Last April, when newspaper journalist Nathalie Atkinson wrote about the marked similarities between a jacket from a small Canadian design group and one from an international mega-brand, a minor storm erupted in the fashion world.
Not only does a side-by-side comparison of the two garments show shocking similarities, but the copier was none other than the label Diane von Furstenberg, a powerhouse in the design world.
This fashion faux pas moment was quickly picked up by the world’s fashion media as an example of how hard the mighty had fallen.
The designer Diane von Furstenberg, namesake of the brand known for its iconic wrap dress, is also the president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Von Furstenberg, who was re-elected for her second term as the CFDA head in July 2008, has been an active and vocal proponent of the Design Piracy Prohibition Act, which was first introduced in 2006 and reintroduced in the Senate in May 2009. The DPPA, as it is commonly known, would cover apparel and accessory designs by intellectual property protection, which they do not currently enjoy.
Susan Scafidi, visiting professor at Brooklyn Law School and pioneer in fashion law education, blogs about these matters at CounterfeitChic.com
. She supports the DPPA and says that, if passed into law, it wouldn’t protect generic designs -- like a pencil skirt or a T-shirt -- but only specific design details that are sufficiently original and complex to warrant protection.
“The system moves so fast now,” says Scafidi. “Copies get in the stores straight after runway, before the originals even get there. It’s really tough for designers.”
Legal protection is something that designers in the US have been pursuing for close to a century, says Scafidi. Current copyright law doesn't cover apparel because it’s considered functional -- what’s known as a “useful article.”
So what's with the logos you see on everything from shoes to jeans to shirts? Blame the lawyers. In the 1960s, the Italian designer Emilio Pucci began to incorporate his signature into his colorful swirl- and flower-printed fabric designs, says Scafidi. His goal was to obtain a modicum of legal coverage under trademark protection law. The unfortunate hybrid legal-fashion trend took off from there.
Privately-held Diane von Furstenberg was founded in 1972 and had $18 million in sales in 2008, according to Gale Company and Resource Center. The company knows something about filing copyright infringement suits -- Target, Mango, and Forever 21 were at the receiving end of its lawyers’ letters in recent years -- which was another reason that DVF acted quickly in offering amends to Mercy.
Within a month of making the complaint, the Canadian designers received a public apology and an undisclosed settlement.
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