Fashion copies - back on the Australian current affairs agenda

As some may already be aware, I am currently working as a producer at a nightly Australian current affairs program called Today Tonight on the Seven Network (which explains my lack of posting of late). It’s a program on which I worked 10 years ago and it’s interesting being back, working on a mix of stories. In terms of fashion stories, it’s been a great opportunity to get some subjects to a much bigger audience than I do on this blog or indeed via the other outlets for which I normally write – try 1.7million per night (including web traffic). On my first day back I broached a couple of story ideas with executive producer Craig McPherson, top of the list being a subject that I have blogged about on several occasions: the fashion industry discriminating against plus-size consumers. Another fashion story aired this week – the rampant plagiarism across Australia's $1.8billion footwear sector.

The genesis for this story idea was a great July post from Australian shoe blogger Matt ‘Imelda’ Jordan. In his post, Jordan discussed a direct copy of a shoe design by London-based Dane Camilla Skovgaard, by Australian mid market shoe manufacturer Tony Bianco.

Most interesting of all: the subsequent tip from Jordan that Tony Bianco had dispatched a series of intimidating legal letters in the hope of obtaining a retraction of some of the claims in the post.

The audacity was breathtaking.

As revealed by Jordan, not only had Tony Bianco done a faithful reproduction of Skovgaard’s signature S8001 sandal – the style which originally made her name – but had even attempted to engineer a fake celebrity endorsement to promote the company's copy.

When launching its “Sexy Roberto” shoe to the Australian fashion press, Tony Bianco sent out US red carpet shots of celebrities Cindy Crawford and Halle Berry in Skovgaard’s originals. There was no mention of Camilla Skovgaard’s name on the mailout.

Tony Bianco’s lawyers seized on several points in Jordan’s post: notably his accusations that Camilla Skovgaard had “unleashed her lawyers” on the company and that Tony Bianco was guilty of “copyright infringement”.

Both were factually incorrect. But the David and Goliath factor made for a great story.

Although Skovgaard did consult lawyers at the time, the only representatives to contact Tony Bianco were from her US PR team.

Having failed to register the design in Australia, moreover, a straight copyright infringement case would have been indefensible.

Due to changes, in 2003, to Australia’s IP legislation, unless a designer has registered each and every design they hope to protect in this market, they are unable to in fact enforce copyright. This is unlike numerous other jurisdictions, for example the EU, where designers have an unregistered design right.

That’s not to say that Skovgaard doesn't have any legal rights here. Sources say that she would probably have little trouble proving “reputation” for the design (make that designs - it later emerged that TB has copied two Camilla Skovgaard shoes this season). The fake celebrity endorsement is a separate matter.

Only problem – she has been told that she's looking at a minumum $50,000 investment to get a case up, with of course no guarantee of success. That's a big ask of a young, independent designer.

All the companies mentioned in the story were of course offered right of reply. Noone took up the offer.

Their respective responses when I called requesting interviews were fascinating. One company even claimed that it had come up with the design in question five years ago.

It is entirely possible that Sportsgirl's Camilla Skovgaard knockoff was even supplied by a manufacturer that was already knocking off her shoe under its own brand, thereby vastly increasing its market. A big return for zero design investment in other words. Sportsgirl declined to identify the supplier of the shoe.

It’s interesting how companies that copy, often seem quite indignant when they're called out on it.

Some $400,000 in court ordered damages has been awarded for design/copyright infringement cases over the past 12 months in cases mounted by Australian companies that have taken advantage of the new Designs Registration Regime and opted to register designs.

The first fashion victory under the new system was Review versus The Discovery Group in March 2008.

Although not working for TT at the time, I was interviewed that month as talent for the program’s story about the Review case. I had the temerity to mention that it wasn’t the first time the company, which owns the Charlie Brown and lili trademarks, had copied others. I provided one example of a devoré velvet poncho with a peacock motif, first shown by New Zealand label Sabatini at New Zealand Fashion Week in September 2004 – and copied six months later by Charlie Brown.

On three previous occasions, I had written about Charlie Brown’s cheaper version of the poncho, which turned up in store the minute the Sabatini poncho appeared on the cover of the Winter 2005 catalogue of Australian department store David Jones and, notably, once word spread that the poncho was walking out the door at DJs.

But Brown had been called out for copying as far back as 1998 - by Marion Hume, then the editor of Vogue Australia.

After I mentioned the Sabatini incident on Today Tonight, Brown also threatened legal action. To date, nought's come of it.

Back in 1995, I wrote a 4,000 word expose on copying in the Australian fashion industry for the now defunct Australian current affairs magazine, The Independent Monthly. It was the year before the launch of Mercedes Australian Fashion Week and the emergence of a new generation of export-focussed designers. Australia was still locked in a culture of so-called "designers" sending international designer samples in to magazines to be photographed (still with the labels attached) while the "designers" were busy manufacturing their copies.

The story kicked off with the infamous anecdote from the Bicentennial Wool Collection at the Sydney Opera House in 1988, for which nine international designers were flown to Sydney, including Sonia Rykiel, Kenzo and the late Gianni Versace and Jean Muir. During rehearsals, Claude Montana had to be physically restrained from clocking Marilyn Said and Barry Taffs - the designers behind the Covers label. Covers had been selected to represent Australia in the show and Montana felt that their collection showed a little too much Montana influence.

Called Fashion Thieves, it was a cover story and it prompted three separate television profiles, including A Current Affair.

That story was the reason I wound up working for A Current Affair for a brief stint in early 1996 - before quickly heading to Today Tonight, where I stayed for three and a half years. I am often being reminded of this story. Several weeks ago Oyster’s Alyx Gorman drew my attention to the fact that it’s even cited in an article in the Journal of Australian Political Science.

Now I’m back in current affairs tv - still talking about copying. Because 21 years after the Bicentennial Wool Collection, many Australian companies are still shamelessly copying international designers.

For sure, copying exists everywhere. As the Tom Gunn girls pointed out in their TT interview, the London high street is notorious for quickly turning around catwalk trends. The "fast fashion" retailers Zara, Mango and H&M have revolutionised the business, turning around catwalk trends - although not necessarily one-for-one copies - at lightning speed.

But Australian copycats enjoy several other unique advantages. This was pointed out in a piece to camera in the original script for the TT story, which wound up being cut when we lost two and a half minutes.

There is also our proximity to the Chinese factories, exacerbated by the fact that we are a season behind the northern hemisphere. This means copies can be on shelves before the originals have even arrived.