image: Vogue

image: Vogue

Women’s Wear Daily’s Bridget Foley took on an interesting topic in her column not too long ago. In an article entitled, The Case of the Truncated Trunk, she looks to the copying of “it” bags, or more precisely, one “it” bag, in particular. She is referring, of course, to Louis Vuitton’s classic travel trucks and the corresponding Petite Malle bags, which have been popularized under the creative direction of Nicolas Ghesquière, who joined the famed house in 2013.

As Foley wrote, for “Fall 2014 [Ghesquière] had the daring idea, brilliant in its obvious-but-never-done construct, to super-shrink the classic Vuitton trunk — make that the iconic (a word we at WWD do not drop casually) trunk, designed by the house founder in 1800-whatever. Ghesquière turned the grand packing crate, crafted to withstand bumpy carriage rides and bumpier ocean crossings, into a 7.1-by-4.7-by-1.6-inch bag, a hard box that fits little beyond the essentials — phone, credit card, keys and perhaps a lipstick.”

Since the release of the mini-trunk, which has been spotted on the arms (or maybe more commonly, in the hands) of Hollywood’s elite and the fashion industry’s most celebrated street style stars, alike, other brands have taken to copying the creation with increased frequency. Foley calls out BCBG Max Azria and Sam Edelman, in particular. We told you last year about Nasty Gal’s rendition. The usual suspects, such as Zara, Forever 21, and company, have taken on the now very popular Petite Malle, as well.

But is this really intellectual property theft or a case of inspiration, asks Foley: Is the case of a shrunken trunk about flattery or theft, evolution or devolution? Isn’t everything about adaptation and interpretation? Ghesquière was inspired by founder Louis’ steamer trunk. My grandmother had a (far less grand) packing crate with her on the boat to Ellis Island. Who can claim the trunk?

More importantly, does the aforementioned distinction really matter? Well, legally, we know it does. Flattery is not actionable in court. Intellectual property theft is, and as we’ve seen numerous times in the past, Louis Vuitton – a brand that is rightfully notoriously protective of its intellectual property – would likely waste no time sending off a cease and desist letter if any of the aforementioned brands were in violation of copyright, trademark, trade dress or patent law. 

This is especially true as an important development has occurred since Foley penned her article: Louis Vuitton was granted patent protection for its Petite Malle bag. In June, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued Louis Vuitton design patent protection for the bag, which gives Louis Vuitton the exclusive right to make and sell the bag, and to prevent others from doing so, for a period of fifteen years.

(Note: Patents issued from design applications filed on or after May 13, 2015 shall be granted for the term of fifteen years from the date of grant. Patents issued from design applications filed before May 13, 2015 shall be granted for the term of fourteen years from the date of grant).

This development in terms of the formal legal rights that Louis Vuitton holds in connection with the Petite Malle is important, as it gives the house rather clear grounds to go after any of the aforementioned brands that have taken to copying the design. (It is worth noting that the house could likely have initiated action against these brands prior to issuance of the patent based on trade dress grounds).

However, there is arguably a larger issue at play here: a general sense of disregard for originality and the intellectual property rights of others – as demonstrated by consumers and copyists, alike. In fashion, the imitation (illegal copying) versus inspiration (taking existing elements, reworking them, and creating something new – a common practice in fashion, where so much of what we see has already been done before in some form) distinction seems to matter far, far less – both to the ones doing the imitating and to consumers. As Foley notes: 

In fashion, that most creative of commercial disciplines, siphoning from another’s intellectual property is too often A-OK. This is not to rage against creative use of inspiration; appropriation has been part of fashion forever, and plays an essential role. 

Foley is on to something. In case you have not noticed, copying is not a shameful practice in the minds of most consumers; we know this from the number of people who are openly shopping at fast fashion retailers (and happily toting bright yellow Forever 21 shopping bags around town) and also from the number of mainstream fashion websites that frequently tout articles devoted to “the look for less.”

And of course, do not forget the immense success of the multi-national companies whose business models are entirely dependent upon such flagrant copying (think: the Forever 21s, H&Ms, Zaras and Nasty Gals of the world), who get away with such practices because in the U.S. a large sum of their copies are legal

Part of the problem of the glorification of copying (a practice that dates back to before the Industrial Revolution when New York-based brands, in particular, copied original Parisian couture collections, making them accessible to the mass market, albeit on a much slower, less volume model) stems from the fact that there is consumer demand on a very real level for such copies. Yes, accompanying such copying is the growing expectation that we as consumers are entitled to and/or deserve trendy, runway-like designs for dirt-cheap, often at the expense of others, whether it be others’ intellectual property or others’ health/safety, the latter, of course, refers to the individuals manufacturing such low cost/low priced items. 

This mentality is likely prevalent for at least two reasons. One: High fashion is prohibitively expensive (and there tend to be fewer moderately priced alternatives that are convenient and appealing). The vast majority of people simply cannot afford it, and so, there is a reactionary response that calls upon the “democratization of fashion” or “fashion for all” (read: runway copies at all price points, including extremely low prices). 

Second: Given the widespread existence of firmly established fast fashion retailers and mass market copyists, alike, we have become very accustomed to the availability of such copies at prices that we would otherwise find to be completely unconscionable. A pair of pants or a dress for $20, a top for $12, or a copy of the Louis Vuitton Petite Malle for only a fraction of its real price ($70 for Nasty Gal’s copy) is completely commonplace as a result of their mainstream availability. Add to that the extensive marketing efforts by these truly international mass market retailers, complete with multi-million dollar ad campaigns, top models and a high fashion aesthetic.

One final point that Foley makes that is particularly interesting is as follows: Such copying – specifically in connection with the Petite Malle – goes to show that nothing in fashion is scared to the Chinese copycats that recreate “it” bags in no time flat and at dirt-cheap prices or to the budget-conscious consumers who are buying them. This is where Foley seems troubled …

All up and down the fashion food chain, brands will hop on a hot-item bandwagon, for example, that of Céline’s gusseted Tribute bag. As with adolescent wrongdoing, there’s at least some dissipation of culpability in the go-to rationalization that everybody’s doing it.

But a shrunken steamer trunk? The original is a great bag, an inventive concept. Ghesquière created a new minaudière not by working in an au courant material like wood or mother-of-pearl, but by subverting one of Vuitton’s most essential house codes into an object useful in an entirely different, contemporary context. It’s the ultimate in daytime chic for schlepping minimalists, and brings power to the evening bag construct (fie on fussy; the historical Vuitton is about chic durability).

In short: While Foley and many in the fashion industry are well versed enough on the history of the Louis Vuitton brand DNA to really appreciate the innovation otherwise known as the Petite Malle and we know the legality (or lack thereof) of the many copies, most people do not. And frankly, even if they did, they probably wouldn’t care. They just see a Louis Vuitton lookalike at a very cheap price from a perfectly legitimate retailer. They do not see art, they see a deal or better yet, a steal.