Sunday, November 11, 2007

"Words like 'copying' and 'knockoff' do not exist in my life"

Marc Jacobs (left) versus Forever 21 (right)
Fashion designers take on pirates
Emili Vesilind, Los Angeles Times
November 11th, 2007

The vendors on Santee Alley are going underground with the good stuff -- the $300 knockoff designer handbags so close to the real thing, they could fool an Hermès salesgirl.


"There is no counterfeiting without design piracy," designer Diane von Furstenberg said in an interview at her Beverly Hills estate. "It's counterfeiting without the label."

As the president of the New York-based Council of Fashion Designers, a nonprofit trade organization, Von Furstenberg is backing a bill pending in the Senate that would amend the Copyright Act. Dubbed the Design Piracy Prohibition Act, it would extend the protections in fashion design beyond artwork to encompass "the appearance as a whole" (the cut and silhouette) of an article for three years.


Indeed, some of Los Angeles' most established fashion companies have good reason to hope the bill falls short. Companies such as Bebe, ABS by Allen Schwartz and Forever 21 regularly cull design "inspiration" from New York's runways, and if passed, the legislation may greatly curb this practice. Additionally, many of the West Coast's biggest fashion exports fall into the denim and sportswear categories, genres that are less concerned with silhouette and shape than they are with flashy branding and artwork -- elements already protected under current laws.


Von Furstenberg, for one, said the bill wouldn't restrict designers from latching onto major trends in fashion, only deter them from copying looks verbatim. "It's like locking your door," she said. "Once people know you have locks, they won't try it."


Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Assn., a nonprofit organization based in downtown Los Angeles, called pattern-making "a craft, not an art. There is only so much you can do with a silhouette, a collar, a drape. For the little designers who have that one great idea and it's knocked off -- well, welcome to the real world, guys. Make another one."


Johnson Hartig, designer and co-founder of Libertine (which recently settled a suit against Los Angeles-based ABS by Allen Schwartz for allegedly copying designs -- which Schwartz denied), said, "I love the bill theoretically, but I don't think it will ever work. I think it's next to impossible to enforce any of this." He added, "Some of the biggest designers would be in court every other week for knocking off other people."

Copycats have always been a thorn in the side of fashion designers, but never more so than today -- with fast-fashion retailers including Forever 21, H&M and Zara churning out lower-priced versions of runway looks.

"Everyone has style now and everyone wants it immediately," Hartig said. "That's just our culture now."


"This act is a double-edge sword, because designers think they're going to be able to protect themselves from knock-off artists, but they are going to have to make absolutely sure there is pure, unadulterated originality in everything they do," he said. "Wouldn't anyone run afoul of things eventually?"

Kal Raustiala, a professor at UCLA with a specialty in international law, wrote a paper on the subject with University of Virginia law professor Christopher Sprigman titled "The Piracy Paradox" that's become a hot-button document for both sides.

The paper contends that piracy is actually good for the fashion industry, as it promotes creativity through copying.

"That's the genius of the fashion industry," said Raustiala during a phone interview. "The act of copying by diffusing ideas promotes more innovation at the top." When a coveted fashion item is created, Raustiala said, it's everywhere in six months or a year -- a good thing in terms of propelling trends forward.


Still, the idea of democratizing fashion is a potent -- and often convincing -- platform for fashion's most infamous copyists. Allen Schwartz, founder of the Los Angeles-based brand ABS by Allen Schwartz, has made the talk-show rounds on TV, flashing knockoffs of red carpet dresses that he sells for a song. Though his business is no longer centered on creating designer replicas, his opposition to the pending bill is a no-brainer.

"Words like 'copying' and 'knockoff' do not exist in my life," Schwartz said. "If a long gown is worn by Nicole Kidman, that was a gown that Audrey Hepburn wore in the 1950s. And that dress is a copy of something that came before it."

A passionate believer in egalitarianism in fashion, Schwartz added, "When you talk about this, it hits a nerve for me. It's based on such an elitist attitude."
While fashion designers have a complete right in worrying about their designs and the cheap copies that destroy the exclusivity of their pieces, just imagine what the masses would have to resort to wearing if we couldn't attain a Tory Burch lookalike pair of ballet flats or a Chloe-inspired shift dress. Will we all have to resort to wearing only Abercrombie-esque logo t-shirts and cardigans because we're banned from high fashion? I'd have to learn how to sew.

Miss Couturable
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