Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fashion copies - back on the Australian current affairs agenda

As some may already be aware, I am currently working as a producer at a nightly Australian current affairs program called Today Tonight on the Seven Network (which explains my lack of posting of late). It’s a program on which I worked 10 years ago and it’s interesting being back, working on a mix of stories. In terms of fashion stories, it’s been a great opportunity to get some subjects to a much bigger audience than I do on this blog or indeed via the other outlets for which I normally write – try 1.7million per night (including web traffic). On my first day back I broached a couple of story ideas with executive producer Craig McPherson, top of the list being a subject that I have blogged about on several occasions: the fashion industry discriminating against plus-size consumers. Another fashion story aired this week – the rampant plagiarism across Australia's $1.8billion footwear sector.

The genesis for this story idea was a great July post from Australian shoe blogger Matt ‘Imelda’ Jordan. In his post, Jordan discussed a direct copy of a shoe design by London-based Dane Camilla Skovgaard, by Australian mid market shoe manufacturer Tony Bianco.

Most interesting of all: the subsequent tip from Jordan that Tony Bianco had dispatched a series of intimidating legal letters in the hope of obtaining a retraction of some of the claims in the post.

The audacity was breathtaking.

As revealed by Jordan, not only had Tony Bianco done a faithful reproduction of Skovgaard’s signature S8001 sandal – the style which originally made her name – but had even attempted to engineer a fake celebrity endorsement to promote the company's copy.

When launching its “Sexy Roberto” shoe to the Australian fashion press, Tony Bianco sent out US red carpet shots of celebrities Cindy Crawford and Halle Berry in Skovgaard’s originals. There was no mention of Camilla Skovgaard’s name on the mailout.

Tony Bianco’s lawyers seized on several points in Jordan’s post: notably his accusations that Camilla Skovgaard had “unleashed her lawyers” on the company and that Tony Bianco was guilty of “copyright infringement”.

Both were factually incorrect. But the David and Goliath factor made for a great story.

Although Skovgaard did consult lawyers at the time, the only representatives to contact Tony Bianco were from her US PR team.

Having failed to register the design in Australia, moreover, a straight copyright infringement case would have been indefensible.

Due to changes, in 2003, to Australia’s IP legislation, unless a designer has registered each and every design they hope to protect in this market, they are unable to in fact enforce copyright. This is unlike numerous other jurisdictions, for example the EU, where designers have an unregistered design right.

That’s not to say that Skovgaard doesn't have any legal rights here. Sources say that she would probably have little trouble proving “reputation” for the design (make that designs - it later emerged that TB has copied two Camilla Skovgaard shoes this season). The fake celebrity endorsement is a separate matter.

Only problem – she has been told that she's looking at a minumum $50,000 investment to get a case up, with of course no guarantee of success. That's a big ask of a young, independent designer.

All the companies mentioned in the story were of course offered right of reply. Noone took up the offer.

Their respective responses when I called requesting interviews were fascinating. One company even claimed that it had come up with the design in question five years ago.

It is entirely possible that Sportsgirl's Camilla Skovgaard knockoff was even supplied by a manufacturer that was already knocking off her shoe under its own brand, thereby vastly increasing its market. A big return for zero design investment in other words. Sportsgirl declined to identify the supplier of the shoe.

It’s interesting how companies that copy, often seem quite indignant when they're called out on it.

Some $400,000 in court ordered damages has been awarded for design/copyright infringement cases over the past 12 months in cases mounted by Australian companies that have taken advantage of the new Designs Registration Regime and opted to register designs.

The first fashion victory under the new system was Review versus The Discovery Group in March 2008.

Although not working for TT at the time, I was interviewed that month as talent for the program’s story about the Review case. I had the temerity to mention that it wasn’t the first time the company, which owns the Charlie Brown and lili trademarks, had copied others. I provided one example of a devoré velvet poncho with a peacock motif, first shown by New Zealand label Sabatini at New Zealand Fashion Week in September 2004 – and copied six months later by Charlie Brown.

On three previous occasions, I had written about Charlie Brown’s cheaper version of the poncho, which turned up in store the minute the Sabatini poncho appeared on the cover of the Winter 2005 catalogue of Australian department store David Jones and, notably, once word spread that the poncho was walking out the door at DJs.

But Brown had been called out for copying as far back as 1998 - by Marion Hume, then the editor of Vogue Australia.

After I mentioned the Sabatini incident on Today Tonight, Brown also threatened legal action. To date, nought's come of it.

Back in 1995, I wrote a 4,000 word expose on copying in the Australian fashion industry for the now defunct Australian current affairs magazine, The Independent Monthly. It was the year before the launch of Mercedes Australian Fashion Week and the emergence of a new generation of export-focussed designers. Australia was still locked in a culture of so-called "designers" sending international designer samples in to magazines to be photographed (still with the labels attached) while the "designers" were busy manufacturing their copies.

The story kicked off with the infamous anecdote from the Bicentennial Wool Collection at the Sydney Opera House in 1988, for which nine international designers were flown to Sydney, including Sonia Rykiel, Kenzo and the late Gianni Versace and Jean Muir. During rehearsals, Claude Montana had to be physically restrained from clocking Marilyn Said and Barry Taffs - the designers behind the Covers label. Covers had been selected to represent Australia in the show and Montana felt that their collection showed a little too much Montana influence.

Called Fashion Thieves, it was a cover story and it prompted three separate television profiles, including A Current Affair.

That story was the reason I wound up working for A Current Affair for a brief stint in early 1996 - before quickly heading to Today Tonight, where I stayed for three and a half years. I am often being reminded of this story. Several weeks ago Oyster’s Alyx Gorman drew my attention to the fact that it’s even cited in an article in the Journal of Australian Political Science.

