PARIS– The commercial court here found Ralph Lauren guilty Wednesday of copying a tuxedo dress by Yves Saint Laurent and fined the American designer a total of $393,000 (2.2 million francs).
However, Judge Madelaine Cotelle also fined Pierre Berge, the president of Yves Saint Laurent Couture, $89,295 (500,000 francs) for “denigration” of Lauren’s character, based on comments Berge made in the April 11 issue of WWD.
A spokeswoman for Lauren in Paris said the house has not decided whether to appeal the decision.
“We’ll need a day or two to study the judge’s reasoning before we make any move,” she said.
[In New York, a Lauren spokesman said, “This case is unique to the French system and has nothing to do with the actual copying of a dress. To the French court, it was irrelevant that Mr. Lauren had never seen Mr. Saint Laurent’s dress, and now the mere sale in France of a halter-lapel dress, however different in design from YSL’s, is prohibited.”]
Berge said he will not contest the ruling against him and shrugged off his personal fine.
“I don’t care a hoot about the decision against me. It’s well worth paying 500,000 francs to say what I think about Ralph Lauren in Women’s Wear. And anyway, we were awarded four times as much!” said Berge.
In the April article, Berge accused Lauren of “ripping off” the YSL dress, “line for line, cut for cut.”
However, he expects Lauren to contest the French court’s judgment that he copied YSL.
“I would have thought that [an appeal] was inevitable,” Berge said.
Observers said it would come as a major surprise if Lauren did not file an appeal. Appeals are extremely common under French law, and Lauren has roughly two months to file one.
“This a great and important victory. It’s the first time that a designer of world renown like Ralph Lauren has been condemned for copying the designs of a fellow designer,” said Berge, who predicted that the ruling would encourage more designers to sue for copying.
Ralph Lauren declined to comment on the verdict. But since the case began, Lauren has maintained that, in his design, he was always simply trying to be himself. He has also argued that the suit was not about a tuxedo dress, but rather about a strapless dress with peak lapels.
Lauren has also indicated privately that he offered many times to apologize to the house of YSL for any perceived problems or confusion, and even offered to withdraw the dress from his line, but received no response from Berge.
In her reasoning, Judge Cotelle said the tuxedo dress was “an original creation by the company YSL Couture, of which it is the owner. Thus the tuxedo dress of Ralph Lauren constitutes a counterfeit, for which the defendants are guilty and at fault.”
Cotelle explained that she fined Lauren’s European company Polo Ralph Lauren $178,000 (1 million francs) for damages, another 1 million francs for selling 123 versions of the tuxedo dress and $35,715 (200,000 francs) for loss of income from potential sales to YSL.
She also ruled that Lauren must place notices in 10 publications of YSL’s choice to announce the court ruling, at a total cost of $53,570 (300,000 francs). But she also instructed Berge to place two notices, one of which must be in WWD, at the cost of $8,900 (50,000 francs), to disseminate her decision that he defamed Lauren.
“Given that Mr. Berge made known a forthcoming trial by accusing Polo Ralph Lauren of stealing a model, as if he was anticipating an obvious decision, it’s clear that the denigration…has been established,” Cotelle said.
Like the majority of judges in French commercial courts, Cotelle is not a lawyer. In fact, she is a retailer. For 37 years, she has owned a boutique in the suburbs of Paris that specializes in mass market brands. It sells neither YSL nor Lauren.
During arguments last month, Cotelle sought to demonstrate her fashion knowledge, and her comments were interpreted by some observers as reflecting a bias toward her countryman YSL.
“I know something about fashion,” she said at the time. “Clearly, there are differences in the two dresses. Saint Laurent’s dress is made of different fabric and has pockets, unlike Lauren’s. And his buttons are gold, while Mr. Lauren’s are not. The Saint Laurent dress also has wider lapels, and I must say is more beautiful — though, of course, that will not influence my decision.”
In Wednesday’s ruling against Berge, Cotelle pointed out that the YSL chief’s “denigrating” remarks about Lauren came out during New York fashion week, when “everybody in fashion and the press is present and attentive to the celebrated fashion publication WWD…The work of the journalist was objective and complete. The press is not in question in this litigation, only the phrases of Monsieur Berge.”
As for Cotelle’s ruling against Lauren, Berge said: “In my view, this decision will be like a great shot in the arm for our fellow designers. It’s a clear warning that so-called ‘designers,’ especially ones from America, cannot get away with lifting the original ideas of true creators of fashion.”
Karl Lagerfeld agreed that the ruling would likely lead to greater litigation in fashion.
“I’m sure this will produce more court cases. It’s the cheapest way to get money. How many dresses do you think you have to sell before you make $400,000? The drama, of course, is that you must win,” he said.
“However, personally I’m against suing,” Lagerfeld continued. “If you are copied, it means that you have done the right thing. This sort of thing can be very damaging for small firms, though for a house like Chanel, it means a lot less.”
Christian Lacroix’s partner, Jean-Jacques Picart, said, “It’s very good news and I’m delighted. This is an important precedent that will help couturiers and designers.
“In the old days, there was copying; now people are hijacking the very identity of designers. It’s turned into a real handicap for us. Copies are like mosquitoes. One bite doesn’t matter — just an irritation — but one hundred bites give you a fever that can kill.”
Three years ago, Lacroix sued Escada for allegedly copying a belt buckle. Picart said that case had been settled out of court, “like adults.” He warned that Lacroix was planning other suits in the near future, but would not elaborate.
“Once again, Mr. Berge has been faithful to his lifelong belief in the sacredness of the designer. I say, ‘Bravo,”‘ Picart concluded.
At Jean Paul Gaultier, company president Donald Potard said, “This may well prove to be a very influential decision. There are already quite a few court cases, but none against as well-known a name as Ralph Lauren.”
Potard said he sued a Paris company last week for placing an image from Gaultier’s latest advertising effort on a collection of T-shirts.
“It’s inevitable that fashion descends to the masses; that’s been going on for ages,” he said. “Sweatshops have been copying couturiers for years, and — though nobody wants to say this publicly — department stores have been doing the same thing for some time.”
In Italy, Giancarlo Giammetti, chief executive officer of Valentino, said, “This is an important precedent, and we could all become a lot richer or a lot poorer, depending on which side we’re on.”
However, Giammetti cautioned that he hopes such litigation doesn’t become the latest fashion trend and said he thought there was a difference between a designer picking up an idea from another designer and a large-scale department store knocking off a designer’s idea before the collection even goes into production.
“Fashion is all about being copied, and we always welcome if we are copied because that means we are still alive and successful. Yves Saint Laurent should be happy to be copied,” Giammetti said.
“When Valentino used camelias in his collection, nobody accused him of copying Chanel,” he pointed out.
“I think Ralph Lauren is one of the few independent designers in America, and it’s really an embarrassment that he is being treated this way,” Giammetti said. Giammetti added that he thought the most interesting part of the decision was the fine against Pierre Berge.
“This is the interesting part — the house of Yves Saint Laurent could risk going bankrupt, thanks to Berge’s mouth,” he scoffed.
Last month, the YSL-Ralph Lauren case took on comic overtones when Dallas-based knockoff king Victor Costa entered the picture, claiming that he had made a similar tuxedo dress, but asserting his was based on a Bernard Perris design, not one by Saint Laurent.
And, according to court sources, when Lauren’s lawyers sent Judge Cotelle photos of various tuxedo dresses to show that many companies had produced similar garments, they included Costa’s version.