30 March 2010

What's Missing from Fashion 'Reality' Shows? Reality.

Arizona Reporter / Mussarat Bata
The real-life climb toward fashion industry stardom is grueling and impoverishing. The beleaguered assistant in "The Devil Wears Prada" had it easy, one veteran suggests

The first season of MTV’s "The Hills" played like a fashion school fairy tale. In less than five minutes, would-be intern Lauren Conrad managed to secure a meeting with the West Coast editor of Teen Voguebreezed through her interview, and was offered the position despite her lack of resume, experience or appropriate interview attire. Her knowledge of the magazine was limited to her fondness for the photos, and she proved her worth with a half-smile and one of the most eloquent statements made that season: "I like to write."

What's missing from MTV's fashion-related reality TV shows? Reality.
Most entry-level fashion jobs involve impossibly long hours, running racks of clothing through the streets of Manhattan, countless runs to Starbucks and maybe a chance to transcribe notes from a meeting with a designer. It takes years of grueling labor to work your way up to becoming an assistant, and it doesn’t get any easier from there.

Conrad, on the other hand, promptly secured a spot in the fashion closet with her reality TV sidekick, Whitney Port, in tow. On the first night of her internship, she was in charge of a high-profile company event; on the third day she was on a flight to a Marc Jacobs fashion show in New York. Conrad and Port assisted on celebrity photo-shoots, casting and styling models and planning the magazine’s biggest events. They even had the fashion closet at their disposal. The pair was later sent on a trip to Paris, outfitted in Alberta Ferretti Couture, to run a debutante event on behalf of Teen Vogue.

For most people trying to make it in the fashion industry, the process begins long before any real job opportunity is in sight. The drive starts at a young age and usually continues through school, internships and beyond.

"I’ve wanted to work in fashion since I was born," said Olivia Braunsberg, 23, an intern at Diane Von Furstenberg. "It’s always been in my soul and my genes and I’ve worked towards it all my life." After studying management and marketing in Vienna, Braunsberg moved to New York and discovered that, her degree notwithstanding, the only way to become a stylist was through a series of unpaid internships that almost made a mockery of her education. "I want to get as much experience as I can, and the only way I can do that is through an internship," she said. "The connections and learning opportunities are invaluable and that’s what I need in order to make it."

"I think I decided in second grade that I wanted to work in the fashion industry," agreed accessories closet intern Jackie Abramo, "I thought I wanted to be a designer…and then I realized I couldn’t draw." At 22 Abramo, armed with a degree in fashion merchandising from San Francisco State University, moved to New York determined to pursue a career in fashion editorial work. She eventually landed an internship in merchandising for Nordstrom department stores.

"To really make it in fashion, internships are necessary," she said. "You have to prove yourself and get your name out there. These companies have been taking interns upon interns, and they have that pool to choose from when a job becomes available. They have to know you, they have to know your skill level and then hopefully they’ll start paying you for what you’ve already been doing for free."

While passion for the industry and a keen sense of style is important for an intern, most magazine staffers are more focused on organizational skills and work ethic.

"Each intern needs to have a thorough know-how of the magazine," said Teen Vogue internship coordinator Courtney Peterson. "What’s most important to me is devotion. What we do isn’t the most glamorous thing, so you really have to be committed to what you do." Each intern is generally expected to multitask, work well under stressful circumstances and be extremely detail-oriented.

For "The Hills" interns Conrad and Port, commitment questions regularly came into play. Time after time, the dynamic duo would commit major internship faux pas that would get real interns fired, with no hope of references. They would let friends into invitation-only magazine parties, and bring the wrong outfits to photo-shoots. Conrad even ruined thousands of dollars worth of couture. Yet each time they were let off with merely a stern word, mollifying their bosses with the promise to never make the same mistake again.

Real-life novices, lacking the $75,000 per episode MTV pays its characters, are forced to stretch their minimal funds.

"It’s good to keep your name in there but at the same time I’m real poor," said Abramo. Her internship has even started costing her money. "With some of the errands I have to run, it’s necessary to take a taxi," she said, "That’s all out of my own pocket. I’ve never even been offered a reimbursement."

While MTV’s misconstrued reality implies that the right connections are all you need to get your foot in the door, the competition for entry level positions is stiff.

"Even though my father has been friends with Diane [Von Furstenberg] since they were in their 20s, I wasn’t guaranteed anything," said Braunsberg. "I still had to go through an extensive interview process, I still had to impress them, I still had to be more than qualified for the position."

Newbies prove themselves through a combination of manual labor, determination and border-line scary intensity. The real life day-to-day tasks for these fashion neophytes is anything but glitz and glam. Their hours generally range from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., and they’re either running around Manhattan pulling pieces for shoots or confined to the closets they work in. Most days are spent checking in samples, keeping track of items, organizing and coordinating clothing racks and running personal errands for senior staff, which might include trekking to Harlem to find just the right organic lemons, and hand-delivering suitcases to apartments.

Assisting on a photo-shoot means being at the studio hours before any models or photographers arrive, setting up the clothes and accessories, then heading back to the office for a full day of work. Working on a computer is considered a privilege. Interns rarely interact with editors or company presidents, and while they might be sent to pull hats or dresses from a designer, they’re given strict instructions about what to look for, down to color and number of beads.

After four seasons of "The Hills", where Whitney Port effortlessly worked through the fashion ranks at Teen Vogue and high-end fashion PR firm People’s Revolution, she graduated to her own reality TV stardom. The MTV spin-off series "The City" chronicled her move to New York in pursuit of a high-profile fashion career. Her job at Diane Von Furstenberg was practically handed to her through a friendship with fashion legend Kelly Cutrone. She was soon in meetings with potential buyers, magazines and stylists, her days filled with talks with Diane and chance meetings with celebrities; her nights at A-list industry events.

