Welcome back folks! 2014 has got off to a bang with a flurry of copycat news!
In Florida, a handbag designer has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against retailer Chico’s, stating that her bosses ordered her to copy the handbags of other fashion designers. Paula Bonnafant was hired as a contractor by the retailer to design an original line of women’s handbags. However, Bonnafant claims her designs were subsequently rejected and she was told to copy designs by famous designers including Marc Jacobs. When she refused, Bonnafant states that she was subject to a hostile work environment and was then fired in November 2011.
Chico’s was founded in 1983 as a small boutique selling Mexican folk art and cotton sweaters on Sanibel Island in Florida. In the last 30 years the store has grown to include 700 Chico’s boutiques throughout the USA and now sells typical high street fashion clothing.
Are we surprised at the revelation? Not really. Let’s face it, many high street clothes are so close to the designer originals that there can be no doubt that they were copied to order. Just last week our favourite shoe designer Sophia Webster took to Instagram to complain about American high-street retailer Nasty Gal for copying one of her designs. Webster claims, and rightly so, that Nasty Gal had copied her speech bubble handbag. Webster’s clever calfskin embroidered clutches sell at £340 while the NastyGal version is retailing at just $48 dollars. Webster wrote under the picture of both bags “Nice Try @NastyGal #COPYCAT #SpeechBubbleClutch #SWHQ”.
Of course both Chicos and NastyGal are both US companies and the US has infamously low protection for fashion designers – there are often few legal avenues available to designers seeking to protect their designs. Copyright protects the “artistic” aspects of a product but not its functional elements. Traditionally, because clothing is functional as well as artistic, the law of copyright has not provided fashion designers the protection that artists, musicians and authors might enjoy. So, while a design for a jacket is not afforded protection under copyright law, the fabric print used in the jacket may be protected providing that it is original. Here in Europe we have protection in addition to copyright - Design Laws. Design is defined as “the appearance of the whole or part of a product resulting from the features of, in particular, the lines, contours, colours, shape, texture and/or materials of the product itself and/or its ornamentation”.The unregistered design right gives protection to a design for a period of three years from the date it is first made public within the EU, even if it is not registered. Items like handbags would often fall under this but because there is no equivalent law in the US, designers for high street brands are regularly ordered to copy other popular designs – and this is perfectly legal!
Stay tuned for more news on the Chico’s lawsuit!