A Web site was offering to make her $1,300 For Emily gown, with its fitted lace and silk bodice and knee-length tulle skirt, for $188, according to Ms. Dye, who owns a design and apparel business in Portland, Ore.
But Ms. Dye, who had received a tip from another designer, also discovered that whoever was copying her gowns had also snatched photographs from her blog, adding a watermark before posting them to the Etsy Web site. Rather than draw on her year of law school at Stanford to draft a threatening letter, as she had done in the past, Ms. Dye decided this time to order a dress from the offending site, and see firsthand what brides who fell for the imitations were getting.
“When you’re half a world away and pulling stuff off the Web, you cannot police that,” Ms. Dye said. “It felt, for me, like the first time that I could be in control of the situation.”
Rampant counterfeiting and copying has long plagued the fashion industry, but increased as sales moved online. While independent designers often lack the resources necessary to effectively go after copycats, larger companies, like Burberry and Hermès, have won million-dollar trademark lawsuits against Web operations in China.
Legislation has been proposed several times by Senator Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat, that would allow designers to register and copyright designs for up to three years. Critics argue that enforcement would be difficult and that protections could end up hindering innovation, while proponents say that fashion designers deserve the same protections as songwriters for their creativity.
Last year alone, as many as 600,000 knockoff wedding gowns were purchased online from overseas, said Craig S. Hilliard, a lawyer who represents the American Bridal & Prom Industry Association in a federal lawsuit against overseas counterfeiters. That, he added, represents hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue.
Stephen Lang, the executive of Mon Cheri Bridal, a gown and formal wear manufacturer in Trenton, presides over the industry association and is leading the charge in the lawsuit, which accuses several Chinese Web sites of counterfeiting and violating trademarks by, say, setting up an electronic entity with a very similar name to an established business. Mr. Lang said he first noticed the knockoff wedding dress Web sites about three years ago.
“We want to convince the counterfeit apparel industry that we are going to do whatever it takes to stop the flow of money,” said Mr. Hilliard, a partner in the Lawrenceville, N.J., office of the law firm Stark & Stark. In January, a judge in Federal District Court in Trenton awarded the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction against several specific Web sites, and Mr. Hilliard said some $60,000 in third-party accounts had been frozen. The plaintiffs plan to expand the suit to about 100 other Web sites in the coming weeks, he added. As the legal assault unfolds, however, brides could wind up in the middle of the fray, their money frozen in an account and their dressmaker closing up shop.
It was a former Portland designer, Leanne Marshall, who notified Ms. Dye that someone was selling copies of her work on Etsy. This was after a customer told Ms. Marshall, 32, that her wedding dresses were being marketed there, too.
“Not only were they selling my dress but they were using my pictures,” said Ms. Marshall, a “Project Runway” winner in 2008 who now works in Brooklyn. “On top of that, it was a picture of me.” (Smaller designers often act as their own models; Ms. Dye has done so in the past.) “That’s like adding two insults on top of injury.”
Ms. Marshall added that she told Etsy that the sellers were blatantly using her photos and those of dozens of other designers, but the Web sites have been able to continue operating.
In an e-mail, Sara Cohen, an Etsy spokeswoman, quoted from a previous statement by the company’s counsel, Sarah Feingold, that: “Etsy is a venue, not a judge or jury. We are open to all creative makers, curators and artisans, and we don’t prescreen items or shops.” Ms. Cohen added, however, that photographs were protected and that Ms. Marshall “was welcome to contact our legal department.” She declined to provide statistics about copyright violations “due to company privacy.”
If the Internet has the effect of putting distance between the customer and the seller, it can also provide opportunities for surprisingly direct communication, as Ms. Dye, 40, found out when she ordered the cheap version of one of her gowns from the seller, Lemandyweddingdress. She quickly received a response from someone called Rose, who had recognized her name.
“We got the picture of this dress from another wedding Web site,” Rose said in an e-mail to Ms. Dye. Still, Rose then offered to take down the photo. “Sorry about that,” she added. Before agreeing to make the dress, Rose wanted to know why Ms. Dye wanted it.
When Ms. Dye wrote back that she wanted it for a client who could not afford the dress from her Portland shop, Rose thanked her. Eight days later, the garment arrived in a small DHL package. Upon examining its construction, Ms. Dye was impressed.
“It’s sewn pretty well,” she said. The dressmakers had even added interior corsetry to secure the fit. But she also noticed that instead of the relatively expensive and high quality silk, French Chantilly lace and English tulle that she uses, this dress was made of stiff, bright white synthetic fabric that, she said, reeked of chemicals.
The petals on a flower at the waistband were melted on the edges, not sewn, and the skirt pouffed, making it look like apparel for a child. This was her design, but this was not her dress.
“There’s no soul, there’s no heart in it,” she said. “It has all the weird faults of translation. You get the literal words, but not the poetry.”
Attempts to reach Rose or anyone else at Lemandyweddingdress were not successful.
Ms. Dye said that seeing the dress took away a lot of her anxiety about piracy: “Anybody who could order this dress for $188 and be happy with it, is not going to order a dress from me anyway.”
A version of this article appeared in print on March 3, 2013, on page ST22 of the New York edition with the headline: That Most Important Dress, or at Least a Look-Alike.
Source: NY Times