It was nothing like that for one fashion editorial assistant at W magazine. After graduating from New York University with fashion-focused degree in pop culture and media studies, he worked his way through myriad internships - from style websites to TLC’s "What Not To Wear", and dabbled in PR.

"I decided to take an internship in PR at [the fashion label] Diesel, even though I knew I didn’t want to do PR," said this assistant, who asked to remain anonymous. "I saw it as an opportunity to meet every editor and stylist and make great contacts, which would help me eventually get to where I wanted to go. During my internship I interviewed for every magazine and styling job I could, and then I was hired at W."

Though he has been promoted to an assistant with a salary, his days are still filled with grunt work and menial tasks.

"My job is not glamorous at all. It’s very physical, exhausting and stressful and you have to swallow your pride constantly," he said, "People always ask me if my job is anything like [the novel and movie] "The Devil Wears Prada" My response is that ‘my job is 10 times harder!’ I wish I had [the fictional assistant’s] job; she had to get coffee a few times and pick up some scarves!"

The rise of such sensationalist fashion reality TV shows has also led to a huge increase in applicants for fashion internships, people in the industry say.
"They make people want to ‘be in fashion’ without having a clue what it takes to actually do it," the assistant said.

Little girls across the county now associate their favorite TV characters with alluring careers in fashion, and since these shows are labeled ‘reality, they’ve given the public a warped perspective on the industry.

"There used to be tons of talented people trying to make it, and now it’s us and the girls who like to shop," said Abramo. "We’re two different breeds of animal, but those shows make it seem like we’re the same. Those people just want to be a part of the lifestyle and that’s what’s ruining the industry."

27 March 2010

Tommy Hilfiger Sold on the Block

Epoch Times

Tommy Hilfiger Corp., makers of the iconic American brand, once again was put on the block. This time the seller was Apax Partners, a private equity company that had bought the company for $1.6 billion in 2006.

Phillips-Van Heusen Corp. (PVH), headquartered in New York, purchased Tommy Hilfiger for $3 billion last week, of which $2.6 billion was straight cash, $276 million was PVH common stock, and the remainder would be an assumption of existing debt.

For Tommy, its history has been a wild ride. In 1999, revenue reached $1.8 billion. It reached a high of $2.1 billion in the early 2000s, and then slowly deteriorated to a low of $1.7 billion in 2007. In 2009, it reached a new all-time high of $2.2 billion in sales.

Apax announced in a March 15 statement that it had achieved its investment goals with Tommy. An investor group generally disposes of an acquisition once it achieves a certain return, and the firm has reached greater profitable heights.

“Reviving the Tommy Hilfiger brand and restoring the company to profitable growth in partnership with CEO Fred Gehring and his team has been hugely satisfying for the Apax team,” said John Megrue, CEO of Apax Partners U.S., in a statement.

In one fell swoop, PVH has two of the most well-known American fashion houses—the company also owns Calvin Klein Inc. With Tommy in the fold, PVH has the strength to compete against Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. and The Gap Inc.

The combined Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein firm will breathe new life into the U.S. fashion industry, with Calvin Klein’s modern and contemporary clothing style, combined with the classical American cool, for which Hilfiger’s collection is known.

On the other hand, designer Tommy Hilfiger, who will remain the label’s most senior designer, does not envision change. “If you keep the heritage of the brand intact when you do another product, and it appears to be coming from the same mother, then you’re doing the right thing ... But if it doesn’t conform to the core brand, it is a mistake,” he said, according to a Knowledge@Wharton (KW) report.

Mass Market Focus
“Would I like to be a luxury brand? Absolutely,” Tommy Hilfiger said at a recent Wharton Retail Conference, as reported by KW.

He suggests that only 3 percent of all Tommy items sold in the market could be labeled “high-end.” High-end clothing was not the goal of the brand, nor will it be in the future.

The vision of the Hilfiger team is that its product is “affordable, accessible, aspirational, cool American classic,” according to Hilfiger in the KW article.

The fast growth of the company during the 1990s, when the company had grown in sales from $500 million to $1 billion by 1998, led the company to spread itself rather thin. The company had found its niche, but had no real growth potential, moving slowly from one side of the pendulum to the other.

Apax reversed the company’s marketing strategy by giving exclusive sales contracts to chains such as Macy’s Inc., instead of having to deal with the small mom-and-pop shops.

The company started listening to customers, which was the step that put the company’s fortune back on track. “While it is important to come up with new products and ideas, it is most important to listen to the consumer and what they are telling you,” Hilfiger said in the KW article.

Caught in Trade War
Hilfiger was among 26 companies that settled lawsuits alleging sweatshop-like conditions in their Saipan operations. The total compensation package amounted to $6.4 million and involved 30,000 former and current workers. This amounts to a small compensation of $213 per worker.

Even before leaving the mantle of its Hong Kong-based owner, textile firm Hilfiger is already becoming embroiled in another of China’s trade war tactics used against the United States.

According to press releases, Hilfiger was also listed among foreign clothing brands that China’s Zhejiang Province allegedly named for not being up to quality standards. According to a translator, Hilfiger was among the brands named in the Chinese language announcement.

“It was revealed that most clothing that were found substandard during this check were made in the following 11 countries and regions: Italy, Morocco, South Korea, France, Turkey, Romania, Egypt, Mauritius, Vietnam, India, and Bangladesh. It involved about 30 famous international brands …,” stated Zhejiang Province’s English language Web site.

U.S.-China Textile warfare is nothing new. It has been going on for ages. What is new is that China plays a tit-for-tat game, and is using, among others, textiles as a pawn.

The overall trade war with China has escalated, with accusations flying back and forth, and China immediately reacting with often unfounded accusations.

