PARIS — Yves Saint Laurent took Ralph Lauren to court here Wednesday, and things got pretty testy.

Lawyers for Yves Saint Laurent Couture argued before a commercial court that Lauren had copied a tuxedo dress by the French designer, and demanded damages of $868,000 (5 million francs).

But in a surprise move, Ralph Lauren’s attorney, Dominique Mennard, counterattacked and demanded damages of $174,000 (1 million francs) for defamation of character for “insults contained in an article in Women’s Wear Daily,” made by YSL Couture president Pierre Berge.

“Pierre Berge has talent. He knows a lot about ballet and opera. Maybe he should stick to talking about that,” said Mennard, referring to remarks by Berge in WWD, April 11.

In that article, Berge said, “It’s quite one thing to ‘draw inspiration’ from another designer; it’s quite another to rip off a design, line for line, cut for cut, which is what Ralph Lauren did. That’s entirely unacceptable and has to be stopped.”

At one stage, the proceedings turned into a fashion show, as models wearing the YSL and Lauren dresses at the heart of the dispute strode into the court.

“I know something about fashion,” said Judge Madelaine Cotelle, dressed in judicial robes and wearing Salvatore Ferragamo pumps, as she inspected the dresses. “Clearly, there are differences in the two dresses. Saint Laurent’s dress is made of a 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.”

Later, YSL’s ready-to-wear version was shown, as well.

Francine Summa, YSL’s lawyer, told the court Saint Laurent designed the tuxedo dress for a couture collection in 1970.

He subsequently reinterpreted the design in his fall-winter 1992-’93 couture collection, and created a similar, though shorter, dress for the YSL Rive Gauche rtw collection of spring-summer ’93, Summa said.

YSL became aware of the Lauren tuxedo dress when it appeared in a fashion editorial in the December 1992 French magazine Jours de France Madame, Summa said. She said YSL’s investigators learned that Lauren sold 123 “copies” for about $1,000 (5,800 francs) each.

Summa told the court she met Lauren representatives on three occasions in 1993 to discuss YSL’s charges, but they failed to reach a resolution.

“The tuxedo dress belongs to the artistic patrimony of the house of Saint Laurent. It’s a unique original and thus cannot legally be copied by anyone else,” said Summa. Any difference between the Saint Laurent and Lauren dresses was just an attempt to hide the plagiarism, she insisted. She added that YSL is also demanding that Lauren print an apology in prominent fashion publications.

In his reply, Lauren attorney Mennard argued that Giorgio Armani, Valentino, Karl Lagerfeld and others all had designed and sold tuxedo dresses. However, when the judge challenged Mennard to present photographic proof, the lawyer said he had not had time to do so.

“That’s funny. There’s a fashion museum five minutes from here with tens of thousands of clothes and images. It should not have been so difficult,” Cotelle scolded Mennard.

And, in a remark which brought smiles to the Saint Laurent entourage, Cotelle said, “Many industrial ready-to-wear producers have made the tuxedo dress, but Mr. Saint Laurent was the first to cut off the sleeves. There’s no trace of that concept before him.”

Mennard noted that as soon as the dispute arose, Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. took the dress off the market. Mennard also complained that, at the request of Saint Laurent, police had searched Lauren’s headquarters here.

Mennard also attacked Berge for what he described as “insults and calumnies” against Lauren in WWD, as the judge passed around translations of the story.

“This case involves two designers of great talent, reputation and success,” Mennard said. “This case is not a question of money. When I read Mr. Berge’s remarks, I felt great anger and consternation. Ralph Lauren isn’t hiding away in Taiwan. He’s an internationally famous designer with a large staff that’s very proud to work for him. But he has been pilloried. “The damage has been done. Mr. Berge has once again spoken before the law has spoken. He’s been very imprudent. WWD is the leading source of information in the world for fashion,” Mennard continued.

But the judge cut him off: “You don’t have to tell me what WWD is. It’s the bible of fashion and luxury. I know it well, and I was very surprised to read Mr. Berge’s phrases. They were most regrettable. Calling someone a thief, which is effectively what he did, is very insulting.”

To which, Summa responded: “It may have been wrong for Pierre Berge to speak this way, but what Ralph Lauren did was much worse.”

The judge said she will render her decision on May 18.

Lauren’s representatives in the U.S. declined comment and YSL officials could not be reached for further comment on the suit.

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