September 2009 Archives

Counterfeit Coffee Break 9

With the first crisp days of autumn upon us and the semester well underway, it's time for a counterfeit coffee break -- this time courtesy of Nescafe.  

"Really?" you ask.  "The brown powder that simulates fresh-brewed coffee when hot water is added -- about as convincingly as dirt might?" 

Yes, really -- but with a twist.  Nescafe has a new ad campaign accusing Starbucks, whose own trademark has been copied far and wide, of knocking off Nescafe's infamous instant coffee.  At much higher prices.  (In Counterfeit Chic terms, it's "knocked up" rather than "knocked off" -- but that doesn't make it any tastier.) 

Starbucks_copies_Nescafe.jpgOf course, the corporate baristi behind the Starbucks Via Ready Brew are well aware that you can't be held liable for copying a mere idea.  Even a bad one.

As for me, make mine tea.

Via Idea Sandbox and Gothamist.  

Fashion design is seasonal, ephemeral, and fast-moving. 

Traditional crafts, including textiles, are timeless, long-lasting, and slow to evolve.

UNESCO, however, has decided to examine the common ground between these two "polar opposites" in its first Forum on Cultural Industries, convened today in Monza, Italy.  The focus is on commonality -- fashion and crafts "share the same values of excellence, innovation and creativity" -- and on the culture sector's ability to contribute to both economic and social development.

From the sound of things, it will be quite the global quilting bee -- with Lanvin's master artist/craftsman Alber Elbaz at the center of the hive. 
alber_elbaz_cropped.jpg

Matters of Size

Does she...or doesn't she?  Only her hairdresser (and makeup artist, brow stylist, cosmetic dentist, dermatologist, plastic surgeon, lingerie salesperson, and Photoshopper) knows for sure. 

Clairol's famous ad campaign may only date back to 1956, but humans have engaged in artificial enhancements of our looks ever since one of our prehistoric ancestors rubbed a bit of ochre on her skin -- no doubt scandalizing her future mother-in-law.  Some of those enhancements are obvious and completely unremarkable in modern Western culture (e.g. pale pink nail polish); others are more subtle and still a bit clandestine (that little nip/tuck over the holidays).  The same is true of representations of ourselves.  Surely medieval portrait painters chose flattering shades to depict their wealthy patrons, and presumably omitted a wrinkle here or a blemish there.  Today, photo editing software makes the process quicker, easier, and more universal. 

Want "natural" beauty?  Go camping.  Or maybe to Berkeley.

A member of the French Parliament, Valerie Boyer, begs to differ.  Concerned about the negative effects of enhanced media images of women's bodies, she and 50 other legislators have proposed adding warning labels to such images.  The text, which Boyer believes should apply to everything from press photos to advertisements and product packaging to art photos, would read, "Photograph retouched to modify the physical appearance of a person." 

The effort is part of Boyer's ongoing campaign to combat body image-related psychological problems, in particular eating disorders, among young women.  Last year, she was the primary proponent of legislation intended to outlaw advocating "extreme thinness."  The goal is undeniably laudable -- and quite timely, given the skeletal parade that has just walked the runways of New York, is currently in London, and will next head to Milan and Paris.  But is it likely to be effective?  Is there a scientific link between undeniably unrealistic images and eating habits -- and if so, why is obesity on the rise?  Given the availability of "before" and "after" pictures online -- some authorized, some not -- aren't image-obsessed individuals in particular already aware of the prevalence of digital enhancements in their favorite magazines?  And in any case, isn't it a bit overbroad to require a warning label on every image that fixes a stray hair or shiny nose?   

In other words, would a law adding text to virtually every editorial or advertising or art photo out there really add anything at all? 

 * * * *

In other news, Canadian designer Mark Fast sent some average-sized women (12 and 14 U.K., or 10 and 12 U.S.) down the catwalk in London in his body-hugging knits -- a move that reportedly led his freelance stylist and director to quit in a snit just 2 days before the show.  Congratulations on adhering to your vision, Mark -- a model casting decision indeed. 

