Louis Vuitton, Darfur, and the value of fashion

BlogHer Original Post

Luxury handbag manufacturer Louis Vuitton is suing a 26-year-old artist over an image she created for the organization Divest for Darfur. Ecorazzi recaps the ABC story:

At the center of all the angst is a tee designed by Nadia Plesner. It features a ‘fashionista’ Darfur victim looking very similar to Paris Hilton — something Plesner intended to convey the media’s disconnect with important issues. “I wanted to try to portray how distorted it is, how parts of the media prioritize between small and big world news. Even with the terrible genocide going on in Darfur, Paris Hilton is getting most of the attention,” she said. “If all it takes to make the front page is a designer bag and a small dog, maybe it’s worth trying that for the people who really need attention.”

FashionIndie's Daniel Saynt gets right to the heart of the matter, in a post titled "Louis Vuitton Doesn't Hate Darfur, Just Copyright Infringement," writing that this case is "one for the textbooks and will most likely prevent other artists from messing with the Vuitton’s of the world any time soon." In many ways, a suit like this one has been in the making for quite a while. Designers have been pressing to have their designs copyrighted, in order to prevent inexpensive knock-offs of couture pieces; their claim is cheap copies of their clothes are a violation of their intellectual property rights. What Saynt is missing, then, is that the designers at Louis Vuitton -- in this case, Takashi Murakami, who designed a Louis Vuitton bag similar to one pictured on the tee -- are also artists who deserve to have their intellectual property respected and protected.

Of course, the designers at Louis Vuitton are also fashion insiders who thrive and survive precisely because of the culture that Nadia Plesner is objecting to, the one that cares more about Paris Hilton's love life than about the plight of starving children in Africa. And while it is clear that Louis Vuitton has a right to protect their copyrighted material, it is impossible not to wonder if the real objection is to Plesner's statements about the fashion industry's moral bankruptcy.

The lawsuit doesn't do much to dispell this idea, honestly. TechDirt's Mike Masnick is skeptical about the validity of the actual lawsuit, which fines Plesner "$7,500 for each day she keeps selling the product, $7,500 for each day she displays its original cease-and-desist letter and (my favorite) $7,500 for each day she mentions the name 'Louis Vuitton' on her website."

While, there may be some difference due to the specifics of trademark law in Europe, it's hard to see how this is not overreaching. This is an entirely non-commercial venture. All of the profits are given to charity. The design has some differences from the Louis Vuitton bag, and hardly seems likely to specifically damage the Louis Vuitton brand (the lawsuit will take care of that). The t-shirts are clearly not competing with Louis Vuitton and there's little reason to have anyone think that Louis Vuitton somehow "endorsed" this effort. Furthermore, posting the cease-and-desist or even mentioning the name Louis Vuitton simply should not be infringing activities.

If anything, in fact, the lawsuit -- not the t-shirt -- has done the most damage to Louis Vuitton's image. Matt at Earth Community Project writes, "I'll say this much right off the bat... It's going to take a massive investment in charitable organizations for me to ever promote Louis Vuitton on this site. After reading about their lawsuit against an artist trying to raise funds for Darfur refugees, I'm pretty certain I won't have anything worthwhile to say about them."  Ernesto, at Torrent Freak, sums it up this way: "In our opinion, Vuitton is abusing the intellectual property argument. They simply do not want to be associated with genocide and the darker sides of the world."

This is, of course, precisely Nadia Plesner's point: something is wrong when we care more about what Paris Hilton's dog wears than we do about children who are starving to death in a war zone.  Louis Vuitton's law suit, with its extreme financial punishments for a woman who is working to raise funds for a non-profit, only serves to highlight the very issues she was considering when she designed the tee in the first place.

Luis Vuitton has done Nadia Plesner's work for her. 

So what SHOULD Louis Vuitton have done?  StyleDash's Diane Shipley wonders if there is a kinder, gentler, more PR-friendly solution:

What do you think about this: are Louis Vuitton right to protect their image -- after all, the war in Darfur isn't actually anything to do with them? Or should they show a bit more compassion, and a sense of humor, and maybe support Nadia Plesner's efforts in some way? (Perhaps if they asked her to alter the design but donated to Darfur instead of demanding money Plesner doesn't have, they wouldn't come off as the bad guys...)

Nadia Plesner's point is that too many of us are taking that step back and saying that the war in Darfur doesn't have anything to do with us, and that we need to stop.  It is difficult to see how Louis Vuitton's response is anything but malicious; certainly, they are missing the point, both about Darfur and about the fashion industry and what they represent.  

Susan Wagner writes about style at Fashion Find and The Working Closet, and about everything else at Friday Playdate.

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