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!

September 23, 2008

Fakes on Film

Please pass the popcorn -- fakes are appearing on and around film quite frequently of late. 

In an early scene from Diane English's remake of the 1939 gem The Women, Annette Bening's magazine editor character goes shopping.  At Saks, which presumably paid dearly for some heavy-handed brand placement throughout the movie.  With only 5 minutes devoted to the task, the character's sharply honed, encyclopedic fashion vision (or perhaps it's her oversized sunglasses) allows her to target and identify specific products as they cross her line of vision.  Designer, item, and price instantly appear on screen -- as does an alert regarding the Canal Street origin of a fellow shopper's fake. It's as if a military contractor had taken up Counterfeit Chic's favorite sport -- fakespotting -- and developed top-secret search-and-destroy technology.  Sadly, despite an all-star cast and a fierce fashion show sequence courtesy of Narciso Rodriguez, the film's plot doesn't stand the test of time particularly well. 

Although Lifetime engaged Shirley MacLaine to channel Coco Chanel in her later years, they apparently didn't spring for vintage couture.  The costume credits went instead to Stefano De Nardis and Pierre-Yves Gayraud.  Shirley probably wasn't too bothered, however, as she admitted to WWD last January that she'd worn knockoffs of the designer's fashions all through the 1950s and 60s.  Of perhaps greater concern was the meager use of Ms. MacLaine merely as a framing device for a rather sentimental biography of Mlle. Chanel as a young woman -- and the distracting shifts in accent between the senior and junior actresses.  Dressing Shirley MacLaine in Chanel copies and asking her to intone a few of Coco's most notable quotes does not make for great television. 

A faux fashion-related film that I have not seen, but that has received better early reviews, is Plastic City.  This Japanese, Brazilian, and French co-production by Chinese director Yu Lik-wai is set in an underworld where "the goods are fake, but the money is real," and it revolves around a counterfeit kingpin and his adopted son.  In other words, not exactly your basic chick flick. speaking of criminal connections, there are hard truths and real dangers behind all of these fictional fakes -- and filmmaker Richard Van Dam of Investigative Films is determined to reveal them.  He's hard at work on a documentary about counterfeits, and you can help by visiting his website and sharing your stories.  Richard's investigations have taken him around the world, including your favorite law prof's office (dangerous in its own way, perhaps!), and his tales of adulterated pharmaceuticals, deadly electronic devices, and child labor are quite shocking.  When this film opens, Counterfeit Chic will be first in line -- for a "hold the popcorn, pass the Scotch" kind of experience.

February 01, 2008

She Who Laughs Last

Jessica Kagan Cushman is the type of woman who , when life gives her lemons, not only makes lemonade -- she opens a lemonade stand, franchises it, launches an IPO, and builds a villa in the middle of a Mediterranean lemon grove. 

So it is that when, as Counterfeit Chic readers will recall, Jessica  suspected Chanel of knocking off her wittily inscribed scrimshaw bracelets, she went into action.  First came her amusing scrimshaw response, a one-off "Ripped off by Chanel" bracelet.  Then she launched a line of less-expensive resin bangles to satisfy her new fans.  Now, Stiletto Jungle reports that Jessica has re-created her response to Chanel in black resin and made it available through ShopBop.  Aren't creative feuds wonderful?

As Counterfeit Chic noted at the outset of the dispute, Jessica most likely never had any legal recourse against Chanel.  While jewelry designs can be protected by copyright, the shape of these bracelets is not original.  What is original with Jessica is the clever combination of scrimshaw technique, bangles, and stylish pop phrases.  The general idea of printing a motto around a bracelet, however, cannot be protected. 

If, however, as many in the blogosphere suspect, Chanel appropriated the idea, Jessica is free to say so.  There's always the possibility that Chanel will challenge the truth of her assertion and scream defamation, but at least Jessica has editorial backup.  And does Chanel really want any more negative publicity on this issue?

What about Jessica's use of "Chanel" on her newest commercial creation?  The trademark is clearly used in a critical fashion -- "Ripped off by Chanel" -- and not as a source identifier.  Moreover, Jessica's own trademark appears prominently on the bracelet, further reducing any likelihood of consumer confusion. 

Under U.S. law, this type of nominative fair use is permitted, so long as Jessica hasn't used any more of the Chanel mark than necessary.  The fashion house might quibble over the use of the distinctive Chanel typeface, as opposed to some other generic lettering, but Jessica's ability to invoke First Amendment free speech protections is fairly powerful.  And a claim by Chanel that Jessica had diluted its admittedly famous mark would be subject to the same analysis.  (Of course, not all nations' laws offer the same leeway, and in a non-English-speaking country, consumers might be less likely to understand the critical nature of Jessica's phrasing.  Think of the varying results of trademark owners' challenges to domain name ownership of "sucks" sites.) 

What would Mlle. Chanel herself have thought of all this had she been in Jessica's shoes?  Certainly the champion of fake pearls would at least have appreciated the idea of plastic knockoffs of ivory bracelets -- and, as a businesswoman, she would've wanted to capture both markets for herself.  As to the issue of copying her original ideas, Coco was quite coy, making public statements in favor of copying while privately suing at least one notorious design pirate under applicable French law.  In the absence of legal recourse, however, one imagines that the queen of the stylish bon mot would've displayed wit equal to Jessica's. 