Now I’m back in current affairs tv - still talking about copying. Because 21 years after the Bicentennial Wool Collection, many Australian companies are still shamelessly copying international designers.

For sure, copying exists everywhere. As the Tom Gunn girls pointed out in their TT interview, the London high street is notorious for quickly turning around catwalk trends. The "fast fashion" retailers Zara, Mango and H&M have revolutionised the business, turning around catwalk trends - although not necessarily one-for-one copies - at lightning speed.

But Australian copycats enjoy several other unique advantages. This was pointed out in a piece to camera in the original script for the TT story, which wound up being cut when we lost two and a half minutes.

There is also our proximity to the Chinese factories, exacerbated by the fact that we are a season behind the northern hemisphere. This means copies can be on shelves before the originals have even arrived.


DARIAN ZAM said...

Patty I have to say I like your "take no prisoners" style, but you know that.
During my 12 years in the fashion industry I cannot think of one time I wasn't handed a designer sample to copy. Hey, I had to earn a living and was just doing as instructed.
I think companies know that it's unlikely that they will get sued and even less likely they'd lose - they're quite brazen.
Low market brands copying I can kind of understand (but I'm not condoning it), but what really annoys me is that designers like Charlie Brown who posit themselves as the upper end of the market fr their supposed design nous - are absolutely mercenary and totally shameless about it. Also, they're usually the first ones to cry foul when something happens to them (Howard Showers anyone?)

Too bad for those who don't realise I was a meticulous record keeper. When I ended up working for a real bitch who basically drove me out of a job with her harassment, I sent the original sample and the knock-off she'd made me do, to Calvin Klein. The manager of the division got back to me immediately to thank me for notifying him. How fast can you say "recall"? OUCH. What goes around, as they say, comes around. Treat your minions as you would be treated, would be my advice. Or you may find yourself out of a job when your company gets served for infringement.

A Colourful Guy Drowning said...

While I'm sure it frustrates designers to no end, I seriously doubt they will ever be able to stop blatant copyright infringement as long there is consumer demand for high-end design at a more reasonable price.

If the Aussies weren't doing it the Chinese would be, and are, more than happy to. This is billions of dollars we're talking about here and high ideals like creativity, originality and integrity get trashed when that kind of money is involved.

d said...

I can't believe I wan't to watch TT now. Good job, GO PATTYYYY!

Anonymous said...

This pisses me off.
And I agree with Darian, it's worse when higher end labels do it. I don't shop at AG any more after they ripped off a Dsquared2 cardigan. I even emailed them, asking why, but got no reply.

Keep up the good work Patty,

DARIAN ZAM said...

ACDG you're absolutely right, they would simply blame the factory anyway. "We just ordered the item that was presented to us as a sales sample by the manufacturer!" I can't think of possible solutions to stamping out this unscrupulous practice, ever.

DARIAN ZAM said...

I think the absolute brazenness is partly a geographical thing, still in this day and age. Australia is physically far away from the US and Europe...they feel like it's easier to get away with it. Having also worked for agents/manufacturers producing garments for many of the Australian labels, I can guarantee you they ALL copy directly off OS samples, that's what they'd sand to us, always. There's no exception that I know of.Yet, they carry on in an unbearable manner like the whole process is high art.

Anna said...

Are there any Australian fashion designers who are more reliably original in their designs than these rip-off agents?

Maxie said...

Patty, i am actually surprised TT chose to run this story at all.
While copyright in fashion is a big problem, i can't imagine it's a problem TT's viewers care about.
We are talking about the kinds of people who holiday in Phuket and buy counterfeit handbags and sunglasses and perfumes.

DARIAN ZAM said...

Well, your defeatist position seems to be "the problem is so rife that it's ubiquitousness makes it almost pointless to approach as a topic at all", whereas Patty's position is "Just because almost everyone does it, doesn't make it OK."

do not speak on behalf of this over-indulged, yet indiscriminate audience you speak of (I'm being nice here), they may not know and just may want to.

Taegen said...

I'm wondering if the 10% change rule still applies in copying items? From what I have been told a copy is apparently 'okay' if you change 10% of the item, and the 10% is subjective so there really are no boundaries.

Is this still applicable with the registering of items?

All very interesting.

Maxie said...

Darian, that wasn't my position at all.
I'm just surprised that a show that goes into bat for the "aussie battlers" would tackle an issue that's irrelevant to so many of it's viewers.
I persoanlly think Patty's journalistic skills are wasted on TT.

Anonymous said...

I just couldn't resist linking this tweet from Sambag Sydney:

Not quite sure if they rip off any international designs, but they sure have a colourful way of dealing with plus size consumers.

DARIAN ZAM said...

as above my comment - "Hey, I had to earn a living". I think that sums it up.
I personally think Patty's journalistic skills are wasted on TT.

Anonymous said...

Kirstie Clements has called out Australian 'designers' copying in this month's Vogue editor's letter, although she doesn't name them.


Runway Revolution said...

Do consumers want to know? Yes - I think they do, but only to know just where they can get the knock off of the YSL cage shoes/Gucci sequin dress/the Lara Bohinc necklace/Prada sunglasses/the latest IT handbag... yada yada yada.

Anyone remember the SATC ep where Samantha buys the fake Fendi? I think a lot of consumers actually believe that noone can tell the difference. There is a reason where there are numerous forums on eBay to help people determine whether the bag they are watching is real or not, and even so the fakes keep getting better and better because they know from these forums what they need to improve on.

In the end: cheap bought is cheap-looking. If that's the look you are going for, then unfortunately there will always be someone to sell something to you. Australia having a separate legal regime to deal with infringements is definitely part of the problem.

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