By Ann Ford and Ashley Green (Washington, DC)

Counterfeit apparel can be a fashion house’s worst nightmare.  The illegal practice of manufacturing and selling designer knockoffs through various outlets not only damages a brand owner’s reputation, but also lowers consumer confidence in the brand.

Recently, after the fashion house Belstaff discovered thousands of websites selling knockoffs of its iconic leather jackets, it embarked on a comprehensive intellectual property protection program.  The program consisted of registering trademarks, monitoring domain name registrations and taking a robust approach to trademark enforcement.  As a result, Belstaff created a foundation for its fight against the counterfeiters and was able to present a clear snapshot of its IP rights by demonstrating exactly which properties had been infringed.  The US District Court for the Southern District of New York listened, awarding an unprecedented US$42 million in damages against the online websites charged with selling infringing goods.

While the arguable lack of formal intellectual property protection mechanisms designed specifically for fashion design in the US can make it difficult to combat counterfeiters, the Belstaff case demonstrates how trademark registration and a proactive approach to intellectual property enforcement can assist fashion designers fight against knockoffs.  The global reach of the Internet means that sellers of counterfeit apparel can reach consumers all over the world.  Therefore, keeping up with potential trademark infringement is a crucial first step for brand owners, especially as luxury brands aim to expand their e-commerce presence.

The Belstaff case sends a clear message that while the online marketplace for luxury brands can increase sales and global brand awareness for a fashion house, it can be equally lucrative for counterfeiters.  As luxury brand owners increase their online presence, they should seek legal counsel on the best ways to protect their intellectual property.