And if the modern house of Chanel really did rip off Jessica?  Presumably its founder would be as disappointed as its fans.

October 14, 2007

Channel Surfing

Poor Gabrielle.  She was literally born misspelled -- as "Chasnel" rather than "Chanel," in a hospice for the poor.  Apparently neither her mother nor the illiterate staff could spell her father's name, so the mayor took his best shot.  Over a century later, people are still struggling with her name...


...which is as good a reason as any for just using "Coco." 

Having lost one of the Fs in "Scaffidi" to an immigration error a couple of generations ago, I have to commend Mlle. Chanel for sticking to an accurate spelling, whatever the proper authorities might have thought.  From now on, I think I'll write "return to sender" on junk mail addressed to Scafaldi, Seafidi, Scafadi, Scafade....

And while I'm working through the stack on my desk, check out the Asian Garden Mall set from Sullyt64 for t-shirts from fellow orthographic victims "Versage" and "DNKY." 

June 28, 2007

Awwwrest ME?

Little Mona may be criminally cute, but her artistically inclined mother, Mieko Bystedt, is the one who knitted the "Chanel" bag below.  Judging from the wish list on Mieko's blog -- and authentic details like the hot pink lining -- she's a fan of the real thing as well.


But will the branded baby become a career counterfeiter, a Chanel connoisseur, or a victim of consumer ennui?  Time will tell....

UPDATE:  Mieko wishes to assure all readers that she is "fully aware of the problem of counterfeiting in the world today" and that all of the designer items she personally owns are authentic.  The "Chanel" bag was knitted for her daughter's personal use only.

February 16, 2007

Joe Camel's Sex Change

The newest cigarette in Camel's stable, Camel No. 9, is an unabashed bid to lure female smokers to the historically macho brand -- just check out the hot pink and black packaging.  (Ahem.  Pause for station identification.)  Naturally, women's health advocates and concerned feminsts are up in arms -- but might they have a fashionable trademark ally as well?

As the New York Times notes, the new brand "has a name that evokes women’s fragrances like Chanel No. 19, as well as a song about romance, 'Love Potion No. 9.'" 

Hmmm.  CAMEL No. 9CHANEL No. 19.  Interesting point.

True, cigarettes and frangrance are quite different products.  On the other hand, some are sold through the same venues, e.g. drugstores.  And while the logos are quite different, the names  and use of the "No." abbreviation and similar typeface were at least close enough to form an association in the mind of one reporter. 

Moreover, Chanel No. 19 is arguably a well-known trademark, and the sometime association of cigarettes with glamour has been replaced in the modern era with images of lung cancer -- not exactly a connection that Chanel would wish to cultivate, despite the archival pictures of Mademoiselle with her smokes.

Horst photo of Coco Chanel 1937

Of course, like all cigarette packaging, this one comes with a disclaimer:

The “9” is meant to suggest “dressed to the nines, putting on your best,” [senior marketing director at R.J Reynolds, Brian] Stebbins said, rather than a perfume or a song.

Perhaps -- or maybe the job of marketing a Camel involves a certain amount of shoveling. 

Thanks to Katherine Ross for the tip!

December 19, 2006

A.L.I.E.N v. Chanel

Is this an edgy fashion statement, a public service message (Mayor Barry, are you listening?), or a luxury brand's worst nightmare?

Perhaps all three, courtesy of urban streetwear line A.L.I.E.N (a.k.a. Galaxy Riders), who describe their crew as "an electric mix of young adults far from the norm; they are different from others and intend to remain that way."

Of course, the beanie could simply be an homage to the iconic double C's, albeit one that may leave Chanel's brand managers reaching for a glass -- wait, make that a whole bottle -- of Cristal.

November 30, 2006

Coco is Dead

Ever wonder how Karl Lagerfeld got his job?  Check out the subversive "Coco is Dead" line of jewelry -- ranging from "Bullet Holes" to "Knife Fight" to "Buried Alive" -- from Alex+Chloe:

Bullet Holes logo and We Love Coco bullets

Knife Fight

Buried Alive

And then hit the ground, lest Chanel's lawyers fail to appreciate this countercultural parody and fire a few missiles of their own.

Thanks to rock star editor Lesley Scott of Fashion Tribes for this tip from her holiday wish list!

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 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. 

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 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 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? 

December 16, 2005

Introducing our Patron Saint/Avenging Angel

Counterfeit Chic's Patron Saint/Avenging Angel, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, probably didn't invent the "little black dress" -- but she was famous for popularizing it and inspiring innumerable imitations.  Her response?

Fashion should slip out of your hands.  The very idea of protecting the seasonal arts is childish.  One should not bother to protect that which dies the minute it is born.


Today, her eponymous house -- or at least its counsel -- is a bit less forgiving.  In recent ads, Chanel, Inc., reminded fashion editors and advertisers that "even if we are flattered by such tributes to our fame as 'Chanel-issme, Chanel-ed, Chanels and Chanel-ized', PLEASE DON'T.  Our lawyers positively detest them."

This legally offended/artistically flattered dichotomy has been echoed by designers from Marc Jacobs to As Four.  So which is it?  How come the lawyers always get blamed?  And what would Mademoiselle herself think?  If anyone is channeling Chanel, please let me know!