Mark_Fast_Spring_2010.jpg

Intellectual property law doesn't eliminate copying -- any more than homicide laws eliminate murder or rules about crossing the street eliminate jaywalking.  Law is just one tool used to combat unwanted activity.  Smart creators, whether in IP-protected fields or not, have a few more tools in the box and tricks up their sleeves, including one that I've frequently discussed:  Knock yourself off -- before the other guys do!

In the fashion industry, those auto-knockoffs are more elegantly known as "diffusion lines."  Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't.  Well-capitalized designers like Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani have created whole families of brands, with loyal clients at every level and plenty of crossover customers who may splurge or scrimp, depending on the occasion.  On the other hand, Halston's notorious creation of "Halston III" for J.C. Penney in the early 80s nearly destroyed the value of his name, and even in the current era of fast-fashion partnerships, designers proceed cautiously. 

Now a t-shirt company in Johannesburg has taken the idea one step further.  Love Jozi didn't merely create a diffusion line, which wouldn't make much sense for just t-shirts anyway -- they secretly created a counterfeit line.  Or so it seemed for a couple of years, until they finally revealed their marketing scheme to the press.  The ostensibly fake "Luv Jozi" t-shirts that had been selling briskly on street corners and in dodgier flea markets weren't made-in-China knockoffs at all -- they were deliberately misspelled imitations, complete with a fake website and marketing.

  

Since the big reveal, Love Jozi continued to sell both lines, the higher priced one with more fashion-forward cuts and designs and the boxier budget version.  A replicable strategy for introducing a diffusion line?  Probably not, or at least not for most established brands.  We're talking misspelled t-shirts here, not high-end handbags whose buyers wouldn't be thrilled to learn that the same company had been secretly selling real fakes.  When it's an indie company in South Africa, the customer may appreciate being let in on the joke; if it were a venerable European fashion house, she might not be quite as amused.  Even Love Jozi couldn't pull it off again, having fooled everyone once -- in fact, it would be interesting to see what would happen if the company had to protect its "Love Jozi" trademark against the sales of actual counterfeits. 

All in all, far more clever and unexpected than the usual press release crediting  a new diffiusion line to retailers' demands for lower price points or even the designer's desire to dress a wider range of customers.  Love Jozi's t-shirts are cute, but I'd love/luv to see what the brains behind this coup could do if they were in marketing!

LoveJozi_LuvJozi.jpgMany thanks to all of you who emailed the story, including the first, longtime Countefeit Chic reader Pam Chestek!
Are all the good fragrance names taken? 

Last month, it was Ali Hewson's company, Nude Brands Ltd., suing Stella McCartney in an attempt to block the release of "Stella Nude" by L'Oreal.  (Injunction denied, but the trademark infringement case is pending in British court.  Not to be rude to Nude, but did you think it through before you sued?  The fragrances Nude by Bill Blass and Bijan Nude have been around for years.)

Now WWD reports that Abercrombie & Fitch is defending its "Fierce" men's cologne against Beyonce's forthcoming fragrance by Coty.  While the recent announcement of the planned launch didn't name the scent -- presumably because of the trademark dispute -- Beyonce last week filed an intent-to-use trademark application for "Sasha Fierce," the name of her alter ego.  The complaint, with exhibits, is here

A&F_Fierce_v_Beyonce.jpg
Whose abs are fiercer, A&F's or Beyonce's?

Fragrance fights are especially fierce because under most countries' laws (including the U.K.and U.S.), only the scents' trademarks and trade dress have protection, while the "juice" has none.  Thus the marketing relies heavily on name and image, rather than the actual product.  While it's unlikely that "Stella Nude" smells much like the scents of the "Nude" skincare line or that a "Sasha Fierce" fragrance would mimic the "Fierce" citrus scent that A&F not only bottles and sells but sprays throughout its retail outlets with the intent of having all garments leave the store with the scent attached to them, the names alone are key to the products' value.  If similar brand names are likely to cause confusion, the concern is that consumers may sniff no further. 

After all, what exactly is a fierce scent?  Whatever it may be, expect it to be wafting from a courtroom any time now.

