Robin Givhan: Four of Michelle Obama's Designers Want Protection From Knockoffs

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 2009

The fashion industry has been reveling in the fact that first lady Michelle Obama has steered clear of the boxy suits worn by recent occupants of the East Wing and has instead chosen to wear clothes with undeniable personality. Love her J. Crew cardigans and Azzedine Alaia belt or hate them, either way the debate has delighted a fashion industry that is pleased to have someone other than a starlet drawing attention to its wares. Here is someone a broad swath of women can relate to: a professional, a mother, a grown-up.

The benefit of having such a high-profile woman wearing designer brands has translated into a windfall of publicity for small houses that cannot afford lavish advertising campaigns. To show its affection, the fashion industry will pay homage to Obama in June with an award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

All that free publicity, however, has had an unintended consequence for the designers. They've become a more tempting target for copycats. If the Oscars, with all of those dazzling gowns, serve as a once-a-year jackpot of "inspiration" for mass marketers looking to cash in on the prom scene, then the first lady's wardrobe promises at least four years' worth of ideas for sheaths, cardigans and swing coats. For every advertisement telling customers how to get the first lady's "look for less," a designer on Seventh Avenue is squirming.

This is the newest twist in the fashion industry's ongoing battle against design piracy. Designers have spent the past few years trying to educate the public about how buying inexpensive knockoffs is damaging to the part of the fashion industry most directly associated with innovation: the high-end market. (Designers are not referring to counterfeit goods that pretend to be something they are not. A manufacturer can't put a Narciso Rodriguez label in any random dress. That's already illegal.) Designers are going after mass merchants that copy a look in its entirety, put their own label in it and sell it for one-third the cost of the original -- sometimes before the original has even arrived in stores.

In an attempt to change copyright laws, which protect trademarks but not the frocks they appear on, designers went to Washington on Wednesday. They have been lobbying Congress to pass a law that would allow designers to copyright their work, at least long enough for them to reap the benefits of their often expensive research and development before it enters the public domain. The bill has been stuck in the usual thicket of political battles as well as being bogged down by the conflicting desires of a fashion industry that includes Rodriguez's company as well as the likes of A.B.S. by Allan Schwartz, a brand that annually touts its post-Oscar look-alike gowns.

Designers have gone to Washington before, but Wednesday's foursome -- Rodriguez, Jason Wu, Thakoon Panichgul and Maria Cornejo -- have one particular client in common: the first lady. She wore looks by all of them during the inaugural festivities, with Wu creating the official ball gown.

Rodriguez has pressed the case for stronger copyright laws before, citing the dress he created for Carolyn Bessette's marriage to John Kennedy Jr. as an example of a distinctive design that entered the public domain before he could produce it under his own name. But the others are new to lobbying.

Cornejo, in particular, wanted to disabuse the public of the idea that the average designer lives a lavish, bonbon-eating lifestyle. She's been in business for 10 years, manufactures mostly in New York and has about 12 people on staff. Hers is the definition of a small business. Her clothes are priced from $200 for a knit top to $1,500 for a coat. A dress rings in at about $700. Cornejo's clothes are expensive, but by designer standards, by which dresses are usually priced at well over $1,000, her prices are modest.

"I design clothes for women who are in that I-have-to-pay-a-mortgage niche," Cornejo says. "If I can't afford it, it really freaks me out. It doesn't go in the line." Obama most memorably wore Cornejo's purple jacket on the pre-inaugural train ride from Philadelphia to Washington.

Cornejo says she'd be more than willing to create a less expensive line through a company like Target, or to launch her own lower-priced collection. But as a small-business owner, she can't compete on prices with the big stores. "The only way we can compete is with our ideas. That's like my bank," she says. "So when someone steals my idea, it's like they've put their hand in my bank. They're taking ideas out of my head."

What people don't realize, she says, is that a design isn't finished after a sketch is transformed into a sample. "Designing is 5 percent of my time," she says. "The rest is fine-tuning, fitting the production samples over and over. There's a lot of misconception thanks to movies like 'Sex and the City' or 'The Devil Wears Prada.' People think designers spend all this time swanning around. We don't do much swanning."

Like a lot of designers, she has seen blatant copies of her work. And she's quick to point out that since fashion production is a collaborative process, the damage done by copycats is not limited to her. It trickles down to patternmakers, production assistants, samplemakers and so on. "If you buy something really cheaply," Cornejo says, "someone is getting the wrong end of the stick."

As economic pressures weigh on everyone, companies are searching for a way to turn a profit or protect what meager ones they have. It's hard for a designer not to be thrilled when a celebrity puts her wares in the spotlight simply by wearing them. And having it worn by someone whose every photograph goes into the history books is a rare honor. But it's possible to have too much of a good thing.

"In a weird way, I'm happy to get a press mention that she wears us -- but with no photograph," Cornejo says. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but a "name-check" may be all the praise Cornejo's modest business can handle.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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