December 23, 2007

Irish Eyes Aren't Smiling

A striped shirt made history last week.

Of course, it wasn't just any striped shirt.  It was a shirt by British designer Karen Millen that, along with 2 other items, became the first article of clothing subject to a decision regarding infringement under the E.U.'s 2002 unregistered design right regulation.  Irish High Court Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan found that the defendant, Dunnes Stores, had copied the 3 garments and rejected the defense's argument that the KM shirts and sweater lacked "individual character" and failed "to produce on the informed user a different overall impression" from other similar garments.  In reaching her decision, the judge said that the court would take into account the color, texture, and material used in the designs.

Karen Millen-Dunnes Stores shirt comparison 

Despite the significance of the case and the E.U.'s treatment of fashion as equivalent to other objects of design, the press couldn't resist making light of the subject matter or the attorneys arguing over it, including former Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell for the plaintiff.  An article in the Sunday Independent shortly after the trial noted:

Rarely have the fripperies of fashion been dissected with such gravitas in an Irish courtroom. Over four days last week, the middle-aged [male] barristers at times struggled to suppress their chuckles as they crossed swords over ribbed stitching, layered borders, sweetheart necklines and bust-hugging fibres. They did so in a court room littered with copies of Marie Claire magazine, door stopper editions of Vogue and expensive handbags.

And when the question of whether the KM designs were in fact sufficiently new to deserve protection arose, the judge had to remind the parties that the question before the court was not whether "hypothetical husbands" would recognize the difference. 

Still, in a battle between stuffed shirts, the new striped shirt carried the day -- at least in Ms. Justice Finlay Geoghehan's courtroom.

June 03, 2007

Turning a Cold Shoulder to Knockoffs

Someday, academia will finally take fashion seriously.  This will result in a great deal of valuable social and cultural history, along with dissertation titles like, "On Her Shoulders:  Silhouette and the Re-Construction of Western Women's Economic and Political Power."  

Balenciaga S'07, Lanvin F'07, Margiela F'07

Until then, we must be content with well-researched newspaper articles like the one by Rachel Dodes and Teri Agins in this weekend's WSJ, which notes the return of the "strong" shoulder to women's fashion after nearly 20 years on the "out" list. 

Ms. President?Although it's possible to overread the social significance of any individual fashion statement, the return of the exaggerated shoulder seems appropriate at a moment when for the first time there have been serious woman presidential candidates in both France and the U.S., Germany has a woman chancellor, a woman leads the U.S. House of Representatives, etc.  At the same time, the rights of women around the world are under close scrutiny and dress is at the heart of global cultural warfare

Gibson GirlAs Dodes and Agins point out, wide shoulders have been fashionable in the late 1890s and early 1900s (first-wave feminism and suffrage), the 1940s (women working while men were at war), and the 1980s (women entering the workplace en masse, this time to stay).  (The sartorial echoes of this exercise of economic and political muscle are, of course, quite different from dressing to express sexual liberation through raised hemlines, low waistlines, and still lower necklines.) 

Lest this year's broadening of the female shape to more masculine proportions raise the spectre of assertive "power dressing" from two decades ago, however, the designers and retailers interviewed for the article hastened to explain away any direct connection.  Not only are the new shoulders actually "less severe and aggressive than in the past" and more "modern," they also are justified as an exercise in fine tailoring, a natural counterpoint to emphasizing the waist, and, Counterfeit Chic's favorite, a deterrent to design pirates:

One potential side benefit: The shoulders' complicated constructions make them harder for fast-fashion chains to copy.

And yes, they do make the hips look smaller. 

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

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? 

May 09, 2006


Most of the copying at Counterfeit Chic involves women's clothing and accessories, or at least labels that outfit both men and women.  That's no surprise; for the last few hundred years, Western fashion (or at least wearing it) has been a girl thing.

A new ad campaign from Men's Wearhouse, however, specifically targets bargain shoppers of the putatively less fashionable gender. 

The tagline, "If you can't tell the difference, why pay for it?" is absolutely gender-brilliant.  It works at persuading men to shop -- rationally and intelligently -- while at the same time reinforcing their heterosexual male American "I-can't-tell-all-that-fashion-garbage-apart" machismo. 

A similar appeal to the fairer sex wouldn't be nearly as effective, as fashion-conscious women and girls are more likely to pride themselves  on being able to tell the difference between expensive and inexpensive versions of a similar item.  Even when a woman chooses the bargain style (the "steal" rather than the "splurge," in Marie Claire terms), the value of the copy is based in part on the ability to recognize the original and cleverly imitate the overall look.  In terms of social expectations, a woman who can't tell the difference needs to spend time studying, not shopping. 

Of course, the Men's Wearhouse isn't comparing a $3,000+ bespoke suit with its own bargain version; the differences are more like $495 v. $299.99.   Still, it takes balls to make sartorial cluelessness a virtue (esteemed readers excepted, of course!)

P.S.  I can't believe I just typed that, nor can my spouse -- final exam season takes its toll. 

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.

March 14, 2006

Fashion Capital

At a CFDA reception that I attended earlier this evening, Nicole Dreyfuss was one of the young designers on hand to remind Washington that the fashion industry remains concerned about knockoff artists. 

Nicole, who designs (and originally knitted) a successful line of handbags under the label Margaret Nicole, noticed last year that Abercrombie & Fitch was selling a suspiciously similar bag -- for a rock-bottom price.  While Nicole's excellent media and legal connections helped her stand up to A&F -- her mother is NYU IP law professor Rochelle Dreyfuss -- the designer is concerned about others who generally lack protection under U.S. law.  