The Chinese clothing incident is the latest in a series of trade disagreements with the United States, and some experts believe that it was an overreaction to President Obama meeting with the Dalai Lama in the White House in February and the Taiwan arms sale.

There are many such incidences in which China, accused of trade distorting tactics, or when it feels that its interests are at stake, comes up with accusations that may be totally different from the situation under issue.

25 March 2010

J.R. Campbell, New Director of Kent State's School of Fashion Design and Merchandising, Plans a Wider Scope for Students

Cleveland Plain Dealer
When it comes to tackling projects, J.R. Campbell simply rolls up his perfectly pressed sleeves.

Whether it's building on the legacy of a legendary predecessor, establishing a graduate program or cleaning out a closet for lab space, the new director of the Shannon Rodgers and Jerry Silverman School of Fashion Design and Merchandising at Kent State University is becoming famous for his take-charge attitude and boundless energy.
"I definitely have a 'dig-in' mentality," says Campbell, who came to Kent in summer 2009. "I think like a farmer -- let's just get the job done."

That's a good thing, as he has his work patterned, cut and sewn out for him.

Campbell is taking over the post vacated by the iconic Elizabeth Rhodes, who retired shortly before her death in 2009. His students are entering the field during a recession that has hit fashion and retail especially hard.

There's a new push toward sustainability, an ethos that flies directly in the face of an industry built on consumerism. And there's the downside of being a fashion school nestled in the heart of the Midwest, hundreds of miles from the insular ranks of New York City.

"One of our goals is to increase our visibility, to get the attention and recognition we deserve for the amazing things going on here," says Campbell. "Dr. Rhodes was a force of nature and built this school into what it is today. I'm charged with making it richer all around."

Widening the scope of success

Back in 1994, when Rhodes came to Kent State, the fledgling program had only 300 students. But what a difference 15 years can make. Rhodes is unanimously praised for her tireless fundraising and the corporate partnerships she created.

She spearheaded the creation of KSU's fashion school branches in New York and Florence, Italy, and an exchange program with Hong Kong's Polytechnic University. Enrollment rose steadily to its current roster of 1,200 students.

Rather than seek out a new director in the same mold, the university signaled a shift in priorities by hiring Campbell, whose technology-heavy background in textiles and research seems far removed from the grubby workings of the schmatte trade or the klieg lights of the runway.

"With the industry in such a state of change, we want our students to have a wide range of skills, so that they can adapt to whatever the market might demand," says John Crawford, interim dean of the College of the Arts.

"Rather than view the school as two separate entities, we really need to blend the art side and the business side. J.R. brings that kind of mind-set. He approaches education in a holistic way that is very forward-thinking."

The ability to work across disciplines and adapt skills across platforms has been instrumental in Campbell's career.

Born to an academically inclined family -- his father is a radiation physicist, his mother an English teacher -- Campbell, 38, gravitated toward the arts from an early age, especially those that required literally digging in.

With an undergraduate degree in environmental design from the University of California at Davis, he set off to study landscape architecture in Colorado. But he took a few classes in screenprinting and dyeing -- and had an epiphany that changed his career path.

"I liked that textiles physically come in contact with all lives. And unlike graphic design or landscape design, I could complete an idea before it could be quibbled with," he says with a smile.

He returned to UC-Davis to earn a master of fine arts degree in textile arts and costume design in 1996. Using computers to create his imagery, he explored the freedoms and environmental advantages of digital textile printing.

He quickly found a niche in research and had exhibitions of his textile design work, which marries cutting-edge technology with ancient crafting principles.

His successes led to a tenured post at Iowa State University, which is where Scotland's Glasgow School of Art came calling in 2005. He packed up his young family -- wife Melissa, kids Willow, then age 5, and Ash, then 3 -- to become the director of research at the school's highly regarded Centre for Advanced Textiles.

The kudos and awards continued to build. He was a visiting scholar at the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology and Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand. In 2002, he won the prestigious Lectra Outstanding Faculty Award during the International Textile and Apparel Association Design Exhibition.

A memorable installation he and his colleagues did in Glasgow featured digitally created fabrics that re-imagined textiles designs by Charles Rennie Mackintosh; their work was exhibited side-by-side with Mackintosh's original design sketches.

Campbell's resulting piece is arresting -- undulating, repeating curves of stone-washed blues and taupes over a strong underlying grid of dark brown and white. It is both grounded and restless, a little seeking, perhaps a meditation on the artist himself.

Campbell is modest about his achievements, attributing much of his success to swimming in a small pond.

"If a university or an organization wants to consult with someone with a digital textile background, there aren't that many people they can call," he says wryly.

Democratization of design

Sustainable ideals are at odds both with the fashion industry and consumers themselves.

International fast-fashion chains such as H&M and Zara encourage consumption by shipping new products weekly to their stores. Target and Wal-Mart trumpet that "good design doesn't have to cost a lot" -- and if that nicely designed blouse shrinks after washing, the consumer shrugs off its $10 cost and buys another.

It is that mind-set that fires up Campbell. The bike-riding, recycling, veggie-growing director is no clotheshorse; despite the fashion moniker in his new title, he counts "three pairs of jeans, three sweaters and a jacket" as his wardrobe.

"I try to only consume what I need," he says.

Many of his professional goals are traditional in scope -- establishing a graduate-level program, revising core curricula -- but his driving force seems to be nothing less than revolutionizing the industry.

His work in digital textiles has shown him that attractive fabric can be produced with significantly less energy, water and waste than in traditional printing. Rather than work through a mill, a designer can create his or her own patterns and print as little or as much of the fabric as needed.

"It's a democratization of the design process," says Campbell. "Anyone -- not just a fashion designer -- could create his own T-shirt and have it produced. Perhaps he wouldn't get rid of the shirt so quickly if he was part of the process from the beginning."

