Johanna Blakley

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Made in Rio

Picture:

Beach looks from Blue Man, an Ipanema-based label.

Beach looks from Blue Man, an Ipanema-based label.

Made in Rio: what does this phrase conjure for you? Caipirinhas in a steamy club? Live samba music in a gritty city square? Barely-there bikinis? Or gangster violence in hillside favelas (with million dollar views)? There’s a reason VICE calls it the sexiest city in the world, and from my own visit to Rio, I can testify to the exciting and troubling contradictions that define this unique city, which continues to increase its global influence despite its struggles with chronic poverty, corruption and violence.

This is the second in a two-part interview with Ronaldo Lemos and Pedro Augusto, who issued a fascinating report on the growing Rio fashion industry. Territórios da Moda (Fashion Territories) is currently only available in Portuguese and so I asked Ronaldo and Pedro if they would care to do an interview in English. You can check out Part 1 of our interview here, where we explore the burgeoning fashion scene in Rio and the many contradictions that animate a city that has captured the global imagination.

Johanna: In Territórios da Moda (Fashion Territories), you explore some of the contradictory perceptions that people have about Rio: on the one hand it’s a lush, expensive place – a sensual playground for cosmopolitan travelers; on the other hand, it’s a city filled with abject poverty and lawlessness.  Do you think that the “brand” Made in Rio will ultimately reflect both of these perceptions?

Ronaldo & Pedro: Absolutely. Rio is a city where contradictions occupy the same physical space. The posh neighborhoods and the favelas are all together. The poor and the rich inhabit the same regions in Rio, unlike other cities. And that is reflected in Rio de Janeiro fashion. The permanent tension between chic and casual is an example of that. And that is precisely what makes Rio a fascinating city. In the past few years, there have been many changes in public policy, attempts to bridge the divides between the city and the favelas. And that has been important too. There is a great deal of optimism, and the fashion in Rio emerges from the mix of rich and poor.

Johanna: Have any designers tried to make “dangerwear” — clothing that reflects a dangerous gangster lifestyle in Rio, like we’ve seen in Los Angeles and other urban areas in the United States?

Read the rest of this entry »

When Traditions Become Trends

Yesterday, I joined “Project Runway” finalist Korto Momolu on an episode of “The Stream,” an innovative multimedia show on al Jazeera English. The topic? Cultural appropriation. Turns out that Momolu has gotten a lot of heat for incorporating African designs and textiles into her work . . . despite the fact that she’s from Liberia. I was part of the mix in order to clarify some of the ownership rules around cultural remix practices in fashion.

Cultural Appropriation in Fashion

turban

When I talk about copyright and fashion outside of the United States, I often get questions about the dangers of cultural appropriation. Shouldn’t it be illegal for Western fashion designers to steal traditional designs from Native American tribes or to appropriate design features from traditional Ethiopian garb?

My research on fashion and intellectual property has focused on the benefits – both to consumers and to the fashion business – of the lack of ownership of designs. Fashion is actually one of several industries that treat their creative output as a commons – shared resources that can be freely reused, recreated and recombined.

This is often music to the ears of free culture activists, libertarians and lots of people in the digital media industries, who have seen first-hand how difficult (and often counter-productive) it is to enforce copyright protections on creative work that can be copied perfectly with one click.

But for people who are concerned about cultural imperialism, this “free culture” sounds like just another opportunity to take advantage of the little guy. Read the rest of this entry »

Louis Vuitton: Trademark Bully

I am delighted to have been invited to participate in a symposium about fashion and intellectual property law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School March 20. They’ve put together an excellent line-up, and I’m looking forward to discussing the many problems that I see with pending legislation that may grant copyright protection to fashion designs. (You can see some of my thoughts about this here, here, and here.)