Most appropriately for an industry associated with creative/expressive women, the venue for the event was Sewall-Belmont House, the headquarters of the historic National Women's Party and former home of its founder and Equal Rights Amendment author Alice Paul.  Love the subtext! 

February 24, 2006

The Man of ... Silk?

In honor of the first New York Comic-Con this weekend, here's a look back at Superman's triumph over one of Metropolis' most nefarious villains -- The Dude!  Note the measuring tape whip, the white tie & tails, the phalanx of unhappy women in lookalike dresses....

Superman #23

Never heard of The Dude?  Well, neither had Superman -- until the summer of 1943, when Clark Kent was forced to accompany Lois Lane on a shopping expedition.  She bought an expensive, one-of-a-kind dress (French, of course), only to see a cheap imitation in a dress shop in a "down-and-out neighborhood."  Shocked, Miss Lane demanded her money back -- and mustered both her feminine outrage and her journalistic instincts to expose the knockoff racket.  Naturally, she endangered herself in the process, requiring Superman to come on the scene, avoid a not-so-clever trap, and vanquish The Dude. 

The story has it all -- our favorite gendered industry (and its seedy side), class issues, French styles, creativity, copying, a smart woman on the case....  But if the Man of Steel was uncomfortable in a women's clothing store, why was Jerry Siegel, one of the original creators of Superman and the author of "Fashions in Crime!" so concerned? 

Well, knockoffs were perhaps an even more widely discussed issue back then than today.  (In the comic, after Lois Lane publishes her original story, "Feminine readers flock to the Daily Planet in droves.")  And Siegel's mind was on copyright issues.  He was already uncomfortably aware that he and his partner, Joe Shuster, has signed away the rights to Superman for a song; moreover, DC comics was engaged in a series of ongoing legal battles, claiming that other companies' superheroes infringed on Superman.  So perhaps he had some sympathy for upscale fashion designers, or at least the women who wore them.

The real question is why a guy in tights and a cape felt the need to deny an interest in fashion.

January 30, 2006

The State of the Fashion Union: E Pluribus Plures

My fellow fashionisti,

A century ago, 1st Wave Feminism gave women the right to vote -- and the ability to breathe and move unrestricted by corsets and trailing skirts.  Designers like Counterfeit Chic's Patron Saint/Avenging Angel Coco Chanel took pride (and profit) in setting women free.

Michael Roberts,

In the latter half of the 20th century, 2nd Wave Feminism dramatically expanded our opportunities to make career and lifestyle choices -- and our ability to leave the house without a uniform of elaborately coifed hair, lacquered faces, restrictive "foundation garments," hats, and gloves.  OK, we also veered from one decade of shapeless, earth-toned, artsy-craftsy outfits to another decade of power suits with giant shoulders and floppy bow ties based on men's suits.  But the thought was there -- witness the recent rebirth of Diane von Furstenberg's 1972 woman-on-the-go wrap dress.

Today, a 3rd Wave is gathering momentum, carrying with it a commitment to individual creativity and playful paradox:

  • A boyfriend one week and a girlfriend the next?  No problem. 
  • Ivy League education for both future female CEOs and stay-at-home moms?  Check.
  • A career as a feminist ecdysiast?  Sure.
  • Piety and piercings?  Pourquois pas?
  • Chanel jackets with jeans, or flip-flops with evening gowns?  Naturally.
  • Smart women who love fashion (even while we thank our foremothers for releasing us from rigid conformity)?  Absolutely.  You've already met the reigning queens of this Carnivale, Fashion Tribes and Almost Girl, and many, many more blogistas, academics, journalists, fashion designers, and fabulous women in general, not to mention our presumably male fellow-travelers (on the internet, who knows?). 

In the realm of fashion health, we are developing a cure for repetitive dress disorder.  In the workplace, sports bonding is giving way to shoe bonding.  Around the globe, even women still under burkas are back at the beauty salon.  In short, we're experiencing

The Brave & the Bold #63, December 1965/January 1966

(One correction:  With all due respect to the graphic artists who gave us the Revolt of the Super-Chicks, it's not about dressing for men.  Modern women know that these super-sistas are doin' it for themselves.)

So go forth, create, contradict, and don't feel compelled to copy.  God bless the Fashion Union, and good night!

January 08, 2006

Law Profs, Part 2

The AALS conference is over, and I've had my 15 minutes of ... well, surely not fame, but air time.  With discreet reminders at the 5-minute and 2-minute-remaining marks.

My extremely gifted fellow panelists for "A Cultural Analysis of Intellectual Property" offered fascinating and thought-provoking remarks, with Julie Cohen offering a description of how cultural theories, and in particular science and technology studies, can move intellectual property theory beyond the two predominant schools of natural rights and economics; Sonia Katyal developing a new corporate personality/identity theory of trademark; and anthropologist Alexander Bauer reminding us all just how inadequate the law is when it comes to protecting cultural heritage.  Mark Lemley, the devout economist of the bunch, did an amazing job as commentator, managing to pointedly but constructively eviscerate us all, even with little or no prior notice as to what we would say. Thanks to everyone, especially Madhavi Sunder, who organized the panel but was unable to attend.

My own humble ideas, as you know from the last post, revolve around the need to consider areas of creativity -- like fashion -- that have historically received little or no IP protection if we are to develop grand, sweeping theories of IP.  After some general ruminations about human creativity and the role of IP law, I offered a list of seven cultural attitudes that have contributed to lower levels of protection for clothing/textiles in the the U.S. (and probably apply to other creative fields as well).  In very brief form, here they are:

Continue reading "Law Profs, Part 2" »