Campbell envisions a cottage industry of micro-manufacturing facilities across the nation to handle the work of the public's inner fashion designer.

Large-scale inkjet printers can print on a wide range of fabric, from cotton to silk, heavy linens to wool. Start-up costs would be relatively small, and thanks to the Internet, orders could be placed from anywhere. This reduces the nation's reliance on overseas manufacturing and its staggering carbon footprint.

Campbell and his students have launched a micro business in a research lab at Kent, printing custom fabrics for small businesses, including Rebecca Ray Designs, the handbag and accessories company based in Chagrin Falls.

"We want these new practices and techniques to inspire our students while they are here, but also when they are out in the world," says Campbell. "We want to inspire them to become the leaders to create change within the industry."

Competing with New York

Before they can create change within the industry, Kent's fashion graduates have to find a place in it first.

The fashion program is one of the largest in the country. Students have the opportunity to study in Beijing, Italy and New York, and the main campus boasts a well-regarded faculty, a famous fashion museum and deep archives, professional-level workrooms and state-of-the-art labs.

But it's still not in New York, unlike Parsons, the New School for Design, or the Fashion Institute of Technology.

"Kent's deserving of a reputation, but they just don't have it yet," says R. Scott French, a New York-based designer who also teaches at Kent's outpost there. "FIT has lost a bit of its luster over the years, but there's no denying the success Parsons has had."

Parsons' alumni list reads like a Fashion Week calendar. Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, Isaac Mizrahi, Tom Ford, Narciso Rodriguez, Anna Sui, Tracy Reese, Derek Lam, Thakoon Panichgul, Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough of Proenza Schouler, and Jason Wu all have attended the college.

Kent has yet to produce a roster of names on par with those successes, but French believes that it's only a matter of time.

"Your best asset coming from KSU is an amazing program -- Parsons would be chasing behind, if KSU was in New York, but it's not," he says.

Success begets success, say French and others interviewed for this story.

"Because Marc Jacobs went to Parsons, he's familiar with the program, and so he's more likely to look for his interns there," French says. "But as more Kent grads rise through the ranks, they'll hire other Kent grads, because they know the education and talent is there."

Ashley Ricketts, 25, graduated from Kent's fashion school in 2008. Now an assistant designer to rising star Brian Reyes, Ricketts had impressive internships that included stints at Liz Claiborne and Marc Jacobs.

"I think the 'break into' part is the hard part, and not just for Kent students," says Ricketts. "But Kent did give me the tools necessary to perform well in my internships and to succeed in the industry overall.

"Kent is very strong technically. I knew fabrics, I knew construction, I knew how to communicate what I wanted with factories . . . and I didn't scoff at doing dishes!"

Another advantage is that Kent graduates come out with a liberal arts degree, says Tom Julian, a branding consultant based in New York who counts Nordstrom and Liz Claiborne among his clients.

"KSU is a four-year university, where the other schools tend to be two-year and less inclusive of all academic offerings, like business to marketing to world affairs," he says. "Many firms today look for a dual-track candidate -- business and global as well as merchandising and creative -- and I would suspect that Kent fits that bill."

Midwest or not, the fashion school has nearly 100 percent job placement within the industry, Crawford says.

A crossroads in the industry

Standing in a lab at Kent State in January, Campbell shows a visitor a textile inkjet printer at work. Silk duping is loaded on its spools rather than paper, and its halting staccato rhythms reveal a print of a horse, destined to become a handbag by Rebecca Ray Designs.

"You see, it's not rocket-science technology we're talking about here -- these are printers anyone could have at home, or a community could make available to its public," says Campbell.

"Manufacturing on demand is quickly becoming feasible as a replacement for mass production, and our students could be at the forefront of that, applying new technologies to the traditional means of production."

As admirable as these goals are, there are many in the industry who suspect sustainability could be a trend as fleeting as belly tops.

"When you go to a store and have the options of buying something Earth-friendly, if prices aren't a problem, then why wouldn't you go this route?" asks New York designer French rhetorically.

"But in the end, we are about fashion and making pretty things people want to buy. If we can do that and be Earth-friendly, great. But design matters as much as the principles behind it."

Campbell plans to add a new position to his faculty, an instructor versed in textile production and manufacturing, and muses further about the graduate program he is charged with establishing.

"What we need to be cultivating is a balance between cost and price and value, and still serve an individual's need -- that's where we are going with the fashion school."

Looking out across the lab filled with sleek Dell desktop computers, he is asked the brand of his home computer.

"A Mac," he says with obvious relish, and a smile crosses his face.

"The school is all PC-based. We'll see how long it stays that way."

23 March 2010

Georgian Government to Sponsor First Fashion Week in Tbilisi

The Financial

On 26 March Georgia Fashion Week (GFW) will take place in the Expo-Georgia Exhibition Centre on Tsereteli Ave. The 4th, 5th and 6th pavilions of Expo-Georgia will be covered by central hall media centre show-rooms lounge and orangery.

As the organizers of this event told The FINANCIAL Georgian Fashion Week will host some VIP guests from the Parisian fashion section and representative from Louis Vuitton Group. The Georgian Government has decided to cover expenses as the event organizers failed to attract commercial sponsors.

“Italian Vogue, Fashion TV from France, Madam Figaro, Vogue, Elle, Figaro France, and Chantal Thomas are among our honourable media guests,” says Tsitsi Iashvili, CEO of Georgian Fashion Group.

“Georgian Fashion Week is going to be held with the support of two companies - Georgian Fashion Group and French Beatrice Manson Communication & Cie. With the help of Irakli Nasidze our group signed a contract with Beatrice Manson Communication & Cie. We are responsible for organizing and running the event in Georgia and the French side is responsible for inviting critics, buyers, designers and media representatives to Georgia,” Iashvili told The FINANCIAL.