If anyone affiliated with the symposium was wondering how the major fashion labels might enforce the new and unprecedented protections that the Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention Act (ID3PA) would grant them, Louis Vuitton gave them their answer on Wednesday. In a condescending cease and desist letter, Michael Pantalony chastised Penn for misappropriating and modifying their trademarks in a promotional poster for the student-run event. Calling it an “egregious action” and a “serious willful infringement” that “knowingly dilutes the LV Trademarks,” Pantalony went on to say that the use would

mislead others into thinking that this type of unlawful activity is somehow ‘legal’ or constitutes ‘fair use’ because the Penn Intellectual property Group is sponsoring a seminar on fashion law and ‘must be experts.’

It doesn’t surprise me at all that an Associate Dean for Communications at the Law School quickly responded to the letter saying they would immediately stop using the posters and invitations: bullying cease and desist letters like this often work that way. When the General Counsel of the University of Pennsylvania, Robert Firestone, saw the letter, he had a very different response, citing several reasons why Pantalony’s claims were absurd.

Trademark protection is meant to protect consumers and companies like Louis Vuitton from imitators who hope to convince potential customers that their products were actually made by the famous brand. Quality control and brand reputation is crucial in the fashion industry and trademark protections are a perfectly logical way to protect customers from fraud and to give companies the tools they need to protect their valuable reputations. Firestone rightly argues that putting a parody of the Louis Vuitton logo on a poster for a student run event about issues surrounding intellectual property protection in the fashion industry would not constitute trademark infringement: obviously, the students are not selling a product of any kind that could be confused with a Louis Vuitton product. Harm done? None. And Pantalony’s additional claim, that people would be mislead into believing that Vuitton is a sponsor of the conference, was also dismissed by Firestone since all the conference sponsors logos are prominently listed on the poster (you can see the full poster here).

Thankfully, in this instance, the students had knowledgeable legal counsel to protect them. But, as you can imagine, that is not always the case. Just imagine the type of bullying that can take place if ID3PA passes: companies with deep pockets will have the ability to scare off lesser-known designers from creating any designs that seem substantially similar to theirs. Introducing design monopolies into the fashion business is a huge mistake that I hope our federal House Representatives will be canny enough to avoid.

Fashion in Rio de Janeiro

Exuberant colors and beach-ready style from Triya during Rio Fashion Week.

Just in case you haven’t noticed, Brazil is really hot right now. With its incandescent economy and its reputation for sensuality and Mardi Gras decadence, Rio de Janeiro, in particular, has attracted an unprecedented amount of global attention. As the sprawling city prepares for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, all eyes have turned to Rio to better understand how it ticks and how it might brace itself for the world stage.

When I was interviewed recently by Ronaldo Lemos for Brazilian MTV, he mentioned a new report that his research institute had issued about the growing Rio fashion industry. Territórios da Moda (Fashion Territories) is currently only available in Portuguese so, after trying my best to read it with Google translate, I asked Ronaldo and the project’s leader Pedro Augusto Pereira Francisco if they would answer some questions about their findings. They generously agreed and so this is Part One of a two-part interview about the inner workings of Rio’s booming fashion scene.

Johanna: I think most people are familiar with the bright colors and body-conscious style that’s typical of fashion in Rio, but you mention in your report a certain “hi-lo blasé” that defines the carioca lifestyle. Could you tell me a little more about that?

Ronaldo & Pedro: Sure, in our research we have identified three important segments in the Rio fashion industry. We have called them “fashion”, “off-fashion”, and the “atelier” circuits. The fashion circuit is the higher-end designers, the off-fashion is the incredible industry that developed in the outskirts of Rio, far from the posh neighborhoods. They are an important economic force, and have become also a creative force. And the ateliers are small-business, producing very exclusive pieces, and doing sometimes conceptual work, in a small scale. There is a lot of diversity in these segments, but they are all influenced to some extent by the image of Rio de Janeiro, that is, a casual-chic mixture, where flip-flops can be mixed with a very well-designed dress, and the combination ends up being a very sophisticated look.

Johanna: You indicate in the report that higher-end designers are less concerned with being copied than with being accused of copying, or getting caught on the back-end of a passing trend. In fact, I think one designer you interviewed said that they need to “escape trends” in order to remain relevant in the marketplace. Could you talk a little more about that?

