The latest IFCSF event featured a panel discussion of the Design Piracy Prohibition Act, a bill currently pending in the U.S. Congress. Currently undergoing its third attempt at passage, the bill would provide intellectual property protection rights to a fashion design for a period of 3 years.
Zuzna Ikels and Karen Frank, partners at law firm of Coblentz, Patch, Duffy and Bass, graciously explained the nuances of the pending bill. While expressing their appreciation for fashions creative process, they failed to reassure the concerns of IFCSF’s members that include emerging fashion designers and production talent. The diehard fashionistas who remain in San Francisco have precious little resources and support as it is, let alone the ability to navigate a complex new legal regime. The skeptical mood of the audience attested to the impracticality and potential perils of enacting this law. Competing against the big guys for recognition has always been part of their struggle for success but hasn’t dampened their desire to continue within the cutthroat, yet quixotic fashion industry.
What is good for the goose is usually good for the gander; however, the specious argument in favor of the bill began by contending that since European intellectual property laws do extend to including fashion copyright our country’s should as well. It’s crucial to recognize how different the cultures are and how those cultures impact business practices. Europeans are simply not as litigious as we are! For example, minimal medical malpractice insurance costs paid by European doctors ensure that patient costs are kept reasonable. It doesn’t necessary occur to European designers to follow through and to sue. In our sue-happy culture, any amateur designer’s oversight in integrity would quickly be complicated and buried by self-interest and greed.
Illustrating that the integrity of a fashion design brand may be easier to maintain than recover, Ikels showed exhibit number one for the case for the Design Piracy Act, virtually identical images of an original and copied version of a striped cardigan. The designs were used in a recent lawsuit filed by fashion house Travota against Forever 21. While the audience agreed visual differences were hard to distinguish, they challenged that it would be easy to tell the difference in quality in-person, and that the Travota brand was not harmed by the cheaper copy.
Which underscores my next point. It’s an uncertain assumption that fast-fashion chains targeting a more mass market, like H&M, Zara, and Forever 21, truly hurt the fashion business on the high end. In fact, these chains democratize fashion and allow a youthful market with lower means to begin developing a sense for silhouette proportions while adapting high-end trends to create a personal signature look.
Next, it’s the inherent nature of fashion as an art form that makes attempting to incorporate copyright protection so problematic. Like any other medium, the tools available —every stitch, seam, dart, hem, pleat, cut, and combination of, have been utilized before at some point in fashion’s history. The process of creating a design—essentially crafting a piece of 3d fabric architecture—is achieved, not by separating out those tools and identifying them in their unformed state, but by imagining their potential and arranging their composition to suit the designers taste or intuition.
The bottom line comes down to the company’s bottom line. Consumer choice and liberty is wiped out when a broad encompassing competitive market is. While I certainly am grateful for the additional H and M top to my wardrobe that suggests (in my budget-addled imagination) the avant- garde simplicity of Dries Van Noten, it doesn’t make me want to not save up for the real thing either. It makes dressing how I want a reality I can embrace, rather than a desire I have to simply shutdown for the sake of my own sanity!
While couturier, Colleen Quen spoke gracefully about how her work “isn’t inspired by trends,” the truth is most designers are paying close attention to their customers needs. They know that women tend to dress for one another and want to show they are somewhat cognizant of the current fashions. A successful designers genius rests in reinventing the wheel again and again within this season’s fabric and color trends. Ultimately, I subscribe to Voltaire’s conclusion on the subject “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation“
The act has been in the works for years but failed to pass. Why is it coming up again now? Spearheaded by Diane Von Furstenberg, who has finally encouraged enough support for what looks like a 50-50 fight. Meaning that enough big business labels are able to afford the copious legal fees associated with their proposed legislation. However, just viewing those in opposition tells you a lot. Headed by the American Apparel and Footwear Association, the opposition is a workers union. They know that getting lawyers involved, drags in hardworking employees such as pattern drafters and production workers. They estimate the new law could eliminate 90% of the national fashion industry. And the price of clothes will surge—in this economy that can’t be a good thing!
We can all appreciate that cheating is wrong. Rather than pointing the finger, as an industry let’s try to develop the consumer instead. With the advent of style.com and the glut of celebrity style media, fashion knowledge has become more accessible than ever before. It’s important to build on that platform and educate the consumer about the cause and effect of their choices. Alongside the high/ low concept, the trend for sustainable clothing is the most important. We have to focus on more education—I propose we educate ourselves with intelligent journalism within our favorite magazine, than the sorry occurrences of chapter 11’s in the business pages.
Striking the balance between fashion as an art form, versus the grittiness of the rag trade, with its weakness for free exchange of inspiration, is the bane of the industry. You can’t separate the two. Fashion is both all at once; it’s the industry whose low cost entry transforms 3rd worlds into significant economic players (as the Cotton Mills did for the U.S. in the 1800’s) and the most transient of art forms, whose masterpieces are cataloged all-too-briefly in disposable glossy magazines. There’s simply too much at risk to jeopardize it with difficult to identify laws that are costly and may impede small player’s creativity and voracious passion. This is not an industry that needs to rest on its laurels by seeking timely credit recognition, but one that needs to be constantly innovating forward to stay ahead of the game.