Friday, August 10, 2012

The Fashion Cycle

I just returned from a trip to Hong Kong and Beijing where we studied international arbitration. It is 2AM and I am suffering from a serious case of jet lag. I am definitely going to feel this later in the day. Thank goodness it's Friday.

Anyway while I was in Hong Kong and Beijing, the issue of counterfeiting was always in the back of my mind as I toured the city and enjoyed some major retail therapy. China, of course, is infamous for its enormous counterfeiting market. Just about anything that can be copied is duplicated and sold for a "discounted price just for you." This includes clothing, jewelry, bags, electronics and shoes. I spent about 45 minutes in the silk market near our hotel and this sign greeted me at the entrance:

Which raised an eyebrow because once I turned toward the first rows of stalls, all I saw were Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, Dior and Abercrombie & Fitch knock-offs. I bit my lip, rolled my eyes and looked around the first floor. I glimpsed pictures of outfits from the runway hanging above the counterfeits. One vendor muttered to me that she would sell me a pink Chanel dress for 800 yuan, which roughly estimates to 100 US dollars.

(This reminds me of a friend of mine who commented at the Forbidden City that the Chinese must be very rich because she constantly saw women sweating through Chanel outfits and carrying LV bags. Honey, those aren't real.)

Many people may scoff at China for being the largest manufacturer of counterfeits but we must remember that America used to be the land of counterfeiters not too long ago. Paris used to be the center of haute couture and its fashion was brought over to America to be duplicated and sold to Americans. This illustrates what is called the Fashion Cycle:

A designer would create a beautiful outfit for her wealthy client. This client would show off this outfit at social events, catching the eye of other women who would want the same outfit. More women of the upper class would begin wearing either the same or a variation of the outfit. This trend would trickle down the social ladder until it reaches the poorer classes. By this time, the wealthy woman who had initiated the trend has moved onto another piece by the designer. It used to take a great amount of time for the design to reach the lower classes and the original designer would have made a great profit from the design. Back then, each outfit was made one at a time by seamstresses and took time to distribute to the masses. The original designer would not be hurt by the sales of counterfeits.

Today, with the advent of smart phones and efficient factories, a 360 degree picture of a dress coming down the runway in Milan can be taken in a few minutes, sent to a factory in Shenzhen in a few seconds, and then recreated by the time the designer takes their bow at the end of the same fashion show. The designer does not have the time to enjoy the profits of their creation because it is already being copied and shipped to America and Europe at a cheaper price. The designer receives zero credit nor royalties for the design that was painstakingly made at a higher cost.

It took some time for America to turn into a fashion hub itself. It still struggles with the issues of counterfeiting and has yet to pass a fashion design protection act because certain organizations continue to fight it. However, America has come a long way. Similarly, there are signs that China is ever so slowly changing from a nation of counterfeiters to a nation of high-end consumers. The Chinese government is aware of the problems that counterfeiting causes, which probably explains the sign above.

Counterfeiting seems to be a natural part of fashion. By this, I do not mean that counterfeiting is okay and should be allowed. Designers today are seriously hurt by the loss of profits from stolen designs. I believe that the Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention Act should be passed in America to protect designers for three years. I believe that designers who register intellectual property in China should be readily defended by its government. However, I also believe that a designer should pick their battles. Too much time and energy -- not to mention costs -- can be spent on battling counterfeiting, which will inevitably happen. A designer should focus on long-term goals, building relationship with a foreign counterpart and heavily promote the image of their brand name so consumers will seek the originals and not the knock-offs. A joint effort can be made with other designers to push for design protection, formulated in a way to benefit the Chinese economy to give the Chinese government an incentive to assist in intellectual property protection.

Thus concludes my jet-lagged 2 cents worth on counterfeits in China.

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