the business of style: getting ripped off
every talented designer i've ever met has been ripped off. i'm not really planning to discuss the david vs. goliath syndrome, like the current case of carmen colle vs. chanel. it's obviously a serious issue, but for most of us, that's not going to be where the loss of an idea or a whole line, and the momentum, joy, and money-making that goes with it, happens. that said, my first brush with being ripped off was by a major couture house and it happened within the first month of being in business. it may sound strange, but i view it as a very fortuitous experience. a friend of a friend recommended that i use a broker in ny who would oversee the manufacturing of my bags in india. when i didn't place a large enough order, my extremely detailed palette composed of 20 unusual patchwork shades was sold to one of the most famous couture houses in the world and within 3 months, my patchwork bag was marched down the runway in milan. everyone who heard about it was horrified, but i was strangely elated that these designers thought my idea was good enough to put on the runway. the fashion veteran who'd made the introduction to the broker screamed at me to sue, but i took it with a grain of salt and felt lucky to learn within a few weeks of starting my business never to source my production anywhere that i couldn't physically supervise. to me it was a business of fashion 101 lesson and i didn't take it personally.
i recently met with a friend who's been trying to launch a lingerie line for the past couple of years. her designs are great and right out of the starting gate she had a big order from a large chain of stores. at the time, she was involved with a group of business students and mapped out how she got the account in detail with them. one of the girls in the group took her work, copied it into her own business plan and launched a competing line. as a result, my friend spent the past year trademarking every design, concept, and name in her line, completely depleting her financial resources in the process. when she talks about this experience, she's pained and refers to it as what "crippled" her business. in my mind, the issue is the confidence and momentum she lost. as cliche as it may sound, creative people are often very sensitive to the pain and betrayal of backstabbing, especially creative women not trained with a business school mindset of competitive gamesmanship. the good news is you don't need an mba to make your line work!
here's the thing--from the moment your designs hit the stores, they will be open game for anyone to copy. when you move to the next level and have your designs in a showroom where buyers come to place orders, the stealing begins even earlier. in my ny showroom there was one designer, we'll call her c., infamous for stealing from the other jewelry designers in the same showroom. i was friends with a lot of the designers and you couldn't walk out of the showroom to grab a coffee without hearing complaints about how c. had ripped off their latest design. the showroom turned a blind eye to the whole thing because c. made them way too much money in commissions. some of the designers spoke up for themselves and demanded that c. take their design out of her line. not surprisingly, the squeaky wheel designers who complained usually got the showroom to back them up.
in fashion, like any other industry, there's always going to be a c. who thrives on stealing from the best. my advice is to stay away from the c.s in life and do your own thing. by the way, c. did rip me off, but waited until i left the showroom. her imitation made it into one magazine but her version didn't have a long life in the stores. when you have a point of view in design that's coming from a genuine place, it translates into strong design. i truly believe that a copy that's not coming from that place doesn't have the same feel as the original. people can feel beauty and are attracted to the real deal, so don't get discouraged if you get ripped off, just keep honing your design voice. instead of stopping when you're copied, be prolific, because while someone may lift one or two designs, no one can copy a fully expressed vision of a designer that is continuously flowing. buyers with a good eye and successful track record with their stores recognize and reward strong design voices.
being ripped off sucks, it's that simple. you can't take it personally because not all people are emotionally invested in design like us creative types, and so for a non-invested person it might not be viewed as stealing as much as taking an idea and making a good product cheaper, more efficiently, etc. i think the best way to approach the concept of being ripped off is to use the sweet baby approach. as a mother, you do not hand your sweet baby off to a pack of wolves. good moms don't paddle out into the ocean with their newborn to swim with sharks--they carefully wrap their baby in a blanket and stay with them on the beach until they're old enough to learn how to swim. it's okay to protect your sweet baby, to firmly stand up for it, to speak out if anyone is trying to steal your baby. it does not mean you need to obsess about all the bad people out there trying to hurt it.
one of the best ways to care for your sweet baby is to take the legal steps to protect it. there are many books and resources available for free on the internet that talk about how to trademark and legally protect your designs. my friend cece of rock and revolution is now writing a weekly post with business attorney laurie butler, that covers issues dealing with the protection of artists against copyright infringement, trademark, intellectual property law, contractual obligations and more. i urge you to check it out! cece also recently posted a great link to an article on copyright laws that you might find helpful.
before i sign off, i wanted to announce that as promised, trust your style has teamed up again with uprinting to offer 100 4x6 postcards with full color on both sides to one lucky business of style reader! postcards are a great way to promote your business and i often carry them with me in place of business cards.
to enter, leave a comment telling me how you would use these uprinting postcards to promote your business. if you'd like to have an extra entry, sign up as a google friend and for another chance to win, sign up to follow trustyourstyle on twitter (the buttons are on the top right hand side of this page).
* the contest is open to u.s. residents only and uprinting requires that the winner pay for shipping, but it's very reasonable.
if you entered last week's business card give-away, you'll automatically be entered into this give-away, and if you haven't yet signed up to google friend or follow trustyourstyle on twitter, you'll get an extra entry (or two) if you do!