NEW YORK — Successfully fighting counterfeiters requires cooperation, and no one knows that better than Barbara Kolsun, senior vice president and general counsel for Seven For All Mankind, and its official anticounterfeiting watchdog.
Kolsun runs her litigation department and her anticounterfeiting initiatives by that rule, as she has for most of her more than 20-year legal career in the fashion world. It’s a subject she feels and speaks about with passion.
“This is our economy,” Kolsun said. “Intellectual property is what we in this country and in the Western world do for a living now. We don’t manufacture very much. Our company happens to still manufacture in Los Angeles, but most companies don’t.”
Kolsun has been working in the industry long enough to see counterfeiting develop into an enormous industry problem, costing companies and governments billions of dollars in lost revenue and taxes, and eroding brand images. Kolsun, her peers say, has seen it all.
“She is a pioneer in the industry,” said Heather McDonald of Baker Hostetler, who has worked as outside counsel with Kolsun for two decades at the various fashion and apparel companies she has been with. “She has been not only an observer of, but a participant in, the changing landscape of counterfeiting.”
Kolsun’s career path to the world of fashion intellectual property was atypical, but one that she believes has given her a better understanding of the importance of the issues. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence college in 1971, in the same class as Vera Wang. She then moved to New York and worked for eight years as a professional singer and actress.
“My background in the theater was the perfect preparation for the world of fashion,” she said.
Kolsun received her law degree in 1982 and clerked for the judiciary in the federal government in New York. After working at several law firms, including an entertainment-focused practice, she landed at a boutique intellectual property firm that handled Tommy Hilfiger exclusively. This was the springboard to stints at Calvin Klein Jeanswear, Westpoint Stevens — a home textile manufacturer of the Ralph Lauren and Martha Stewart home collections — and Kate Spade, where she became the brand’s first in-house lawyer in 2002.
Since commencing intellectual property work in the late Eighties, it has been the lion’s share of her work as in-house counsel, she said. However, she stresses that the problems companies face now didn’t spontaneously arise. By the late Eighties, said Kolsun, counterfeiting had already become the largest legal issue facing many apparel and accessories companies.
Putting groups together and participating in joint actions with other brands has been a staple of Kolsun’s anticounterfeiting strategy, according to McDonald. Early in the fight against counterfeiting, when lawyers struggled to prosecute a problem that had no laws written to address it, Kolsun was active in the International Anticounterfeiting Coalition’s lobbying efforts to pressure states to enact tougher intellectual property laws. She is a past chair of the IACC, an organization dedicated solely to addressing intellectual property issues.
Kolsun’s first step after joining Seven For All Mankind in September was to take total control of the company’s anticounterfeiting investigations and litigations.
“We immediately took the work in-house, so we could control it,” she said. “Since we work for the company and our production people are here, our public relations people are here, we’re all on the same team.”
After creating her internal team, Kolsun focused on forging relationships with Seven’s competitors to help fight the counterfeit problems they all faced online, in stores and on street corners.
“We’re competitors in the marketplace, but compatriots in the fight against counterfeiting,” Kolsun said.
It’s a message she repeats often in speeches and at industry meetings. Kolsun understands the need for those relationships to extend to brands that operate in different segments of the market.
“Counterfeiters don’t pick one brand,” she said. “If they’re counterfeiting jeans, they’re going to counterfeit fifteen different brands. If they’re counterfeiting handbags, they’re not just going to pick Kate Spade, they’re going to counterfeit Louis Vuitton and Chanel, and everyone else. I have a lot of years of experience working jointly.”
Kolsun has a good relationship with many of the luxury companies with offices in the U.S., she said. They share information, share tactics and sometimes join together in civil or criminal actions.
The more companies work together, the stronger impact they have. The luxury industry has a fair amount of clout, Kolsun said.
“There’s nothing more compelling than a group of luxury brand owners who rent real estate in New York and all over the world, and employ people all over the world,” said Kolsun. “It’s one thing for Seven For All Mankind, which is still a fairly small company, though successful, to go talk to the attorney general of the United States. It’s another thing for 25 companies to get together and have that same meeting. There’s power in numbers.”
Under Kolsun, Seven has worked with Abercrombie & Fitch, Rock & Republic, True Religion and other luxury denim companies.
Seven’s partnerships don’t stop at other apparel brands. Kolsun’s team of litigators also works closely with customs officials to help them track counterfeit jeans coming into the country and is involved with many organizations that collaborate on a governmental level to address the issue. One of the first things a brand owner should do, after registering trademarks with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, is to record registered trademarks with the Customs bureaus in the U.S. and other countries where business is conducted, Kolsun said.
“You have to go to the ports and train customs,” she said. “If you’re out there, you have to show them the difference between counterfeits and authentic goods.”
Seven participates in an IACC-run training program for brands at problem ports to show Customs agents how to detect counterfeits of their goods. Kolsun said she also meets yearly with Customs officials to stay on top of seizure statistics and to get an idea of which ports to be most aware.
Typically at a training session, Kolsun said the company will provide photos and information for agents to use in detecting counterfeits. For Seven, counterfeits are easily spotted if they are coming into the U.S. from abroad, as the company manufactures its products in Los Angeles. Anything coming from China, for example, is suspect automatically, she said.
Kolsun is seen as a mentor in the market, due in part to her constant efforts to build relationships within the industry.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” she said. “Maybe it’s because I was in the theater first and was an artist and a singer, but I really care about intellectual property. I feel very passionately about this issue and I love to help other brands figure out how to do it.”
Building industry relationships is a strategy that Kolsun and other industry figures have tried to extend into larger initiatives. Kolsun points to the Mayor’s Office of Midtown Enforcement — a joint initiative of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Office, the New York Police and Fire Departments, and other city agencies — as an example of the importance of working together to fight counterfeiters.
Rather than focusing on the counterfeiters operating out of the building, the Office of Midtown Enforcement has focused its efforts on putting the pressure on landlords to take responsibility for what is occurring inside their properties. The impact has been felt along a stretch of Broadway in Midtown Manhattan where buildings housed virtual malls of counterfeit goods. Raids of such buildings now include the issuing of health, safety, tax and fire code violations, and result in the building being emptied and locked.
“There are many brands working together with a variety of city agencies,” said Kolsun. “If you can’t get somebody on fire code violations then you can get them on tax fraud. When you have six agencies working together there’s going to be something that one of them can hit a landlord with.”