively new approach.

So, let's talk.  What's wrong with counterfeits?

The sale of counterfeits is controlled by organized crime?  This one is too easy.  Prohibition, bootlegging, Al Capone, remember?  If you declare alcohol, counterfeits, or anything else illegal, it won't be sold at a PTA bake sale. 

Counterfeits fund terrorism?  Could be.  But didn't they (whoever They are) just say the same thing about drugs?  And fear of terrorism as a justification for government action doesn't have quite the same rhetorical value as it did a few years ago.

Counterfeits are manufactured using child labor?  Well, major corporations like Nike have been accused of the same thing.  Yet this claim tugs directly at the heartstrings of consumers, particularly women, and it is elaborated in the current issue of Harper's Bazaar in "The Human Cost of Fakes."  As the poet Margaret Widdemer wrote nearly a century ago, "I have shut my little sister in from life and light/(For a rose, for a ribbon, for a wreath across my hair.)"  Buyer's remorse, anyone?

Whether all of this reflects a desperate/manipulative effort by manufactuers to protect profit margins, a genuine desire to eliminate a social evil, or perhaps both, I leave for you to decide.  One thing is certain, though:  this conversation will continue into the new year and beyond.

Happy 2006!

December 29, 2005

Year in Review II: China Chic

The new China is a source of inexpensive manufacturing for established brands -- as well as for their counterfeit counterparts.  The new Chinese consumer forms an emerging market for luxury goods -- and a market hungry for knockoffs.  China is a source of inspiration for Western designers, even as it adopts and adapts European style. 

With the official end of textile import quotas on January 1, 2005, the P.R.C. loomed even larger on the interntional clothing/textile scene.  As the months passed and U.S. imports from China showed double-digit increases over 2004, domestic manufacturers from North Carolina, high-end European manufacturers, and manufacturers in small, impoverished nations that previously benefited from quotas joined forces in seeking protection from a common threat.  Textile and clothing manufacturers also developed strategies to stay one step ahead of China by emphasizing speed, flexibility, creativity, quality, and technological advances.  Meanwhile, Western importers enjoyed lower prices and worried about possible emergency protection measures.  In the end, both Europe and the U.S. reached agreements with China -- for the time being. 

So, what's the connection between luxury goods and knockoffs, manufacturing and consuming, quotas and innovation?  All of these elements have focused global attention on China as key to the future of the clothing/textile industry, and they have raised the stakes for the establishment and enforcement of legal norms -- including those governing copying. 

China is frequently criticized as a pirate's paradise, despite the official existence of intellectual property laws.  In fact, a trade publication recently cited the estimate that 1 in 5 women on Chinese city streets is carrying what appears to be a knockoff Louis Vuitton handbag.  For years, respected academic types have attributed China's comfort with copying to Confucian cultural norms.  As the insightful and incisive law professor Peter Yu has pointed out, however, you might as well attribute illegal downloading of music in the U.S. to Judeo-Christian communitarianism.  After all, the U.S. has its own history of intellectual property piracy to live down. 

Well, if it's not a cultural thing, what is China's story with respect to IP piracy?  According to Professor Yu -- with apologies for vastly oversimplifying his research -- China is pretty much the same as everywhere else.  In other words, China will work harder to protect luxury goods and other forms of IP when it has a stake in such protection.  Which explains why China allegedly places greater penalties on the counterfeiting of Beijing 2008 Olympic merchandise than on other knockoffs. 

OK, Olympic trinkets are one thing, but as for couture, is China likely to become a stakeholder?  Well, Armani and Vuitton aren't exactly worried yet, but China did sponsor a small U.S. exhibition of current, high-end Chinese designer gowns this year.  Its location?  Not in fashion capital New York, but political capital Washington, D.C.  Message:  we're in the game.  And in China, televised fashion awards shows with the spotlight on international stars like Chinese-American Vera Wang may inspire a new generation of young designers.

China chic?  Definitely an important element in reflecting back on the Year of the Rooster.  And don't forget to check out books of the same name by both fashion historian Valerie Steele and designer Vivienne Tam

December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas and Happy Hannukah!