Beatrice Manson Communications & Cie. is a company that has been operating in the fashion industry for several decades. The company says that participating in various fashion weeks and working for various world-leading fashion houses means it gained huge experience in the organization and promotion process of various global and broad projects in the fashion industry.

“The mission of GFW is to promote Georgian trends in fashion and the arts, to applaud and support designers, manufacturers and retailers who are willing to bring on fresh and exclusive trends to a global industry. Another mission of GFW is to provide opportunities for consumer education about best practices in the fashion industry, to explain the global and personal benefits of adopting them, and demonstrate ways in which individuals can make meaningful changes in their wardrobes and approach,” GFW Officials note.

According to GFW officials, the mission of this event is also to generate direct economic benefits for the region and overall regional businesses in the fashion industry.

The idea for arranging Georgian Fashion Week belongs to Natali Samadalashvili, President of Georgian Fashion Group, General Director of Model Agency Natali.

She says the idea was supported by the Government of Georgia and Maka Metereveli, wife of Chairman of the Georgian Parliament.

“This event is going to be held for the first time and it was a bit risky for our French partners. Irakli Nasidze did his best to assure them that Georgia is the right country to arrange a Fashion Week in,” Iashvili says.

“This is the first such event in Georgia with standards accepted at all international fashion weeks. With this project we aim for maximum reach worldwide and promotion of Georgian designers to world leading critics and buyers,” Samadalashvili says.

According to Samadalashvili, young Georgian designers will be emphasized at this Fashion Week in order to popularize and discover new faces.

“Of course some famous designers who have existed on the local market and have taken part in fashion weeks of different countries will be involved in this event too. There are many talented designers in Georgia and fashion week will be a great opportunity for them to show their talent and possibilities in the sphere of design,” Samadalashvili says.

“With the help of Georgian Fashion week we are opening a new window to Europe. This is the first serious step in order to popularize not only Georgian designers and their offered products, but also Georgian models,” Samadalashvili says.

“Different Georgian model agencies will take part in this fashion week. Georgian girls should use the opportunity to show off their exceptional charm and beauty to foreigners, it’s a great chance for them and their careers,” Samadalashvili explains.

As Tsitsi Iashvili says, 3 foreign designers will take part in Georgian Fashion Week. Cristophe Josse from France, Agatha Ruiz De La Prada from Spain, brand On Aura Tout Vu from France, where two designers are working.

22 March 2010

If the Shoe Fits, They'll Copy It

Boston Globe

Should the law protect fashion from knockoffs?

Jeannie Suk is poised, elegant, but decidedly conservative in her attire of muted grays, browns, and blacks. She is as well known for her teachings on feminism as for being the first Asian-American woman on the tenure track at Harvard Law School.

So why is the 37-year-old Suk, a Guggenheim fellow at Harvard Law School, at the heart of a heated debate in the fashion world about designer dresses and $900 shoes?

After coauthoring an extensive piece for the Stanford Law Review about why American fashion designers should have copyright protection against inexpensive knockoffs, something Euro pean designers have enjoyed for more than 25 years, Suk became a sought-after authority on the subject. Now Senator Charles Schumer of New York is drafting legislation that would give American fashion designers copyright protection and Suk is helping with the bill’s language.

“Books, music, film, and art are protected by copyright law,’’ Suk says one afternoon in her law school office. “But fashion is not. I wanted to question all of that. Lots of people take for granted that fashion is an area where creativity is involved, and they also overlook the fact that there is no protection for designers.’’

The lack of a fashion copyright law here has given rise to an entire industry that reinterprets - fashionistas call it blatant pirating - high design on the cheap. A $2,000 cocktail dress is inexpensively copied and sold for $80 by Forever 21 or pricey Balenciaga shoes are replicated by Steve Madden for $60. There are multiple examples on websites such as Fashionista.com’s Adventures in Copyright.

Industry experts say small, emerging designers are particularly at risk, even more than big labels such as Marc Jacobs or Michael Kors, because they don’t have the money to fight back when their ideas are ripped off.

Some disagreement
Though Suk may think it’s clear why the fashion world needs tighter restrictions, shoppers and even some designers in Boston aren’t all quick to agree.

Newbury Street-based fashion designer Daniela Corte has seen a few of her dresses copied by other designers, but she takes it as a compliment. She feels a new law may help prevent this from happening in the future.

“Even if they copy and knock it off, it’s not going to have the same texture, it’s not going to have the same finished look, and it’s not going to have the same attention to detail’’ she says. “That’s what sets us apart. When people try on a well-made garment it feels different from something that’s been made in huge numbers.’’

“It really is like art or music,’’ 23-year-old Nicole Travers of Somerville said on a recent evening on Newbury Street. “I don’t see why they shouldn’t have the same protection.’’

Yet Betty Riaz, who owns the boutique Stil, maintains that unlike art or music, fashion thrives on trends, and she said a fashion copyright law would create a legal mess in the courts as multiple designers create their own similar versions of recent trends, such as the one-shoulder gown or studded boots.

“Where do you draw the line?’’ she asks.

A recent fascination
The mother of two, and wife of fellow Harvard Law professor and New York Times columnist Noah Feldman, Suk has long held an interest in intellectual property law as it pertains to literature and the performing arts. How the law should deal with fashion is a more recent fascination, one that led her and C. Scott Hemphill, an associate professor of law at Columbia, to coauthor an extensive article on the subject for the Stanford Law Review.

Suk says she found it strange that there were laws in place protecting artists and writers, but not fashion designers. She was also concerned that this anomaly could deter people from going into fashion design.

“When you see an anomaly, you want to know if it’s anomalous for a reason,’’ she says. “You have to look at the whole picture and see what kind of world it creates for designers.’’

