Brands at war, Redux

Bread packaging doesn’t tend to attract much attention, but I guess the bakers themselves are sensitive to the design issues involved – McCambridges have sued Brennans over what they feel is imitative packaging. I wrote a Present Tense column way back in 2007 about a somewhat related case, featuring Michael McDowell in Perry Mason mode.

“Sincerest Form of Flattery” – Present Tense, The Irish Times, October 6th, 2007

IT IS A CASE THAT could shake the fashion industry to its well-heeled core. At the High Court this week, UK retail giant Mosaic Fashions claimed that Dunnes Stores unlawfully commissioned and sold copies of clothes sold by their Coast and Karen Millen retail brands. The case is ostensibly about a few items of clothing, including a “bow-tie top” sold under Dunnes Stores’ Savida label that, to the untrained eye, does appear to “pay homage” to the Coast original, and a rather loud stripey shirt that Karen Millen claims constitutes a “new and novel” design, but the implications of the case could go much further. Rather delightfully, Mosaic have engaged the services of that noted clothes horse Michael McDowell to get all Perry Mason on the House of St Bernard. There will be a victor in this case, but our sense of style will be the real loser.

Whether the intellectual property of the Mosaic group was infringed is up to the jury to decide, but the larger pattern is one that underpins the entire fashion industry. All those glossy magazines for women boast a meticulously researched section detailing the glamorous garbs of the celebs, while revealing how the average reader can reproduce this look for a fraction of the price. That Christian Dior white cotton T-shirt Kate Moss sported last week – you can get your own “replica” in Primark for £4.99. The pervading spirit of egalitarianism is admirable.

Or take the Oscars – that vainglorious movie-marketing exercise is the biggest fashion show of all, with almost as much attention given to the dresses on the scarlet carpet as the actual awards themselves. And as surely as Santa Claus comes but once a year, so do the stories in the award ceremony’s aftermath about how the most fetching designs have been hastily immitated in multiple Asian sweatshops so regular people can feel, even for a moment,  just like Angelina Jolie or Charlize Theron.

Is it not the trickle down the fashion industry food chain that makes things fashionable? The number of people who actually buy Versace or Balenciaga is fairly small, but their influence is held to be great as a direct result of their designs being mimicked by high-street retailers. The relationship between what is worn on the catwalks and what is worn on the high streets is often a tenuous one (I doubt Naomi Campbell ever sashayed down the runway in a pair of floppy-ankled Uggs, but to cast a glance around the streets of our capital, it would appear they have replaced female feet in certain Dublin postcodes), but the big fashion houses have relevance only because they are copied. In the fashion business, imitation is not only flattery, it is validation.

Perhaps it is partly a case snobbery on the part of the British chain – pretensions to high fashion can be easily undermined when you are found to be influencing the “wrong” end of the market. One of the Dunnes Stores fashion lines is called Trend, which rather blatantly concedes that it’s breaking no new ground in the design stakes: ” Trend … features hand-picked garments from the buying team influenced by the catwalk trends and celebrity ‘must have’ fashion.” At least the clothes in question didn’t carry the St Bernard label, though surely the unheralded demise of that brand, established by Dunnes Stores founder Ben Dunne Sr in 1956, was in direct correlation with the rise of the crudeness recently diagnosed by the German ambassador, Christian Pauls. A nation that will not stand to have the same brand on both the undergarments it wears and the condiments it consumes is a nation afflicted with grievous pride, and pride, as we all know, goeth before the fall.

Of course, in the Mosaic v Dunnes case, the dispute is between two high-street retailers, rather than a haute couture fashion house and a mainstream fashion chain. Louis Vuitton might complain about counterfeiters, but nobody who buys a $50 knock-off would seriously be in the market for the real thing. But even dapper Michael McDowell will be pushed to prove Karen Millen’s claim that its shirt design was “new and novel”? New is one thing, but novel? Does the shirt button up the back? Does it emit pheromones? Can the material be used to shield space shuttles? Wacky colour scheme apart, the item appears to imitate every shirt ever made – let the lawsuits begin!

In a less glamorous, but far tastier, field of commerce, Jacobs biscuits are going mano-a-mano with McVities, also in the High Court, over their fig roll packaging, deemed to be too similar to the packaging that Jacobs have been using here for years. (This is another example of how Irish nationalism is now most vociferously manifested in one’s choice of snack, whether it’s Jacobs rather than McVities or Tayto rather than Walkers – it’s a proxy extension of the War of Independence.)

From Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla to Microsoft and every other software company on the planet, capitalism boasts a long history of industry leaders being influenced by their rivals innovations – the reproduction and proliferation of products and ideas has been an essential factor in human advancement. But above all, the Mosaic v Dunnes design-off threatens that which we hold most dear – the right to affordably dress exactly the same as everybody else. As Levi Strauss might once have said, through sartorial homogeneity comes unity, comes peace.

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