Let the Red Carpet Knockoff War Begin
The Oscars are over, but the legal battle to protect those stunning dresses is just starting

At the 89th Academy Awards in Hollywood Sunday night, Taraji Henson of Hidden Figures strode down the red carpet in a blue velvet gown from Alberta Ferretti that was dubbed “stunning” and “absolutely perfect.” Emma Stone accepted the Best Actress award for La La Land wearing a glimmering bronze Givenchy dress. And Viola Davis of Fences delivered a moving speech clad in a scarlet Armani.

The red carpet at the Oscars has its own dedicated television and web shows filled with fawning (and acidic) commentators. The moment an outfit appears from the backseat of a limousine, it’s scrutinised from all sides. Fashion critics dissect trends, glossies, and cable squabble over who wore what best, and the labels try to figure out what’s catching on. It’s one huge advertisement, with celebrities paid to be runway models for a night before millions of captive eyes— if a dress or gown is a hit, dressmakers need to move fast.

As do the lawyers. The big fashion houses, some of which translate trends into affordable looks for retailers, must contend with unauthorised duplicates and adaptations that pop up in stores and websites almost instantaneously. “Clothing design in the U.S. is pretty vulnerable,” said Michelle Mancino Marsh, an intellectual property attorney specialising in fashion law, adding, “It’s an art that doesn’t get respect.”

Try protecting a silhouette

The easiest thing to protect is a trademarked logo, such as Louis Vuitton’s “LV” or Versace’s Medusa head. Though it’s common for logos to appear on accessories, rarely do they appear on swanky gowns. Everything else is much harder to defend as uniquely your own, and filing for a design patent or copyright protection often doesn’t happen until well after a look’s first public appearance. By then it’s generally too late.

Silhouettes, perhaps by definition, are hard to protect, which makes it almost impossible to claim that a strapless A-line dress is uniquely your own. But if it has some kind of distinctive flourish–a standout sash or belt buckle, say–that can be protected under intellectual property law. Patterns, such as a unique lace arrangement or floral configuration, qualify as well. (Such as John Galliano’s tulle face design for Maison Margiela, for instance.)

Though many designers consider knockoffs a cost of doing business, bigger labels with deep resources are much more aggressive in protecting their turf. Every year, when the Oscars are over, armies of attorneys start a small war.

First come the cease-and-desist letters from the law firms, laying down the threat of litigation to deter less committed copycats who may not wish to fund a costly defence. The attorneys also alert retailers and web commerce platforms, calling for items to be taken down from such sites as Amazon.com or Alibaba. But in many ways, it’s simply a show of force to guarantee that domestic offenders and retailers toe the line. Increasingly, the knockoffs are made and sold overseas and thus harder to reach legally.

“The big dress manufacturers here in the U.S., they know the law,” said Marsh. “They’re usually careful enough to change the dress just enough not to be considered a knockoff.”

A dressmaking label called ABS by Allen Schwartz once made a business of adapting Oscar looks for kids on prom night, but the company has since taken a new direction. “I didn’t like the publicity,” Schwartz told The New York Times in 2013. “It kind of takes away from the creativity.” Now the segment is ruled by online stores with such generic names as World Celebrity Dress and the Celebrities Dresses, touting red carpet looks on the cheap and assuring shoppers they can “dress like a star.”

Red carpet as commercial institution

Georgio Armani institutionalised the red carpet in the early 1990s, morphing the event into the spectacle we saw yesterday. Fashion houses realised how much buzz they could obtain by dressing celebrities and dashed out to get their suits and gowns draped over the most influential stars.

“It’s bragging rights,” said fashion writer Teri Agins, author of Hijacking the Runway, How Celebrities Are Stealing the Spotlight from Fashion Designers. “What designers want to do is be associated with celebrities because they’re the fashion role models for the consumer.” Yet these days the red carpet is more public relations than sales driver, a long-term investment in keeping a label relevant and credible. It’s fair to say, however, that no fashion label wants shabbier versions of its clothes out on the market.

For smaller designers the red carpet is a big payday. “The exposure is great, no matter what... And it often translates to sales, ” said Naeem Khan