But if Schumer’s bill is going to go anywhere, it won’t be without a fight. Even some in the industry worry that copyright protections may not work for something as utilitarian as garments, that it will ultimately be impractical to discern what is unique from what is just part of a trend.

“To say something is really new and deserves legal protection I think may be challenging,’’ Kurt Courtney, manager of government relations for the American Association of Footwear and Apparel. “A lot of fashion involves taking elements of past things, putting something together, and then making something new out of it.’’

A fashion copyright bill would set a standard that would protect designers from having their clothing and shoes knocked off by cheap imitators. Language is currently being drafted by Schumer’s office to specify just how similar an article of clothing could be to another before facing sanctions as an illegal knockoff. It’s this question of language that has held up previous versions of a fashion copyright bill in Congress.

Fashion logos are already trademarked - think Levi’s back pocket tab and Nike’s famous swoosh. Those logos are easy to protect because it is obvious when they are being imitated. But the unique design of a Michael Kors dress or a Stuart Weitzman wedge heel can be imitated with little recourse. Everyone from established designers such as Diane von Furstenberg to rising stars like Jason Wu have had their designs copied.

In recent months, Trovata, the late Alexander McQueen, and Balenciaga all filed lawsuits against lower-priced brand names including Forever 21 and Steve Madden for copying their looks. Trying these cases can be difficult because there are no current legal standards in place.

The fashion industry argues that this legislation is essential in the United States because young designers can easily be copied by bigger fashion houses or mass market stores, and lack the funds to defend themselves in court. In a letter to the Council of Fashion Designers, von Furstenberg wrote, “Starving artists, struggling writers and independent filmmakers all at least own the rights to their work. Emerging designers, however, remain vulnerable to knockoff artists who can steal ideas straight off the runway and produce copies before the originals even reach stores.’’

Because these knockoffs are legal, the council says that they can now be found almost anywhere.

“The morning after the Oscars or the Emmys, you have pirates sitting on the couch at ‘The Today Show’ talking with Meredith Viera about what Cate Blanchett wore the night before, and then saying they’ll sell a copy for $39.99,’’ says Steven Kolb, executive director of the council. “It really takes away from what designers are doing.’’

From dance to law
While it supports a fashion copyright bill, the footwear and apparel association, which primarily represents fashion manufacturers such Chico’s, DKNY, and Mackintosh, wants to make sure that the wording of any proposed legislation won’t be so strict that it will keep clothing manufacturers from feeling free to follow trends.

“We’re looking at a situation that could add cost or slow down the industry,’’ says Kurt Courtney, manager of government relations for the association. “That’s not something that’s attractive to us.’’

The fashion council has no problem with stores such as H&M, which translates runway trends into its own inexpensive designs (and often collaborates with major designers rather than knocking them off). The problem is when those inexpensive interpretations become nearly indistinguishable from the original.

Because both the council and the apparel association are currently working out potential language for the bill, both sides were hesitant to publicly discuss specifics of what it might say.

“A lot of people think the whole essence of fashion is being inspired by other works, and in that way, couldn’t you say that all fashion is about copying?’’ Suk says. “But everyone knows the difference between being inspired by something, and just taking something and creating a replica of it.’’

Suk’s detour into fashion isn’t the first time she has dramatically switched gears. As a teenager, she studied ballet at the School of American Ballet, but when dance began dominating her academic life, her parents put an end to her dance career. She went into trial law because she initially saw it as another form of performance, but eventually she says she “fell in love with other aspects of law.’’

Suk, who recently published a book, “At Home in the Law: How the Domestic Violence Revolution is Transforming Privacy,’’ said some of her feminist followers were initially appalled with her foray into fashion. They told her that they see the fashion industry as something that objectifies women. But Suk doesn’t see fashion as evil. She sees it as a part of everyone’s life.

“People have a lifelong relationship with the clothes that they put on themselves,’’ she says. “One way or another, we all have a stake in what we wear. When you learn the way that the law regulates that part of your life, you start to ask questions. No matter what kind of clothes you wear.’’

20 March 2010

Police Seize Fake Designer Clothing Worth £1M in North London Raids

London Times Online

A gang that made tens of millions of pounds selling fake designer clothing has been smashed in an international police operation.

Detectives have seized thousands of items including counterfeit Versace, Armani, Gucci, Nike and adidas products, thought to have a street value of £1 million, in co-ordinated raids on lock-ups across North London. They have also recovered almost £500,000 in cash from safety deposit boxes. The City of London Police believe the raids are one of the biggest seizures of counterfeit goods in Britain.

The men are said to have taken delivery at least once a week for the past 18 months of huge containers full of the goods, also including electrical products that had been made in Malaysia and China. These would be sold to independent shops, at markets and online.

Detectives estimate that each container was worth £700,000 to the gang, who set themselves up as a business with a managing director, financial director and someone in charge of their property portfolio. Rather than flaunt their wealth, they are thought to have sent most of the money abroad while living relatively modestly lifestyles in London.

Detective Superintendent Bob Wishart, from City of London’s fraud squad, said that the gang was extremely professional. “It is one of the best run criminal organisations we have come up against.”

The top tier of the criminal enterprise was based in the Far East and they handed out the franchise for their goods to the gang in Britain and another in Baltimore, Maryland.

On Thursday a series of co-ordinated raids took place in both countries. Officers from the City of London Police arrested six men and raided 30 residential and business premises. The US authorities arrested nine people and recovered goods including 120,000 pairs of counterfeit Nike shoes, 500,000 counterfeit Coach handbags and 500 counterfeit Cartier watches.

