Art & Design


Fashion Week in New York City wraps up today. And you can bet that styles will be posted on the blogosphere minutes after models hit the runways. Those designs may also be copied almost as fast. Fashion designers are trying to put a stop to that.

Here's more from reporter Kaomi Goetz.

KAOMI GOETZ: Maria Cornejo is a Chilean-born, U.K.-raised fashion designer, now living in New York City. Even after 12 years in business, Fashion Week is still a stressful time.

Ms. MARIA CORNEJO (Fashion Designer): We're waiting around to do fittings. We're waiting for samples to arrive or things to get fixed, or be made.

GOETZ: Even so, Cornejo is in control, directing Shiseido makeup artists and studying tiny, 20-year-old models as they test walk in her clothes.

Ms. CORNEJO: Yeah, I mean, she doesn't need much, anyway.

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)

Ms. CORNEJO: Yeah.

Unidentified Man: But she looks so beautiful, really.

Ms. CORNEJO: Yeah.

Unidentified Man: That was your job(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOETZ: It's a tough business, but she's managed to make her mark with edgy, smart silhouettes. Even first lady Michelle Obama is a fan. Cornejo is respected and visionary, and that makes her a target.

Ms. CORNEJO: When things get copied, it's basically, it's like somebody coming into my head and robbing, stealing. And there's nothing - we have no recourse right now.

GOETZ: And she's not just talking about cheap knockoffs, where copies are made in low-wage countries and exported back to the U.S. to sell in discount stores. She says some big-name designers buy clothes off the rack at stores run by lesser-known competitors with the express purpose of copying.

It's possible because the U.S. is one of a few countries that don't have copyright protection for fashion. American courts have long viewed fashion design as utilitarian a craft, not art and haven't protected it in the same way as other creative fields like film or music. Not so in Europe, where designs are protected for 25 years.

Steven Kolb is executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, or CFDA. He says a change is needed.

Mr. STEVEN KOLB (Executive Director, CFDA): Designers invest a lot of time, a lot of resources, a lot of energy into creating their collections. It can take them nine months and billions of dollars. So when they present those collections and somebody can just steal them right off the runway within seconds and profit from their work, their energy, their intellectual property, it's not fair.

GOETZ: One of the most well-known knockoff instances is the now iconic wrap dress, designed by Diane von Furstenberg in the '70s. She is also the president of the CFDA and one of the most vocal on the issue. Enter The Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention Act, introduced by New York Senator Charles Schumer, now pending in Congress. The bill's teeth provide three years of copyright protection to new and inventive designs. Intellectual property attorney Alan Behr says that will be tough to prove.

Mr. ALAN BEHR (Attorney): Looking now only from what the European experience has been, and also at the very real prospect that when you add any new law into American litigiousness, I can only say with some reservation here that I am concerned that this may just ultimately benefit mostly the lawyers.

GOETZ: Behr says there may also be an unintended consequence, a so-called chilling effect on new designers from even entering into the business for fear of getting sued.

At Maria Cornejo's shop in Soho, the model fittings are in full swing.

Ms. CORNEJO: And then the other thing is that she's got double-sided tape on the other side of the dress.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

GOETZ: Cornejo cinches a belt on a dress with gathered pleating. It instantly becomes an architectural sculpture. But after appearing on the runway, there's little protecting that dress from being copied.

For NPR News, I'm Kaomi Goetz, in New York.

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