New York Fashion Weak?

What the US Trademark office is saying is that it really doesn’t care about protecting the ideas or billions of dollars in sales generated by the fashion industry, yet if you use the phrase “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” without permission, you could be in serious legal trouble.

Photo Credit - David H.

As I sit here in the middle of fashion week, I can’t help but wonder how it is that clothing is the world’s most common and often glamorous way in which people express themselves, yet is the least respected way to do so.

All garments and accessories in the USA are classed as “Utility” products and therefore are prevented from any form of protection as works of art. That’s right. That handmade, one off dress which Ralph Rucci has hand stitched together from fabric that he himself painted the design of, is just a Utility, an object to offer the wearer protection against the weather.

What the US Trademark office is saying is that it really doesn’t care about protecting the ideas or billions of dollars in sales generated by the fashion industry, yet if you use the phrase “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” without permission, you could be in serious legal trouble. USA, the land of invention and litigation is the only industrialised country that has no protection for fashion design. Fashion is the biggest industry in NY after Wall Street but it is powerless in its attempts to prevent getting ripped off. But who rips off designers the most, counterfeiters or other designers?

The answer to that might be in the self serving and selective legislation that the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) are pushing forward in Washington. It is generous of Senator Schumer to claim that the bill is “a good first step” but it is still fairly vague in its description of what constitutes infringement. Furthermore, it is unlikely that small designers would risk facing the might of big retailers or billion dollar fashion corporation lawyers any more than they would file a complaint with a Chinese communist party factory inspector if they are copied. There are plenty of cases out there where big designers copy the ideas of smaller  ones. “Inspiration” is the designer’s favorite word when they use other people’s ideas. If those ideas inspire other people to create a garment, handbag, or other accessory, that is deemed a counterfeit. Designers walk around shops in Europe and designer markets in Williamsburg looking for “inspiration”, taking plenty of photos and even buying the garment to have it dissected back in the studio. How can Washington take the Garment Center seriously when the Garment Center has more self serving hypocrites than Capitol Hill? If it’s not the Kardashians (or, their anonymous design team) copying the Botkier Clyde bag, it is the ridiculous frivolity of Christian Louboutin accusing Yves Saint Laurent of copying Louboutin’s trademarked red soled shoes. In one corner is a celebrity ‘designing’ a bag for Sears and in the other corner is someone trying to gain a monopoly over the color on the sole of any shoe. If you can’t respect each other, how can you earn respect from anyone else?

As a New York interior design photographer, I have no vested interest in the fashion business, so I can say what I think without fear of losing my job. This is my personal view and one which is meant to make people think, argue and challenge the status quo. Most of all, it is to make people realize that you need to get your house in order before wasting time and money lobbying Washington to introduce weak and largely ineffective laws. There are international copyright and Patent Laws, so it really shouldn’t be that hard to match the  already existing laws to protect designers in London, Paris or Milan. There are some who argue that having a legal oasis in NY where inspiration, copying, idea theft or whatever you want to call it is good economic sense.

Others say, quite rightly, that some of the European based global fashion chains regurgitate runway fashion into high street knock-offs even though there are supposedly laws to stop them. Again, if it becomes an accepted norm that designs are copied and nobody makes a stand, then don’t expect that laws will be there to cover an industry-wide apathy and lack of integrity.

The funny thing is, this is history repeating itself. Roll back to Manchester, England in the 1820’s. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and thousands of newly invented machines were spinning and weaving cloth for a fraction of what it cost when made by hand. England was a powerful nation and its aristocracy and wealthy merchants had long since bought cloth from all over Asia. It had first been hand-painted or woven but the demand was so big that Indians were encouraged to develop printing using wooden blocks to speed up the process. In time, the design and printing process was transferred to England, where designers and blockmakers refined their art to become renowned as the best in the world. Although France had Copyright Laws, England had technology, free trade, a good reputation and an Empire of eager customers. Business was bloody marvelous. Printing was the last process of fabric production to be mechanized as it took a while to realize that rollers could spin faster than any block could be printed. There was a huge investment in the machinery and engraving of 16 solid copper rollers, so the last thing any printer wanted to do was invest in a bad design. What they did instead was to see what designs were selling well and copy them, or just buy the increasingly popular French designs from Paris and get rid of the design studios altogether. In the space of 20 years, English design skills were decimated. Technology gave Britain the competitive edge in terms of cheap production and an efficient shipping network. Britain destroyed factories around the world by flooding their markets with cheaper mass produced goods in the same way that Chinese are doing now. It’s sort of payback time and part of the natural cycle of cheap labor/inventiveness that moves slowly around the planet, developing countries as it goes.

I digress slightly, but only do so to compare the situations in 1840’s Manchester and Manhattan in 2011 because they are eerily similar. Manchester was a rich town, the historical center with a monopoly on textile manufacturing innovation, but facing a troubled future because those machines it relied on were now being built around the world. Fashions were changing so quickly, designers lacked the time or skills to keep up. It sounds very familiar but the difference with Manchester and Manhattan was simple. Manchester realized that it needed strong copyright laws and by 1850, they were in force. There was a genuine movement in Britain promoting aesthetics and Design Reform. The first ever series of books dedicated to promoting the principles of good design and respect for the craft was published in 1849, entitled “The Journal of Design and Manufactures”, which judged the merit of decorative arts, textiles and wallpapers. Good design in manufacturing was a topic of discussion in periodicals. Owen Jones published his seminal Grammar of Ornament in 1858. As a result, art from history and across the world’s cultures would be made available to study and inspire at the new Victoria and Albert Museum. Art and decoration literally stood as equals to the Natural History and Science museums in London’s Kensington.

A strange thing happened when copyright laws were introduced. Trade flourished. Despite the repeal on the ban of textile machinery from England, Manchester saw fabric sales jump 50% from 1850 -1860. By 1880, around 85% of ALL fabric worn by everyone in the world came from Manchester. This was not due to the Empire or to manufacturing advantages, this was a result of having the foresight to realize that cheap production is not the only way to dominate a market but the product has to be of good design quality too. The Garment Center had a manufacturing advantage over imports but now that has gone, New York’s designers must come together as they did in Manchester and realize that respecting other people’s work makes good ethical and good business sense. It shouldn’t take punishment to make people stop copying. It should be frowned upon, discouraged and those who do it should be publicly shamed for being so short of originality that they need to steal ideas. There are fashion trends and unfortunately, originality is much harder than repetition but that’s no reason not to try.

Ultimately what I am saying is that it is not about any law, it is about collective behavior and moral backbone. So next time you see a design that you like, appreciate the skill of the person who came up with that idea. If you can think of a way that you can improve it, or transform the idea into something new and recognizable, it should be recognizable as being yours, not as a copy.

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