Ronaldo & Pedro: Absolutely. The “fashion” segment is a fairly recent phenomenon in Brazil. The Rio de Janeiro fashion week (as well as Sao Paulo’s) only really took off in the last 12 years. So it is natural that designers find it important to establish their own identities and make a point that they are not simply copying the trends they saw in the previous shows in New York, London, Paris or Milan. In this sense, it is important to mention that seasons in Brazil are the opposite of what they are in the US and Europe. With that comes the temptation to simply copy the trends presented in the last seasons in the US and Europe. But the movement now is to establish a local identity, to strengthen the local brands and their ideas. There has been quite a lot of consolidation in the market in Brazil, and many local brands have been acquired by investment groups.

Johanna: It sounds like fashion designers in Rio have the option of registering their designs for industrial patents. However, they say it’s impractical to do so because of the cost and the speedy turn-over of product each season. Are designers upset that they don’t have more options to assert ownership control over their work?

Ronaldo & Pedro: Very few designers were upset that they were being copied and wished there existed more effective ways to protect their designs. That opinion is not the majority’s. Many designers realize that protection for the designs is impractical. Therefore, they believe it is very important to protect their trademarks, rather than worry if they are being copied or not. Especially in the atelier circuit, the copy is actually seen as a compliment, and many designers say they feel flattered that their pieces are being copied. Read the rest of this entry »

Mash-Ups in Fashion, Music & Literature

Mashup Compilation from Eduard Minobis on Vimeo.

When I think about mash-ups, I can’t help but think about Julia Kristeva and her notion of intertextuality.

The term has been used in many, many different ways since she first coined it, but, quite generally, she was using it to talk about literature and the way that it exists within not only a network of language but a network of texts. Every text, even something you wrote on a sticky note, is in dialogue with the entire linguistic system – you’ve just selected a few words from that system. Those words, of course, are weighted with meaning: they have a long history of being used by lots of other people, for lots of different purposes – both constructive and nefarious.

Now a literary text – something that’s trying to assert or achieve the status of a cultural object that deserves a reader’s consideration (something more refined than your sticky note) – is part of a network of language and also a network of previous texts. Kristeva was very interested in how it is that the meaning of a piece of literature is produced in the mind of a reader, who cannot help but situate their understanding of that text in a larger context, one that includes what they’ve read before and what the writer is both self-consciously and unconsciously referencing.

If you think about it, the process of writing anything could be described as the process of sampling. Read the rest of this entry »

Haute Couture & Haute Cuisine

I’m certainly not the first to point out the similarities between haute couture – rarefied apparel that no normal person would have an occasion to wear – and haute cuisine – exquisitely prepared food that costs a fortune and simply disappears by evening’s end. This last July, the French Ministry of Culture sponsored a posh event at the Palais Royale that celebrated two of France’s most respected exports: in justifying the dual focus, organizers argued that

Though the raw materials may be different, artisans in both trades must master techniques, a “savoir-faire
and possess a vision to reach the height of their craft . . .

But most foodies and fashionistas don’t realize that there’s an even more elemental connection between cuisine and fashion: neither have a great deal of copyright protection.

In my research on the role that copyright plays in the fashion industry, I came across a few articles mentioning the similarity between recipes – which cannot be copyrighted – and fashion designs, which don’t qualify either. I thought it was fascinating that such creative industries managed to innovate and stay fresh even though fashion designers and chefs have no control over the appropriation of their work by others. The same cannot be said of painters, sculptors, photographers, graphic designers, musicians or writers.

So, as a foodie and a fashion lover, I was delighted to be invited to a unique conference in Barcelona, co-sponsored by Telefónica, Spain’s most prominent telecommunications company, and the El Bulli Foundation, Ferran Adrià’s effort to perform cutting edge research about food and innovation. Gastronomy & Technology Days (check out the Twitter hashtag #gastrotechdays) brought together an incredibly diverse international group of writers, researchers, software engineers and hard-core food bloggers to discuss the intersection of food and technology.

