Crimes of Fashion

Original Article from Ethical Style
Last Valentine’s Day, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Rayburn office building was the venue for an unusual hearing. Famous designers, fashion executives, and well-styled attorneys talked among themselves while waiting for legislators to return from a vote. Someone described the room as “a strange cocktail party without drinks.”

Capitol Hill isn’t known as a place for fashion-related affairs. Slowly but surely, though, times have changed. Once considered too frivolous a problem for the United States Congress, fashion design theft has finally been brought to the table in the form of the Design Piracy Prohibition Act, or DPPA.

The intellectual property issue has been a pressing one in the fashion industry for many years. However, the lack of legal rights for designers has left them to rely on their own means — and the minimal protection of trademark and patent law — to defend their work against fashion copycats.

Many garment vendors and journalists have credited these loose laws with continued creative innovation and the success of the American mass market. Some have even theorized that the nature of fashion and trends is inconsistent with the notion of a truly “original” clothing design. As one uncompromising San Francisco Chronicle editorial put it, “Is it really realistic to believe that there are really, truly, no designs being invented now that haven’t been created before?”

The answer is a resounding “yes” if you ask ready-to-wear designers Diane Von Furstenberg, Nicole Miller, Zac Posen, and Narciso Rodriguez. They, with a gaggle of other industry supporters, have been pushing hard for the DPPA through the Council of Fashion Designers of American (CFDA), a trade association.

The granting of more intellectual property rights to films, television, and music in the digital age has left CFDA supporters — such as Harper’s Bazaar, which runs the “Fakes Are Never In Fashion” campaign — demanding equal treatment for designers. Just as those industries have suffered as idea thieves have become more tech-saavy, they argue, so has fashion.

While historically, catwalk copycats sent spies and sketch artists to Fashion Weeks, today design thieves can easily access breakthrough designs on the internet within hours of a runway show. As a result, say fashion designers like Mr. Rodriguez and Ms. Von Furstenburg, the original creators are unable to collect a return on their investments.

Mr. Rodriguez has essentially become the poster child for the pro-DPPA lobby. Back in February, he testified before the subcommittee members as the CFDA’s star witness. For himself, he explained, the defining moment came in 1996, when the gown he designed for Carolyn Bessette’s wedding to John F. Kennedy Jr. became an international hit. But his design was replicated and sold long before he could get his own gowns in the stores. Copycats, claims the designer, sold between 7 and 8 million knockoffs that season; Mr. Rodriguez sold 40.

The lost profits, as Rodriguez explained to the subcommittee, were immense. Taking into account the costs of producing runway shows, purchasing fabric for samples, pattern and development costs, travel, and marketing, Rodriguez says it can cost nearly $6-million to produce a 250-piece fall and spring collection. With advancements in garment production (”fast fashion”) and communication, those costs aren’t getting any easier for designers to recover.

As the law currently stands, only counterfeit goods that replicate a trademarked logo or original print or other artwork are protected by the current U.S. regulations. Because of this loophole, a design’s silhouette, color, and other details may be copied and sold legally so long as they are sans logo. If passed, the DPPA would enable designers to register their creations for three years of legal copyright protection. Similar laws already exist in Europe, India, and Japan.

But at least until the next Congress convenes, the DPPA remains in subcommittee limbo. Its death in committee has been attributed to an impasse in negotiations between the CFDA and the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA). But the bill has generated plenty of opposition from industry outsiders as well.