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Counterfeiting: a controversial issue in the Fashion Industry

Since the Fashion Industry was born, imitation and counterfeiting have always been issues to discuss about. During all her career as couturier, Coco Chanel considered imitation as a consistent measurement method of a brand’s success: the more you were imitated, the more you succeeded.

During the decades many things have changed. Slight imitation (which was more like inspiration) has become more impudent, building up an out-and-out counterfeiting industry, well structured and focused on specific product categorie

This worldwide billionaire business, highly involved in criminal associations, is mainly fed by Asia, where 85% of goods seized in Europe is produced, generating a 1.1 billion euro between 2009 and 2010 only in Europe. The copying skill of luxury products had become so refined that even custom officers are often unable to distinguish a real product from a fake.

One of the strictest countries against counterfeiting is France, where half the 8.9 million counterfeit articles seized in 2011, were luxury goods. In order to protect French fashion industry, one of its most profitable businesses, the French government established an anti-counterfeiting legislation since 1994, stating steep fines, not only on fake producers and sellers, but on buyers, too.

Another country who recently is fighting hard against fake industry is Thailand, which is considered one of the best “fakes-paradises” in the world. According to Tarit Pengdit, general director of the Thailand Department of Special Investigation, this business affected the entire economy of the country. That’s why the government is trying to control and block the inland counterfeiting industry.

Besides the national effort applied by several countries to save their economies, counterfeiting alarming expansion through web in the last years has caused a lot of havoc in fashion industry, forcing many fashion companies to took severe legal actions against it, themselves.

Actually, thanks to the web fast development a lot of new online fake goods sellers were born, undermining the retail performances of several fashion companies.

Burberry, Louis Vuitton and Hermès, to name a few, accused all guns blazing hundreds of illegal online shops, reporting crushing wins in their own trials. The amount of the rewards in these cases is very high (around $100 million), because the accused usually never appear in front of the court to defend themselves from the charge.

As for the imitation issue, a distinction has to be made. Imitation is not synonymous of counterfeiting, since it consists in “taking inspiration” from a specific brand to create a new product under another label. Even if it hasn’t the same meaning of counterfeiting, it is always in the middle of legal conflicts, as well. It is usually applied by fashion brands on other fashion brands, in fact in the years it caused many legal issues within the Fashion Industry itself.

Newspapers and news websites are full of articles about brands dragged through the court by others because of trademark breach issues and the conclusions of the trials are not always as obvious as they seem at the beginning.

One of the latest is the case of Gucci against Guess, charged by the iconic Italian brand with trademark breach about several stylistic features of its products. Guess’ defense attorney, Daniel Petrocelli, stated that Guess didn’t breach any of “Gucci’s weak trademarks”, mainly because they are so common that also other brands used them.

After three years of legal litigation, on May, 21st 2012 the federal court of Manhattan stated that Gucci won the ruling, forbidding Guess to use three Gucci marks ever again. Despite this, the $120 million reward requested by Gucci was heavily reduced to $4.6 million. In terms of free publicity, this trial was more a bargain for Guess than an overwhelming victory for Gucci.

Another legal issue between two global fashion brands about trademark infringement happened when Christian Louboutin requested for an injunction to stop sales of red-soled shoes made by Yves Saint Laurent. The trial ended on Kering Group's French brand behalf, since Mr. Louboutin wasn’t able to prove that his red soles deserve trademark protection, even if the brand was awarded a trademark for the red sole in 2008, by the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Besides penal measures, the diamond point of the high-end fashion brands has taken alternative precautions against counterfeiting since 1995, when Comité Colbert launched a poster campaign in France through its 75 luxury brands (Dior, Cartier, Remy Martin, etc.) for the first time.

2012 Comité Colbert's anti-counterfeiting campaign will involve not only France, but also Italy, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Croatia, as well and it will be mounted in the airports of these countries, in order to argue travelers out of buying fake goods.

Next to those hostile to counterfeiting, there are some discordant voices which attest that “fake goods are not totally bad. At least it created jobs at some counterfeit factories”. This controversial quote was uttered by Prada CEO Patrizio Bertelli during a Bloomberg Television interview on May 25, 2012, adding “We don’t want to be a brand that nobody wants to copy”, at the end.

A few days later a spokesman of Prada SPA Group explained that “The quote is part of an extended conversation that underscored how the market of counterfeits is an objective reality for successful brands and how this phenomenon has its own realty, also in terms of manufacturing, that is very structured.”

Probably Bertelli’s statement was inspired by Coco Chanel’s idea of imitation. It might also be true, nowadays, but don’t forget the topic of his discussion: counterfeiting, not imitation.

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