The talks were occasionally mind-bending (e.g., “Hacking the Food Genome”) and participant Rachael McCormack tweeted that the conference was “like TED but with better coffee.” Video will be available soon I’m told, but until then, I thought I’d lay out some of the key points from my keynote speech about the similarities between fashion and food. Read the rest of this entry »

One More Reason Fashion Doesn’t Need Copyright

Rodarte

At the recent House Judiciary hearing about granting copyright protection to fashion designs, we heard proponents of the bill claiming that innovation is being quashed because cheap knock-offs are legal. [For background, take a look at my recent blog or my TED talk on the topic.]

Happily, a front-page New York Times article yesterday provided more evidence that the “culture of copying” which drives the fashion industry and its lucrative trend cycles is not having a negative impact on high-end designers. The entire luxury sector is experiencing a boom, with Tiffany, LVMH, and PPR (owner of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, among others) revenues up 13%-23% while lower-end retailers, who are often accused of purveying knock-offs, are still suffering in this painful recession. Read the rest of this entry »

Copyright Protection Still a Possibility for the Fashion Industry

Kate Middleton's dress, on the right, is strikingly similar to the one worn by another royal, Isabella Orsini, two years earlier.

I suspect you didn’t happen to see the House Judiciary Committee Hearing on Friday about granting copyright protection to the fashion industry (check out my TED talk about why this is a terrible idea.) There was very little publicity about it, and even though the terribly cute and much-beloved Lazaro Hernandez testified, I didn’t see any significant coverage emerge in the trades (or more importantly) on Twitter.

But you may have seen this little piece in the New York Times about it, which got me roaring with laughter. In it, reporter Eric Wilson mentions that Steven Kolb, the executive director of the Council for Fashion Designers of America, the key sponsor of this bill, said that Kate Middleton’s wedding dress would be a good example of the type of “original” design that would be protected if this bill were to pass. In this version of the bill, designers could sue other designers who make “substantially identical” designs to their own.

Ironically enough, Sarah Burton, the designer of Kate Middleton’s dress, could very well have been sued when several outlets revealed her dress’ striking similarity to the one worn for another royal wedding two years before. Read the rest of this entry »

Women, Fashion & Social Media

There were several reasons I was happy to be invited to speak at the Fashion140 event last week: first, it was in the brand spanking new Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center (wow!), and second, it gave me an opportunity to talk about two things that I think quite a lot about these days: fashion and social media.

I’ve given a TED talk on each of these topics – one was about the lack of copyright protection in the fashion industry and the reasons that that might be very good for business and for the artistic craft. (The response I received to this argument from working designers at Fashion140 was exclusively positive.) My more recent TED talk, which I gave in December, was about social media and the transformative impact that I believe it will have on traditional media industries and global popular culture, including the representations we see in magazines, TV, film, games, toys … you name it.

At the Norman Lear Center, which is based at the University of Southern California, I’ve been doing a great deal of research on social media and its impact on the television industry, in particular. As I was combing through data, I kept stumbling across articles about women’s dominance of various social media platforms, including Flickr and Facebook, and Twitter, where 57 % of users are women according to the most recent data from Ignite. I wondered if I could find some global stats and lo and behold comScore put together a very nice report in June of last year called Women on the Web: How Women are Shaping the Internet. In it, they demonstrated that women outnumber men on social media in every region around the world, and they spend a LOT more time on these sites than men do: women spend 5.5 hours per month on social media sites compared to 3.9 hours for men.

It didn’t surprise me that women were flocking to social media sites – there’s quite a lot of academic research that explores why it is that women tend to be more social than men. But I must say I was shocked that this trend wasn’t just appearing in rich, first world nations, but in every region around the world, where, I had thought, women’s access to the Internet, and the hardware and software that they need to participate in social media, might be pretty limited.

  Read the rest of this entry »

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