Do Designers Have a Duty Not to Copy Brands Where They Used to Work?

In case you’re not up on the Michael Kors collection, its bags are almost all copies of other more high fashion brands. Consider the brand’s many Louis Vuitton copies (think: the curiously familiar “MK” monogram which bears the same color scheme at Louis Vuitton’s Toile monogram; the copies that target classic Louis Vuitton shapes, such as the Neverfull, the Speedy, the Artsy; and even the brand’s more recent Capucines style). There are also its numerous attempts to pass for Chanel - which take the form of quilted bags with leather-linked chains. Some of Kors’s most recent offerings include its iteration on Givenchy’s “it” bag, the Antigona, and on Saint Laurent’s top selling Sac De Jour. In short, few creations of the industry's most high fashion brands are off limits to Kors. 

Maybe most perplexing are the Michael Kors's takes on Céline bags, and there have been plenty. They include the Luggage Tote and Trapeze copies, among others, as well as its most recent: a take on Céline’s signature fur-covered Cabas tote (below, left). Kors is selling its own version – the Addington Fox Fur Tote (below, right) – as a limited edition bag for $1,750. (That's not too, too far from the Céline Cabas price tags, which begin at roughly $1,700.) 

While Kors's Addington is not an exact copy (few of Kors’s replications are perfect, allowing the brand to largely escape legal repercussions), every time the brand copies Céline, it is a bit more problematic than when it copies other brands. As you may know, Kors served as the creative director of the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-owned Céline from 1997 to 2003. With this in mind, the brand’s Céline copies often feel a bit too close for comfort.

This raises the question: Just what responsibilities do designers have to houses where they have served as creative director (or head designer, etc.) in the past?  Fashion is an industry in which the use of nondisclosure agreements and non-compete agreements is a widespread practice. They apply when it comes to speaking out about the business of a design house (think: suppliers, compensation arrangements, negative reflections about a brand once an employee has left the brand), as well as the designs themselves. These types of disclosures tend to be prevented by signing a number of agreements and clauses contained therein, such as nondisclosure agreements and non-compete agreements, which tend to include a non-disparagement clause. The latter of which aims to prevent bad press surrounding the house when an employees leaves. (Think: the lawsuit between Balenciaga and Nicolas Ghesquière after the house’s former creative director said Balenciaga was trying to “steal his soul and homogenize the brand.”)

Considering that it has been over ten years since Kors left Céline, he is legally free to work wherever he wants (non-compete agreements generally only last for about a year) and is not bound to other agreements with the house. Moreover, since the Cabas tote – a creation of Céline’s former accessories designer, Johnny Coca, who has since left for Mulberry – came about after Kors tenure at Céline, there is likely not a conflict there. However, it is worth wondering what non-legal duty, if any, designers have to houses where they have been employed in the past. While Kors’s rather blatant and frequent copying of Céline designs suggests that no such duty exists, there may be some love lost between the brand and its former creative director for his pointed copycat ways.

Given the relatively frequent turn-over of creative directors at big houses – they generally tend to stay in such a position for about ten years or less – this is a very relevant inquiry. While it may not be illegal to co-opt designs from a house where you used to work after a certain period of time or under the circumstances in which Kors resides, it is certainly the most friendly thing to do either. Thoughts?