In the ongoing legal wranglings between tech giants Apple and Samsung, a group of fashion industry luminaries recently weighed in on behalf of Apple. They include designers Calvin Klein, Lanvin’s former creative director Alber Elbaz, Alexander Wang, Louis Vuitton’s Nicolas Ghesquière and Sacai’s Chitose Abe. They’ve all taken Apple’s side in a lawsuit that dates back to 2012 in which the creator of the iPhone accused Samsung of copying some of the smartphone’s technical features as well as its design. Fashion folks might know very little about software and coding, but they understand the importance of aesthetics. And so in a friend-of-the-court brief, they extol the power and importance of design. As attorney Mark Davies, the brief’s counsel of record, noted in an interview: “It’s the design that sells the product.”
Four years ago, a jury awarded Apple just over $1 billion in damages after finding that Samsung infringed on, among other things, the iPhone’s design patents — namely those protecting the phone’s rounded-off rectangular shape, its screen and its grid display. Essentially, the jury found that the average observer could be misled into purchasing one of Samsung’s phones believing it to be an iPhone. As a matter of law, the offender has to turn over the profits made from selling the copy.
Over time, the award has been reduced to $548 million. But Samsung believes that it should be reduced even further, saying the company shouldn’t have to turn over all the profits, just a certain portion of them. Samsung says a cellphone is made up of discrete elements that comprise both form and function, each of which is dutifully considered by a consumer. Design is just part of what sells the product. Apple says design is wholly and inexorably linked to function. The debate is headed to the Supreme Court this fall in search of a resolution.
A host of companies such as Google, Facebook and eBay have lined up in support of Samsung. They argue that in the case of a product as complicated as a cellphone, Samsung shouldn’t have to relinquish all its profits because of an overlap of a few design elements. Aesthetics matter, but not that much.
The counter-argument, which the fashion community has embraced, is that design is everything. And it should be aggressively protected.
The fashion industry has grappled mightily with the problems of knockoffs and outright counterfeiting. Although the law recognizes some unique and iconic designs, the Council of Fashion Designers of America has tried unsuccessfully to lobby Capitol Hill for legislation that would extend greater copyright protections to clothing designs. Critics believe extending copyright laws could hurt competition and stifle commerce by making it more challenging for mass merchants to create cheaper iterations of designer looks. This trickle-down process has helped democratize fashion and fuels no small number of Instagram feeds. Meanwhile, designers have recounted how distinctive handbags, for instance, have been reproduced lickety-split at bargain basement prices, cutting into their profits and, possibly, diluting the prestige of their brand. The travails have Seventh Avenue testing a see-now, buy-now schedule that would have original products available for purchase before the copies can arrive in stores.
Over the years, in an attempt to protect their work, fashion folks have essentially been arguing aesthetics: That dress looks like my dress. The Apple brief goes further.
It argues that “Appearance becomes identified with the underlying functional features and with a particular level of product quality … ”
It’s a line of thinking that raises an uncomfortable question: Does a consumer presume that a $200 copy of a dress is the same quality as the $2,000 original? If so, one could say that while fashion may win the battle on copying, it most certainly will have lost something far more valuable, which is the integrity of its wares. Designers, after all, have always noted that part of the high cost of their work is due to the luxurious hand of the fabric, the clarity and stability of the colors, the skill of artisans whose knowledge has been passed down through generations and the magical voodoo in the fit. It might be enraging to have a fast fashion merchant whip up a look-a-like copy of a runway garment, but at least the runway version could be proudly billed as offering more than just a bedazzled bodice. The friend-of-the-court brief casts a shadow of doubt over that assertion.
Charles Mauro, founder of Mauro New Media, which helps companies make their technology both user-friendly and useful, rallied Apple’s champions. But many of them already had relationships with the Silicon Valley behemoth. In the past few years, Apple has been strengthening its bonds with the fashion industry by inviting designers to collaborate on assorted projects. Abe created wristbands for the Apple Watch and Wang edited personal playlists for Apple music. Apple has also been drawing top executives from the fashion world. In 2013, Paul Deneve, the president of Saint Laurent, and before that Lanvin, was hired as a vice president at Apple. In 2014, Angela Arendts left her post as CEO of Burberry to head up Apple retail. And this spring, Apple sponsored the fashion industry’s biggest celebration of design, the Costume Institute gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This year’s exhibition is Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology.
Fashion has begun to express its love for technology — beyond simply using high-performance fabrics. At Ralph Lauren, for instance, the company has embedded an athletic shirt with biometric sensors that can give an athlete real-time updates on his workout and make suggestions on how to work harder or smarter.
But fashion is not technology. In tech, elegant design may imply a certain level of function and quality. But in fashion, aesthetics tell consumers almost nothing about function and only hint at quality. Beautiful shoes do not have to be comfortable in order to sell. Consumers have purchased dresses that can be neither washed nor dry-cleaned or that weren’t made for sitting. They buy pencil skirts that are hobbling, sheared fur coats that don’t keep them very warm and mohair sweaters that make them itch. They buy for beauty. They buy for function. And every now and then, the gods smile and a gorgeous product is astonishingly practical.
Apple believes it has blended form, function and quality in a single elegant device. It sees design as essential to its identity as its proprietary algorithms. Fashion has signed onto this notion of the unbreakable relationship between form and function. But it’s still struggling to turn that philosophy into practice.