Designers Fight Knockoffs

Today marks the final day of New York's fashion week, a fête of fluttery skirts, voluminous dresses, out-of-this-world pants and the designers who dreamed them up. Seeing models strut down the runway, celebrities, socialites and industry insiders have settled on their objects of desire, garments that will make their spring 2007 wardrobes.

They're not the only ones watching.

Across the country and around the world, clothing manufacturers have been taking note of what's in and what's out, deciding what runway fashions they'll recreate and sell to the public at a fraction of the designers' price.

Members of the fashion elite are hoping to halt that process. Leading American designers including Diane von Furstenberg and Zac Posen have teamed with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) to seek copyrights for their garments.

Along with Congressman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., they're advocating legislation that would give designers the same protections as those offered to artists, writers and musicians. Their quest has set off a heated debate about the multi-billion dollar women's fashion industry.

Under the proposal, designers would be able to register their fashions with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registrations would protect the overall appearance of a garment for three years, making it illegal for anyone to craft something strikingly similar.

Not covered under the copyright would be designs created before the passage of the law, like t-shirts and jeans, considered to be in the public domain. Copyright infringement would cost $250,000, the price of roughly 750 Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses.

Protecting the Artists

"It's really about protecting unique, individual designs that are specific. That's what the legislation is about," CFDA president Steven Kolb said.

The CFDA, an organization of over 270 designers, takes issue with outright knockoffs, often of dresses worn by starlets at awards ceremonies.

"There are a number of companies that are legitimate businesses that hijack, more or less, the designs of American designers who are doing red-carpet garments," Kolb said.

"Right now, it's legal for these people to do that and for them to appear on television morning shows the day after an awards ceremony saying 'Here's the designer's version that costs X and look at my version that costs Y,'" he said.

By making knockoffs in foreign factories, manufacturers can get their version in stores in a matter of days, even before the designer who actually created the garment.

According to Kolb, that's just not fair.

"The reality is that if there were a law, they wouldn't get on that morning show," he said. "The designer would have rights to their garment."

The Death of Trends

If passed, the bill could affect more than stitch-by-stitch knockoffs. It may spell the end for cheap, chic clothing available at mass market stores around the nation.

Chris Sprigman, a University of Virginia law professor and an expert on intellectual property law, argues that a fashion copyright could prevent manufacturers from making anything inspired by high fashion.

"Copyright law doesn't just prohibit copying, it prohibits any article that's substantially similar," he said. "And the courts interpret that broadly."

Sprigman argues that copyright protection contradicts the creative process on which the industry relies.

"The fashion industry thrives by setting trends. Creating a trend involves copying, it involves taking parts of a garment and modifying it," he said, referring to a trickle down effect in which high fashion gets re-interpreted by department stores, mass market retailers and finally big box stores like Target and Wal-Mart.

"With copyrighting, the trend process comes under the gun -- it becomes legally, potentially dangerous," said Sprigman.

Having innovated for decades and decades without a copyright, Sprigman says the fashion industry has no case for putting one in place now. To the designers campaigning for the passage of the bill, he offered some food for thought.

"I think they should look in the mirror. I think they should ask themselves whether they've ever taken an idea from somebody else," Sprigman said. "That creative interchange, if they're honest with themselves, is what makes fashion such a fertile field."

Designer Allen Schwartz of A.B.S. is known for reinterpreting red carpet fashion at real woman prices. He's the type of morning show guest Kolb abhors.

"I've done that with Katie Couric, I'm not going to say I didn't," said Schwartz. "But if i have a ruffled dress like the one that Debra Messing wore and I have it for $300 why shouldn't I show that? People love that."

Schwartz says it's his job to get on trends and make them available to everyone. In an industry based on whims and fickleness, he believes copyrights have no place. He believes designers aren't fighting to protect art, they're trying to protect their egos.

"A silhouette, a slip dress, a halter dress - these things have been going on before any of these people were born," he said. "There's no such thing as an original idea, and they're just looking for a forum to get together and have cocktails."

Consumers, Mass Retailers Weigh In

In New York on Wednesday evening, eight blocks south of where designers were parading their pieces beneath tents in Bryant Park, shoppers bustled in and out of two stores known for their trendy, wallet friendly styles -- Forever 21 and H&M.

While both have design teams of their own, looking at their clothes, it's clear that they take their cues from high fashion.

Clutching a Forever 21 shopping bag, Sabrina Texidore thought about a world in which a dress comes with a trademark. "It's silly for middle class, working people," she said. "It would create a social divide -- only the rich would be able to afford fashion."

Asked how she would feel if she couldn't find designer-inspired fashions at H&M, Anna Williams stated her opinion simply.

"That would suck," she said.

"H&M is so affordable, I can't afford those dresses," she continued, referring to the $4,000-plus gowns that float down the runway.

It seems that the store is on her side. In a written statement, H&M's design director Margareta van den Bosch took the stance that fashion is fluid and should stay copyright free.

"To attempt to narrowly define what is a fashion 'original' would be futile, as it would be with any creative process that is based on free expression and artistic give-and-take," van den Bosch said.

The Penniless Can Have Their Prada, For Now

Kolb asserts that the CFDA's aim is not to deprive the masses of style. To fashion and budget conscious consumers who wonder what they'll wear if the copyright is put in place, Kolb offered some advice.

"Walk to Wal-Mart, walk to Target -- it's there. The American economy is based on us being able to buy what we can afford. Affordable fashion is still going to be available," he said.

With midterm elections less than two months away, it's unlikely the CFDA's bill will be passed in the current Congress. Still, Sprigman remains firm that no matter when it's established, a fashion copyright would be detrimental to all, with one exception.

"I think it's a bad idea for the designers," he said. "I think it's a bad idea for the public, I think it's a bad idea for retailers. I think it's a bad idea for everyone except lawyers, for whom it's a great idea."