Or are we just celebrating Saturnalia knockoffs today?

December 24, 2005

Faux Ethics

Is a fake ever superior to an original?  Perhaps, at least with respect to claiming the moral high ground.

Take furs.  With the onset of winter weather and holiday parties, the minks, chinchillas, and sables that spent the summer in cold storage have returned to the streets.  In one of fashion's eternal cycles, pelts that were once considered the province of dowagers or Cruella DeVille are once again high fashion. 

This year, PETA has responded with somewhat more clever tactics than the flinging of dead animals or cream pies.  A holiday card sent to Vogue staffers depicted editor-in-chief Anna Wintour in one of her customary furs; the card opened to reveal a skeletal Anna in her lingerie flashing the reader and declaring, "Without fur ... I am nothing."

Yet the New York Times, in last week's Thursday Styles section, took the opportunity to remind us that as recently as 1989 "fun furs" were the preferred wrap of the stylishly dressed, or at least those who feared the red paint brigades.  This faux elegance raises questions that are more than skin deep, however:  Were the women photographed by the NYT some 16 years ago secretly longing for the real thing?  Indeed, do excellent copies exacerbate demand for natural furs?  At the end of the day, can humans really be expected to deny our status as clever carnivores at the top of the food -- or fashion -- chain?  Or, for the anti-Darwinists among us, what's up with that Genesis story -- does God prefer furs to fig leaves?

In short, which is "better" -- real or fake? 

December 23, 2005

Pearls of Great Price

In 1917 Pierre Cartier purchased a mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York from financier Morton Plant.  The price?  $100 plus a string of pearls coveted by Mrs. Plant and valued at $1 million.

In 1957 the same necklace was sold at auction for a mere $151,000.  The mansion still serves the Cartier jewelry company's flagship in New York, and were it ever to be sold, its value would be far greater than the 1917 figure.

The reason for the pearls' decline in value?  The scientific development of extraordinary knockoffs.

In the 1890s, several Japanese scientists were competing to develop a method of inducing oysters to produce round pearls.  Kokichi Mikimoto (yes, also a familiar name today on Fifth Avenue and elsewhere) was among these scientists.  By the 1920s, Mikimoto became the first to develop a commercially successful method of culturing pearls.  Despite an initial outcry against the "fake" pearls -- presumably from those lucky enough to own them -- the extreme scarcity of pearls harvested from coastal waters quickly made cultured pearls the industry standard.  Women everywhere could aspire to own what only a few decades before had been a means of displaying great wealth or royal status.

Kokichi Mikimoto

Today, it is a safe assumption that "pearls" offered for sale are cultured rather than natural.  And modern faux pearls have never seen the inside of an oyster. 

So, are those pearls in your Christmas stocking real?  It depends on who's asking -- and during which decade.

December 18, 2005

Naughty or Nice?

Last week's Wall Street Journal reports that for international travelers, the latest trend in holiday giving is superior qualilty "bootleg bounty" purchased overseas, sometimes even in lookalike packaging.  According to the WSJ,

It may have once been considered tacky to give a knockoff purse or wallet as a gift.  Not any longer.  This holiday season, more gift givers are tapping a new source for presents:  Chinese counterfeit goods.

For holiday shoppers unwilling to tangle with U.S. Customs, New York seems to be an equally popular destination this weekend.  Not only is Chinatown buzzing with the usual muttered offers of "Vuitton" and "Prada" -- openly displayed, behind fake walls, or past locked basement doors -- but pushcart vendors have set up shop near some of Manhattan's priciest real estate.  Not happy with the prices at Saks, Barneys, or Bergdorf?  Just step outside.

Outside Bergdorf December 2005

BTW, the traffic cones aren't VIP parking.  They were placed by the traffic cop just outside the edge of the photo.  (More pics available on Flickr.  And post your own!)

The savvy traveler quoted in the WSJ claims that his family "didn't mind one bit" that the goods were fake.  Hmmm.  Tune in here for future reflections on the messages embedded in buying -- or giving -- counterfeits. 

In the meantime, attention shoppers:  if I'm untying the white ribbon around a certain little blue box in my stocking, it had better be the real deal.