Of lookalikes and royal wedding dresses

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Yesterday, as it happens, was not just RWD minus two, but – what a coincidence! – World Intellectual Property day, as well as the day of an “anti-counterfeiting summit” held annually by US Harper’s Bazaar magazine.

This made for an odd juxtaposition to me, as lately I can’t seem to escape stories in which various clothing manufacturers say, publicly, how fast they are going to rip off the royal wedding dress as soon as Kate Middelton takes her first steps down the aisle at Westminster Abbey, and they can actually tell what she is wearing. Isn’t that treading close to said counterfeit line?

Here’s this, for example, from today’s New York Post:

“Kate Middleton’s bridal gown won’t be hers alone for long. The minute the princess-to-be arrives at the steps of Westminster Abbey, a designer watching the royal wedding on TV on Long Island will put pen to paper and begin a mad scramble to knock off the dress-seen-round-the-world for sale to the masses. The ceremony will still be in full swing as Shala Moradi — head designer of the Garment District dressmaker Faviana — sets in motion the frantic job of getting their version [not an exact replica] of the gown to stores within weeks.”

And here’s this from the New York Times: “We’re all holding our breath for [Kate Middelton’s dress],” said Janet Lyons-Brooks, the owner of Leontina Gowns, a bridal house in Imlay City, Mich., and its companion website, My Big Fat Beautiful Wedding. “My factories are standing by.”

But then consider this from Thomas Onda, one of the speakers at the Bazaar summit, and the chief intellectual property counsel for Levi Strauss & Co. “intellectual property” – and in fashion terms, that means design and pattern – “is a company’s most valuable asset.”

So why is the wedding dress rip-off so celebrated/accepted? Isn’t it a very valuable part of some as-yet-unknown designer’s IP?

First, as Ted Max, an IP specialist partner at the law firm Sheppard Mullin points out, this is a very difficult case to argue in the US, home of all the above quoted gown “designers”, as well as famous Oscar gown-homage-specialist ABS. This is partly because the roots of American fashion are themselves in copying (US department stores famously used to send sketch artists to the European couture shows to bring home versions of what they saw), and partly because it’s very hard to argue that a generic garment such as a dress is a proprietary design, especially when an alternate version might, for example, be lacking a train, or made in a different fabric, or so on.

By contrast, in Europe, where brands such as Chloé have successfully sued high street brands for copying dresses and where couture houses have been actively lobbying for legal protection for their clothing, this is less true.

Then there’s the fact that when it comes to the question of whether to ignore or fight a cheaper ”homage” of a famous dress, designers themselves are caught between a rock and a hard place. If, as it seems, Kate Middelton does opt for a lesser-known, local designer for her wedding dress, as Michelle Obama did with Jason Wu for the presidential inauguration balls, and, to a certain extent Carolyn Bessette Kennedy did when she asked Narciso Rodriguez to design her nuptial gown (granted, Rodriguez had been working in NY fashion for while at the time, but was still relatively unknown to the outside world), the related publicity will be enormous, and that includes the publicity attached to rip-offs of The Dress.

On the one hand, this in effect creates free marketing for the designer, and thus can be useful in terms of global profile long after the event itself, and its fashion-related frenzy, has ended. Plus, any money made from a sudden spike in sales will probably be spent on a lawsuit. All of which leads to the conclusion it might be judicious to just let the copyists go ahead.

On the other hand, if a designer isn’t really known for anything per se other than The Dress, The Dress itself becomes their “identifying product”, a logo in gown form, which makes rip-offs significantly more equity-eroding than, say, they might be to a company such as Gucci. Which suggests a young designer should perhaps fight the copyists.

So what would you do?

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