High fashion battles knockoffs

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York designer Zac Posen wants a law to protect his fashion designs from knockoffs even though he says imitations are not such a bad thing because they help promote growing brands like his.

Counterfeit branded fashion goods are presented during the annual news conference of the customs duty office at Frankfurt Airport March 21, 2007. New York designer Zac Posen wants a law to protect his fashion designs from knockoffs even though he says imitations are not such a bad thing because they help promote growing brands like his. REUTERS/Alex Grimm

A rising star of American fashion, Posen, 26, said he backs proposed U.S. legislation to protect designs for three years and fine copycats up to $250,000. Still, he believes such laws would be hard to enforce and act more as a symbolic deterrent.

“It’s a very fine line of what is a copy and what is inspiration,” Posen said as he helped country singer Martina McBride with an outfit for Thursday’s “Fashion Rocks,” a celebration of music and style during New York Fashion Week.

Posen, who launched his fashion brand in 2001, said imitations of his debut series of bohemian-themed handbags became “a staple on New York City street corners.”

“In some way it just gets the idea out there, because when you’re a growing brand you don’t produce that many of them,” he said. “I guess they produce so many of them it actually gets the idea out there which is sort of OK.”

The proposed Copyright Act amendments were introduced in the U.S. Senate last month by Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who said America was among the last rich nations without protection of fashion designs.

In a letter to the Los Angeles Times last month, Diane von Furstenberg, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, said: “The lack of strong laws in the United States has made it a haven for piracy.”

European Union laws protect registered original fashion designs for up to 25 years.

“It’s illegal to copy Harry Potter for sale, and it should be illegal to copy Nicole Miller too,” said Schumer, adding that U.S. companies lose $250 billion annually to sales of illegitimate goods.

But he added that the law would not prevent designs “simply influenced by existing designs, allowing for the trickle down of designer’s inspiration that molds fashion and trends.”


New York designer Carmen Marc Valvo came face to face with a copy of one of his designs several years ago at one of the United States’ top luxury retailers. Just one small change had been made to the back of a dress to make it different.

“The twist, the shape, the shirring -- it was all me until she turned around,” Valvo told Reuters. “When I shipped it, the copy was already in the store.”

U.S. department stores produce their own less expensive “private labels,” which are heavily based on top designers.

But Valvo is unsure whether the fashion design piracy legislation would help the industry because it would be very difficult and expensive to enforce, and might not be worth it unless the target was a blatant copy.

Alain Coblence, a corporate lawyer based in New York and Paris, helped draw up the legislation before Congress and said the laws would act as a powerful deterrent and there would likely be little need for designers to pursue legal action.

“You are never going to have to sue because all of the department stores who are currently selling knockoffs, the minute it’s illegal they are going to stop,” said Coblence, adding that most U.S. department stores had already assured him they would discontinue current practices.

Olivera Medenica, who represents smaller fashion designers, disagreed and said it would be a “litigious area of the law.” But she is uncertain if the bill would pass Congress.

From his Manhattan studio, Posen said he hoped the proposed laws would encourage companies to cultivate young designers.

“It’s about just hiring great designers from design schools to build their lines for them,” he said. “There’s so much creativity out there.”

Additional reporting by Jan Paschal