February 2013 Archives

American Vogue's March iPad edition is a fresh, surprising embrace of technology, from the Harry Potter-esque preening and posing portrait of Beyoncé on the cover to music clips to a video interview with Alber Elbaz.  The future of magazines is finally here.

Perhaps the most eye-opening part of the issue, however, is a feature by Hamish Bowles on Céline cult designer Phoebe Philo, who not only revived the brand but created a new and influential version of chic minimalism.  She also created the perfect handbag -- but I digress.  The article's descriptions portray her as a woman of contradictions, reveling in her influence but at the same time almost fetishizing privacy and declaring that not existing on Google is the ultimate in chic.  Perhaps there's a reason that neither that handbag nor the house's collections are available for sale online, except secondhand.  Or counterfeit.

Her take on what the article describes as "a veritable industry of high-street imitations" is at once extraordinarily predictable and positively puzzling. 

"I've got friends with copied pieces," says Philo. "My mum's even got a knockoff bag!"

"I love it," she says.  "I'm nothing but flattered."  Like Coco Chanel before her, Philo feels that when you are not being copied, "that's when it's time to worry."

So far, predictable.  The standard "cool" designer response to copying is always to invoke the f-word.  ("Flattered," of course.)  She's even got her Coco quotes down.

The puzzling part is that Céline is owned by LVMH, the world's largest luxury conglomerate and the company that has in past declared a "zero tolerance" policy when it comes to fakes, backing up its position with litigation that, while not frequent, has been more experimental than that of some other storied fashion houses.  (As more than one in-house counsel has told me, "We all watch LV.")  Did someone clear the quotes with HQ?  And was Ms. Philo not aware of the self-correction offered by Marc Jacobs years ago after a similar slip?   

On the other hand, perhaps what we might call Phoebe's philomimesia* is more clever than it appears at first gasp.  (What, you didn't gasp?) 

Mlle. Chanel reportedly tossed off a couple of bons mots indicating indifference to copying, but in reality also exercised her considerable French legal rights when in came to copyists.  The notoriously independent designer even partnered with fellow couturiere Madeleine Vionnet to vanquish a particularly persistent pirate.  In other words, she knew what to say to the press and the public to appear cool as a cucumber about copying but was all business in the courtroom.  (The occasional historical fact comes in handy amid a sea of questionable quotes.  Back in 2006, when I testified in Congress with regard to concerns about copying, one of the opponents of protection tossed off an ill-considered Chanel quote -- and shrank visibly after I politely added historical context.  I don't know that he's been heard from on the subject since -- though that hasn't stopped others from deliberately offering out-of-context quotes.)
Phoebe may be as smart and subtle as Coco in managing her audience -- especially since she must be aware that the LVMH legal team keeps busy on behalf of its family of brands, and she did refer to knockoffs rather than to actual counterfeits attempting to appear genuine. 

Or she may simply have been speaking off the cuff.  After all, it's understandable that designers are flattered by admiration for their work, perhaps even when that "admiration" is at the hands of thieves with good taste, though designers with an eye on the bottom line have learned to be wary of the financial fallout from copying.  And as a fellow who'd been convicted of counterfeiting once told me, you really can judge the rise and fall of labels' fortunes by what's most popular on Canal Street. 

Carefully constructed or clueless, the quoted remarks suggest a recommendation to Ms. Philo on which we can all agree.  Phoebe, please buy your mum a real bag!

* * *

*No I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of extremely obscure medical terms like philomimesia, and certainly not of one that as of now appears exactly 5 times in a Google search, only 2 of those in English.  (A chic achievement, in Phoebe's world.)  It's just a word that I thought ought to exist, with a less extreme valence than the medical definition.  I therefore propose that we shorten slightly it to "philomimesis" for convenience, use it in popular parlance to indicate a love of copies or copying, note an ancient Greek etymology (philo + mimesis), add an adjectival form ("philomimetic"), and consider it the perfect pun in context.  Or a contagious social disease. 
New York Fashion Week is all about what's "in" and what's not.  And on the eve of the Fall/Winter '13 shows, Occupy Wall Street has announced plans to enter the fashion fray and proclaim unpaid internships "out." 

Is OWS still around, you ask?  And why has the movement turned its attention from Wall Street and finance to 7th Avenue and fashion, or more immediately to the Fashion Week tents at Lincoln Center? 

Devil_Wears_prada.jpgPresumably fashion's glamor quotient and the publicity potential provided by the phalanx of photographers outside the tents are contributing factors, but perhaps so is the fact that unpaid internships are particularly prevalent in fabulous fields like fashion, publishing, and entertainment.  The oft-repeated refrain of The Devil Wears Prada, "A million girls would kill for this job," is true not only of poorly paid, entry-level assistantships, but also of internships.  Less-lustrous corners of the labor market like garbage removal and pest control are not besieged with constant requests to take on a colleague's friend's cousin's kid as an intern, please, as a favor. 

And so, from an industry perspective, why not admit interns to the inevitably less sparkling world behind the scenes and let them make themselves useful?

Well, labor law is the reason why not.  Or at least why employers should proceed with caution.

Back in 2010, the New York Times reported that with paid jobs scarce and the numbers of unpaid internships on the rise, the U.S. Department of Labor was stepping up scrutiny according to its 6 little-known and less-heeded criteria for unpaid internships.  Many employers, including fashion folks, got nervous.  Internships continued, however, with requiring school credit becoming a common means of making sure that interns were compensated in some form. Some companies even decided to offer token wages.   

Upon request, we created a Fashion Law Institute memo summarizing the federal law along with a few sample designer "do's" and "don't's."  And, for the most part, the issue was forgotten.  Until former fashion magazine intern Diana Wang sued Hearst publications in a widely publicized lawsuit that has since become a class action.  (In a mild linguistic chuckle, the firm representing the interns is Outten & Golden.)  And then the issue was largely forgotten again.

Now enter OWS, which apparently has an Intern Labor Rights division.  The movement has tried protesting New York Fashion Week before, with embarrassingly minimal turnout.  Will they be more of a presence this coming week, with a specific issue in mind, and will interns rushing backstage with their arms full of designer duds decide en masse to join the picket lines instead?  That is, will there be any impact?  Hard to tell, since veteran fashion editors are accustomed to walking past passionate protests over everything from fur to the designer daughter of an Uzbek dictator.

But at least we may find out what one might wear to protest something as universal as fashion.