David Lammy, Minister for Intellectual Property, said: “This is a major investigation that highlights the significant threat to the British economy from counterfeit goods. This operation shows major efforts are being made to tackle this problem and I look forward to seeing more successful operations like this one.” It is estimated that the cost to the clothing and footwear industry in Britain from counterfeiting is £3.5 billion.

Mr Wishart said that organised crime groups had been able to operate within the area of counterfeit goods without any fear of a constructive operation against them for too long.

He told The Times: “The guys we are dealing with here are very good. Our surveillance teams found seven men who we say are the main organisers but beneath them they had a whole army of workers.” Officers will now be going after the gang’s assets and money “to hit them hard in the pocket”.

Detective Chief Superintendent Steve Head, of the Economic Crime Unit at City of London, said: “People buying the odd pair of designer trainers or sunglasses for a fraction of the cost do not realise the underlying misery. This fraud generates billions for gangs and means people are working in sweatshops.”

11 March 2010

Report Explores Fashion Sustainability

Eco-Textile News

Levi Strauss & Co. and Forum for the Future have jointly launched a new report that calls for the trillion dollar, global fashion industry to work together to create a more sustainable future.

The report, Fashion Futures, is aimed at everyone working in the global fashion industry, from suppliers of raw materials, designers and manufacturers right through to big brands and niche retail outlets. It presents four vivid scenarios of the world of 2025 and the role of the fashion industry, helping companies around the globe navigate the ever-changing challenge of developing sustainable business.

Forum for the Future produced the four scenarios in collaboration with fashion experts from around the world in manufacturing, design and retail, as well as universities, trade unions and NGOs. They explore every aspect of the industry, from production of raw materials, through manufacturing and sale, to use and end of life.

The report also addresses questions such as: will climate change refugees spread new fashion influences around the world? Will a shortage of raw materials see us renting our clothes from libraries? Will technological advances make it common to grow what we wear?

"For the fashion industry to be sustainable economically, it must be sustainable socially and environmentally too," said John Anderson, president and CEO of Levi Strauss & Co. "The scenarios help businesses think about how the needs of their customers may develop, the changing role of the fashion industry and what business strategies we should all be thinking about now and down the road. The central message is that for the fashion industry to be sustainable economically, it needs to be sustainable socially and environmentally too."

Endorsing the report Mike Barry, head of Sustainable Business, Marks & Spencer said that the document made an important contribution to the longer-term sustainability of clothing production. "By providing four provocative scenarios of future worlds in 2025, Fashion Futures can help companies develop responses to key social and environmental challenges," he said.

04 March 2010

Donated Shoes to Help Haitian Earthquake Victims

The Hub

RED BANK NJ -- Borough officials, schools and businesses are working in tandem to help the people of Haiti by collecting much-needed gently used shoes

A drive is being coordinated in conjunction with the nonprofit international organization Soles4Souls, Councilman Michael DuPont with the Borough Council’s Education and Technology Committee, borough schools and local businesses.

A townwide collection to gather shoes for victims of the recent earthquake will be held on March 6 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Red Bank Middle School on Harding Road.

According to DuPont, there are 1.2 billion shoes that sit in closets unused and more than 300 million people in the world without shoes.

In these economic times, DuPont said a good lesson to learn is that people can make a positive difference without digging into their pockets.

“You don’t have to have money to make an impact,” DuPont said. “It’s a great opportunity for our kids to help those in need.”

DuPont explained that children are the driving force behind the effort.

“This is a wonderful community service project. The people of Red Bank can make a huge impact,” he said. “This teaches our kids to be someone that others can depend on.”

All of the schools located in the borough have drop-boxes and are aiding in the initiative.

“It’s a great opportunity to engage our kids in the concept of giving back,” said Red Bank School Superintendent Laura C. Morana.

“It’s about the school system getting involved to make a difference,” DuPont added.

Men’s, women’s and kids shoes off all sizes and varieties can be dropped off at several locations, including all municipal facilities and borough schools, prior to March 6. Several downtown businesses are also participating in the program as drop-off sites.

DuPont said that following the collection day H&M Trucking Co. of Edison would transport the shoes to Soles4Souls headquarters in Nashville for distribution.

Donated shoes must be in good condition with no holes, separated soles or missing laces.

Soles4Souls partners with individuals, companies and charities around the country to hold footwear drives to help needy people around the world. The company also partners with footwear companies to collect and distribute customer returns, excess inventory and cash to support its mission of collecting adult and childrens shoes.

In an additional effort to raise money for Haiti, students and faculty at the middle school created Hearts for Haiti, a fundraising event to be held March 5 in the gymnasium.

The program includes live performances by the middle school band, local artists and Thundercheese, a band that features teacher Christopher Ippolito. Students will also read poetry.

Students and staff have created handcrafted House for Haiti pins that will be sold for $5 at the event. All proceeds from the event will benefit the American Red Cross Haitian Relief Fund.

Seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher J.T. Pierson explained that the event would bring the community together and help a country that is suffering.

“We’d talk about it [the earthquake] and the students wanted to help,” Pierson said. “They thought, what’s the point of talking if we don’t do something?”

Soles4Souls had its unofficial beginning following the 2004 tsunami that hit Southeast Asia. Formally incorporated in 2006, the organization currently collects between 45,000 and 60,000 pairs of shoes weekly, which are distributed to people in desperate need. According to the organization’s website, a new pair of shoes is distributed every nine seconds.

Recipients of the donated shoes include victims of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or the Haitian earthquake, people living in abject poverty such as refugee camps in Uganda, and people in need of a fresh start such as people in need of dress shoes for new jobs.

For more information about Soles4Souls, visit www.soles4souls.org.

03 March 2010

The Sacrificial Ma'am

The Washington Post
Desiree Rogers may have improved Washington's look. Washington may not have noticed.

