FRENCH DESIGNER AWARDED DAMAGES

Byline: Sarah Raper

PARIS — A labor court here ruled in favor of designer Ines de la Fressange Wednesday in an unfair dismissal suit she filed last year after her business partners in the company she founded fired her while she was on maternity leave.
The court ruled that her business associates had acted without cause and ordered them to pay the former Chanel model $220,000 in damages. Dollar figures are converted from francs at current exchange rates.
Neither the majority owner of the company, Francois Louis Vuitton, who has 83 percent of the company, nor a spokesman for the house could be reached for comment. De la Fressange continues to own 15 percent of the company, and Henry Racamier, who provided financing to found the company in 1991, has the remaining 2 percent.
The court also dismissed a $1.1 million countersuit by the company, which sought damages for the negative press it had suffered because of media coverage of de la Fressange’s dismissal.
“It’s a moral victory,” the designer said in a telephone interview from her home Wednesday. “In this age of globalization and fashion corporations, it says that financing the house doesn’t allow you to get away with everything.”
De la Fressange was the latest in a series of French designers let go by new management at fashion houses. The others are Herve Leger, Jean-Louis Scherrer and Chantal Thomass.
De la Fressange was on maternity leave last summer when she received a letter from the company that carries her name telling her she was being fired on grounds of “faute grave,” a French term meaning a serious violation of the employee’s contract.
The company claimed that her agreement to design a pillbox for a small French pharmaceuticals concern named La Jouvence de L’Abbe Soury had “damaged the company’s brand image.”
On Wednesday in the Conseil de Prud’hommes, a French court dedicated to employment disputes, de la Fressange made an appearance and was represented by the high-profile Paris attorney Georges Kiejman.
“Mr. Kiejman told the judge he thought the case was a joke when I first came to him,” de la Fressange said. “Then he waved the pillbox and it was so little that everyone in the courtroom burst out laughing.”
Kiejman argued that de la Fressange had designed other products for third-party companies — including wallpaper and a special-edition car for Peugeot — and that the pillbox project was no different.
De la Fressange said she didn’t know what she would do with the money. “Getting them to pay up could be difficult. Already they ignored the court’s order to put a sum into escrow in advance of the ruling,” she said.
The company claims that noncompetition clauses in her contract, combined with clauses concerning trademark rights, prohibit her from working under her name. She said she and her attorney were still in talks with the company to resolve those issues.
“They just want me to roll over and die, but I won’t.”

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