Given human instincts with respect to what is edible and what isn't, it's amazing that we've survived as a species.  The average child won't even consider putting brussels sprouts or cauliflower in her mouth, but when she sees a tasty pile of lead paint chips, it's snacktime.  And then there's the problem of too many uses for a good thing:  learning to fasten buttons if fun; trying to swallow them is even more fun.

Sadly, our aptitude for eating all the wrong things sometimes leads to tragedy -- and not just on the scale.  Several years ago, a small boy died after swallowing a lead-infused charm given away with Reebok children's footwear.  The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission subsequently identified many other potentially toxic pieces of children's jewelry, with labels ranging from Juicy Couture to Twentieth Century Fox.  Amidst the bold headlines, the recall of nearly a million tainted toys by Mattel alone, and a diplomatic dustup with China over its export of unsafe products, a desire for additional protective legislation was formed.  Last year, Congress responded with the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.

Juicy_Couture_recalled_jewlery2_CPSC.jpg
Juicy Couture child's bracelet recalled as a lead poisoning hazard.

Never heard of CPSIA?  Count your blessings -- and put your plans to roll out an adorable line of children's clothing before Christmas on hold.  It's an act with so many ramifications that even the federal agency charged with implementing it hasn't figured out all of the details yet, though it's already gone into effect.  The basic theme involves new limits on lead content, both in the surface coatings of children's items and in the underlying substrate, and restrictions on Bill_the_Cat.jpga class of chemicals whose name looks something like Bill the Cat coughing up a hairball:  phthalates.  (Pronounce it without the initial "ph.")  These are the compounds that might be used to make your rubber duckie soft and squeezable, as opposed to as hard as PVC pipe, and apparently you really don't want them incorporated into your baby's bib or your toddler's Halloween costume.

Luckily there are dedicated souls out there who live and breathe product safety rules and international trade laws.  And so it was that your favorite law prof spent several extremely informative and surprisingly entertaining hours during Fashion Week listening to David Callet and Robert Stang, both of the Greenberg Traurig law firm, and Louann Spirito of SGS, a consumer products testing company,  review the latest developments involving CPSIA and the fashion industry, as well as a glimpse of what's next on the safety and sustainability horizon.

Who knew that Fall 2009's ubiquitous metal studs could cause such nightmares if they were to be translated into children's wear -- or that the fate of an entire shipment could get caught in the teeth of an untested rogue zipper?  Tailors to the 12-and-under set, beware.   
When Verizon FiOS was celebrating its arrival in New York City, challenging the Time Warner Cable monopoly, Verizon called its service "the biggest thing to hit Canal Street since the knockoff purse."  At the time, Counterfeit Chic wondered whether that was supposed to be a good thing.

Now a Time Warner Cable ad is extending the comparison, likening Verizon's "fake" HD channels to knockoff "imported" sunglasses...from New Jersey.  Whatever the merits of TWC v. Verizon, the combination of a Canal Street-like setting, the vendor's ambiguous accent, and the rows of handbags, jewelry, and sunglasses are clearly intended to remind you of the time you bought the cheap fake watch that kept time for all of two weeks and turned your wrist green besides -- and to taint the cable company's competition by association. 



Of course, TWC's New Jersey customers may be less than flattered.

Google "eBay" and "counterfeit," and you'll get over half a million hits.

Thumbnail image for Narciso_Rodriguez2.jpgWhich is reason enough for the repeatedly sued online marketplace to seek out a bit of couture cred in the form of a partnership with celebrated designer Narciso Rodriguez.  The popularly priced collection, "Narciso Rodriguez for eBay," is planned for next spring.  In the words of the New York Post:

The pact with Rodriguez -- who recently has won notoriety as a favorite designer of First Lady Michelle Obama -- is a victory for eBay, which has long battled its reputation in the fashion world as a venue for cheap knockoffs and deeply discounted, off-season or out-of-style clothing.
For Narciso, it's an opportunity to reach a wider audience, not to mention get paid on time.  In other words, it's a win-win -- everybody gets to "shop victoriously."

And you won't even have to misspell  the name to find a bargain.
Back in the 90s, when I was in law school, Ann Taylor was the go-to store for a young woman who'd just landed her first summer associate position -- or was trying to.  The classic, tailored, Audrey-Hepburn-wins-a-moot-court-competition vibe was just the right thing at the right price point, filling a wardrobe niche for women of all ages and sizes.  The fact that the original Ann Taylor store in New Haven, Connecticut, was just a short walk from campus -- and was also a familiar storefront in seemingly every mall in America -- was a convenient bonus.