The fashion industry did not create the public persona of White House social secretary Desirée Rogers. And it did not deal the decisive card that caused her to trade in Washington for Chicago and a return to the private sector. But fashion's mythmakers certainly did their part in shaping the outsize reputation that left Rogers open to criticism within the Beltway.

Indeed, as news of Rogers's exit reached the American fashion establishment, which was convened in Milan for the fall 2010 collections, some editors began to ask: Did we cause this?

They did not, of course. Still, in the end, Seventh Avenue did Rogers no favors, although she may have aided the fashion industry -- and women in general -- immensely.

Rogers's departure has the fashion industry practically in mourning. No one has expressed a whiff of excitement over her replacement, Julianna Smoot. Instead, there's concern that Washington might end up in cultural retreat.

"I think it would be sad if we all decided to bury Washington fashion now that Desirée's left town and to conclude that every ambitious woman inside the Beltway should just pull on her pantsuit and her sensible shoes from here on out," says Glamour Editor in Chief Cindi Leive. "I'd like to think that we're a little past that and that we realize that the average person is capable of caring about what she wears to work and still doing a good job when she gets there."

When the Obamas announced that the New Orleans native with the platinum résumé and the knack for glamorous style would be the White House's first African American social secretary, the fashion industry practically swooned. The nation's capital, dominated for 20 years by administrations that, at best, endured fashion, now had a first lady who chose her designer wardrobe like a savvy insider. She and her husband hired a host of attractive young staffers who didn't mind posing for the occasional fashion spread -- Birkin bag in hand, feet shod in trendy platform heels -- and a social secretary who knew the difference between Nina Ricci and Lanvin and regularly wore both. The industry could not believe its good fortune! At long last, it had a diverse array of intelligent and respected women in federal Washington who, by their appearance alone, served as powerful advocates for an often-maligned business.

Of all the bounty the Obama administration offered, Rogers was the most enticing. She was high-ranking, she had the dazzling task of overseeing the social life of the White House, and she was more accessible than the first lady.

Rogers used fashion both literally and metaphorically in her position. In pursuit of inspiration and ideas to expand the artistic repertoire of the White House, Rogers went to New York during Fashion Week. In February 2009, she sat alongside the Vogue team at Donna Karan's runway show, where she attracted a swarm of media. (Eric Lewis, the jazz pianist who serenaded the audience at Karan's presentation, later performed at the White House.) During her first year in the East Wing, Rogers posed for flattering photo shoots in Vogue and WSJ and in the accompanying articles discussed her job and what would distinguish her office. Clearly, style would. Fashion features and blogs mused about her looks. And she cut a striking figure in her new position with her refusal to transform into that most enduring Washington stereotype: the dowdy political appointee.
Along the way, Rogers shocked and offended Washington traditionalists, but she was also Seventh Avenue's mythic power woman made real. She combined fashion -- honest-to-goodness, straight-from-the-runway fashion, even avant-garde Japanese designs, for heaven's sake -- with a substantial résumé and an influential White House job.

But in navy-suit-and-red-tie Washington, style is appreciated but fashion is not. Designers and their schmancy clothes, glossy magazines and their highfalutin editors stir suspicion. Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue, wondered aloud if perhaps Washington was flummoxed and intimidated by a "good-looking and stylish woman" in such a high-profile position who was not shy about her enjoyment of clothes, who didn't walk around dressed for the chorus but rather center stage.

One could argue that Rogers, more than any other woman, should have been the epitome of stylish and fashionable. "Wasn't her entire job about standing for good taste at the White House?" Leive asks rhetorically. "Isn't she supposed to care about appearances? Do we want the person in charge of the nation's most important events to be marching around in a burlap sack?"

Women in other urban centers regularly use fashion savvy as a form of cultural currency. That knowledge -- of designers and trends and the best place to have a jacket tailored or a pair of heels rebuilt -- allows a woman to silently swagger, to exude confidence. Other women read those signals. They quietly parse her look and quickly note whether she is an aficionado or a victim. Whether she is proudly expressing her creativity or blindly following the dictates of some domineering designer.

In the same way that some men use sports as a metaphor for another man's character, some women use fashion as a way of understanding another woman's sense of self. After all, if it's possible to extract deep meaning from questions like "Does he hog the ball?" then surely it's reasonable to dissect the difference between a woman who carries a Kelly bag and one who chooses a monogram bag from Louis Vuitton.

Fashion serves as an insider's language that, to the uninitiated, can be as mystifying and aggravating as some of the political patois that passes for conversation in Washington. Was Rogers engaging in what one magazine editor described as "an arrogance of style" -- using her clothes for competitive one-upmanship rather than to exude personal creativity, self-confidence or self-respect?

Or could a city of wonks and political animals simply not grasp what Rogers was saying?

In federal Washington, after all, a modest Armani suit still can get one a best-dressed award. For that crowd, taking the measure of Rogers, a special assistant to the president, dressed in Prada and Jil Sander, would have been a bit like someone trying to make sense of an NFL team's strategy diagram based on their knowledge of Foosball.

Rogers pushed hard against the federal city's cultural stereotypes. And in her person, she became an emblem of a particular kind of change that was afoot. Fashion does not need to be something that fades into the background or that is worn with great trepidation. It doesn't negate the impressiveness of a résumé; it merely means that one is fluent in another cultural language.

Rogers may not reap the benefits of her own brashness. But other women of influence surely will. "She's left a great legacy for women in the future to dress with style and great personal flair," notes Harper's Bazaar Editor in Chief Glenda Bailey.

In the future, women might not be pulling frocks by conceptual designers out of their closet, but at minimum, maybe at the next State of the Union address, the audience gathered in the Capitol won't look like a scattering of red and yellow square pegs wedged into a thicket of charcoal gray.

As for Rogers, away from Washington and all its stereotypes, she can wear whatever she likes. And do so without comment.