Louis Vuitton on Artist's Darfur Project: Bag It

Louis Vuitton claims copyright infringement over use of purse on a T-shirt.


May 14, 2008— -- If Paris Hilton can garner thousands of headlines and photographs with a trendy Louis Vuitton purse and a pint-size pooch, surely another newsworthy figure can do the same, right?

That's what Nadia Plesner was thinking when she designed a T-shirt featuring a "pimped-out" Darfur victim holding a Vuitton handbag and a dog bearing a striking resemblance to Hilton's beloved Tinkerbell.

"I wanted to try to portray how distorted it is, how parts of the media prioritize between small and big world news. Even with the terrible genocide going on in Darfur, Paris Hilton is getting most of the attention," she said. "If all it takes to make the front page is a designer bag and a small dog, maybe it's worth trying that for the people who really need attention.

"Everyone knows the image of starving black child, but we've seen it so many times that we don't really respond to it anymore," she said. "It was a test to see how the media reacts if you 'pimp the victim.' I think it worked."

Plesner, a 26-year-old Danish art student and member of Designers for Darfur, was planning to sell the T-shirt online to raise money for victims of the Sudanese crisis. She didn't anticipate getting involved in a crisis of her own -- a costly legal battle with the world-famous French luxury retailer.

In February, Louis Vuitton sent Plesner a cease-and-desist letter. Plesner declined to stop production of the T-shirts and posted the letter on her Web site. Last month, Louis Vuitton fought back, filing a copyright infringement lawsuit against her that gets more expensive by the day.

"Originally, they wanted $7,500," said Designers for Darfur founder Malcom Harris, who's defending Plesner's project. "After she placed the cease-and-desist letter on her Web site, that went up. Every time she uses their name on her Web site she's charged an additional $7,500 a day. So at the current rate, she's being charged $20,000 a day."

In its cease-and-desist letter, Louis Vuitton alleges that the bag featured in Plesner's T-shirt is "confusingly similar" to "the Louis Vuitton Monogram Multicolore Trademark, a collaboration between Marc Jacobs, the artistic director of Louis Vuitton, and Takashi Murakami, a well-known contemporary Japanese artist."

The letter continues, "As an artist yourself, we hope that you recognize the need to respect other artists' rights and Louis Vuitton's intellectual property rights."

ABCNEWS.com's calls to Louis Vuitton for comment were not immediately returned Monday. But Wednesday, Louis Vuitton representative Victoria Weld addressed the lawsuit's specific claims, saying "This issue is about the brand and core values of Louis Vuitton which we need to protect. In terms of the preliminary injunction claim and the claim on the merit, Louis Vuitton is only asking for symbolic Euro."

Weld declined to comment on the daily charges cited by Harris and Plesner.

Plesner isn't the only artist to use Louis Vuitton's logo and accessories to make a statement. Last weekend, artist Peter Gronquist opened a solo show at a Los Angeles gallery featuring his $4,500 Louis Vuitton electric chair -- a wooden electric chair printed with the company's monogram and outfitted with Louis Vuitton buckles for wrist and ankle straps. Gronquist's works also include a chainsaw embossed with Fendi's logo and a machine gun clad in Burberry tartan.

And there's a long history of artists using high-fashion logos. In 1985, Andy Warhol turned Chanel into an icon with his pop art take on the Chanel No. 5 perfume bottle.

Nine years later, contemporary artist Tom Sachs created a Christmas scene for the windows at Barneys New York called "Hello Kitty Nativity," replacing the Virgin Mary with a Hello Kitty figurine dressed in Chanel and Nike. In 1998, he made the Chanel Guillotine (Breakfast Nook) -- a table for two set perpendicular to a guillotine covered in the French designer's logo.

Considering how Plesner's T-shirt fits into this tradition, Harris calls Louis Vuitton's lawsuit a cheap shot at an artist trying to do good.

"Especially at a time when France has done so much to shed light on what's going on in Darfur, it's sad that Louis Vuitton would take this position," he said.

"We're going to meet with them at the end of the month in Paris to discuss this," he continued. "It's really our hope that they use this as an opportunity to take a position on Darfur. When you look at all the good work that Gucci did raising money for Malawi, this could be Louis Vuitton's chance to step up to the plate."

Martin Garbus, a copyright and intellectual property lawyer based in New York, said the handbag heavyweight should back off.

"It's an ill-founded, badly thought out lawsuit. I can see no reason why they'd go after this woman," he said. "There's fair use in copyright -- fair use means you can use something that's copyrighted to make a statement. It's like a parody of a Louis Vuitton bag, and parody is protected under copyright law."

Plesner's hoping she can come to a resolution with Louis Vuitton when they meet later this month. But in the meantime, she's relishing the attention the lawsuit has brought to her T-shits, which sell for $53 each and whose proceeds go to Darfur charities.

Plesner won't disclose how many T-shirts she's sold for fear of giving the French label's lawyers more ammo, but her school is letting her take time off from classes and has equipped her with a team of interns to keep up production. Clearly, business can't be too bad.

"This was meant to raise a discussion on how we all prioritize. At this point, I'm so happy that the lawsuit has caused so much attention and that the campaign is going really well," she said. "We're hoping that they will turn around and maybe we can do something together, figure out a way that will benefit both Darfur and them."

Wednesday, Louis Vuitton's Weld asserted the label is not trying to stop Plesner's Darfur campaign.

"We applaud her efforts to raise awareness and funds for Darfur, as we wrote to her in our original letter," she said. "Our contention lies in the representation of the design of one of our bags and the close reference to one of our best known textile designs."

Asked why Louis Vuitton can't leave Plesener's work alone considering it can be seen as a parody, Weld said, "That is not Louis Vuitton's position."