Then Ann Taylor lost the plot.  The styles and colors were off, the quality was lacking, and the fits were frumpy.  A young professional woman could do better with Theory or even H&M, and much of Ann's more established clan moved on. 

This season, Ann's got a bit of buzz back, with accessories in particular garnering editorial attention.  And when I wandered into a store and expressed pleasant surprise at some of the pieces on the racks, a sales associate who actually looked happy to be wearing them whispered conspiratorially, "New designer."  Lisa Axelson, most recently at Club Monaco and formerly at Abercrombie & Fitch and Gap/Banana Republic, seems to have an eye for updated classics. 

OK, there are still a few too many fibers that owe their existence to a chemical plant somewhere off the New Jersey Turnpike rather than to sun and rain.  And the costume jewelry is very Lanvin from several years ago via last season's Vera Wang, although not so close as to provoke copyright concerns.  It was the small shoe collection, however, that reavealed a real misstep.

Louboutin_Armadillo_AnnTaylor_Lara.jpgWhy, exactly, is a stylistically invigorated and financially savvier Ann Taylor turning Christian Louboutin's "Armadillo" bootie (above left) into plastic-heeled knockoff roadkill (above right)?  From a corporate perspective, AT's route back to success won't be competing with the makers of faster, cheaper copies.  And for the next gen professional customer, facsimile footwear isn't exactly the way to make a good impression on Ms. Hiring Partner -- who may very well own the real thing.  
In fashion, there's nothing more difficult than positioning oneself as an outsider.  If a designer's signature work really is appealing and comprehensible to only a select subcultural few, the label isn't likely to last long.  On the other hand, if those cutting-edge designs have broader marketplace appeal, key elements are likely to be absorbed into the vocabulary of fashion -- and their creator is no longer an outsider with a unique vision but a mainstream trendsetter.  How edgy are Alexander McQueen's signature skulls when they appear on a collaboration between Americana-loving Ralph Lauren and the global charity Toms Shoes?  How eyebrow-raising is YSL's androgynous "Le Smoking" when most Western women now wear trousers more often than skirts? 

Today's New York Times chronicles Rick Owens transformation from a "shadowy figure" with a "creepy aura" to "fashion's most imitated designer" -- an overused designation, to be sure, but one that always invites a photo essay.

Rick_Owens_NYT_9-3-09.jpg
 Biker jackets by Rick Owens (above), Grai (below left), and RM (below right).  For more images, click here

Grai_and_RM_jackets_NYT_9-3-09.jpg
The more interesting question raised but not addressed directly by the article is where to draw the line between following a general trend in the air -- which, as Owens himself points out, "no one can really own" -- and simply copying, which doesn't do much for the copyist's reputation, even it if boosts his/her profits.  (As Counterfeit Chic readers know, that line between general inspiration and slavish imitation is also one of the issues addressed by the pending Design Piracy Prohibition Act.) 

The imitator's dilemma is captured nicely at the beginning of the NYT article, which opens not with Owens himself but Maya Yogev, a former Owens apprentice who now offers similar leather jackets under the Grai label:

"I've been told it's kind of copycat," Ms. Yogev said of her work. "That can be kind of frustrating at times." But comparisons to Mr. Owens "can also be useful," she added. "Once you mention his name, everyone is automatically drawn."
True design pirates, of course, are not intent on building artistic reputations and thus flaunt rather than cringe at cries of "copycat," a limitation for an industry that in the absence of law relies in part on social norms to control copying.  For professional designers, however, the line between inspiration and imitation -- or being on trend and being a mere copycat -- has real effects, and not just when the source is recent.  As Teri Agins notes in today's Wall Street Journal, "[D]esigners have a way of tweaking older styles so that they always look newer on the next go-round."  

As for Rick Owens, his growing influence raises a different question:  How does a self-styled outsider respond to becoming mainstream?  Let's just hope it doesn't involve reality television.