The exclusive design vs. the knockoff is an issue that’s as old as fashion history, but with high profile companies like Diane Von Furstenberg bringing their fight against copycats to the forefront in the form of lawsuits, trademark infringement has once again become a hot button issue. And while budget conscious fashion lovers may be crossing their fingers in anticipation for the next Louboutin knock off, designers both established and emerging are trying to figure out ways to protect their creative vision. Enter fashion lawyers like Mariessa Terrell. Terrell is the founder and CEO of Simone’s Butterfly a company that works with clients on everything from brand management and promotion to contract negotiation. We caught up with the style maven to talk fashion law and find out about more about her work on the D.C. style scene.

Q: Many emerging designers are focused on their art and may be unfamiliar with the business side of the industry or the importance of branding. How important is it for a designer to establish a unique image?
I believe that in today’s saturated fashion marketplace it is crucial for designers to develop a unique and arresting business image through branding. Many times, unique brands, logos, and slogans are the easiest way to distinguish one fabulous black dress from another.

Q: What are a few practices that you encourage your clients to incorporate into a strategy to set themselves apart?
I think branding is a lifestyle. My advice to clients: First, really try to determine who your customers are. Sketch out their likes, dislikes, income level, age, education level and even favorite cable shows. Second, create an image for your company, goods or services that will resonate with your specific customer. Third promote this same image everywhere. In the fashion industry, your image really is an extension of you. Therefore I recommend incorporating your brand image into wardrobe choices and personal style. Details make a difference…how you answer your phone, your letterhead, website, facebook page should all communicate the same message.

Q: The subject of copyright infringement seems to be coming up more often as we’re reading about very high profile companies being involved in litigation. Some retailers have basically knocked off a garment before the runway show is even over! How does the law make the distinction between “inspiration” and “stealing”?
Current law does not provide much protection for fashion designs. If the Design Piracy Prohibition Act becomes law it will create a special, limited three-year copyright in fashion designs, with penalties of $250,000 or $5 per copy for violations. In May 2007 the Bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property.

The best way to protect clothing is to obtain a trademark and build brand recognition. Designers gain notice for creating consistently marvelous clothing under one label. Diane von Furstenberg is a great example. She perfected the wrap dress not by preventing others from copying it, but by marketing her wrap dress under her brand name. Her advertising campaign has been so effective that wrap dresses bearing her logo are seen as superior to those dresses marketed under a different name.

Protecting and registering a trademark and creating clothing under this label are the best way to protect fashion designs.

Q: Do you think that the trickle down of ideas from high fashion into a less authentic but more affordable version is ultimately good or bad for the consumer?
Consumers may find it exhilarating to walk into a local chain store and find an outfit similar to one worn by a celebrity at a red carpet event. But, it can be devastating for a designer to see their creative designs in the same retail chain without their permission. These days, the most successful designers and retailers understand the consumer’s desire for affordable fashion. Issey Mizrahi for Target and O by Oscar de la Renta for Macy’s are examples of designers who have capitalized on the demand for less expensive and chic lines.

Q: What are common mistakes made by designers that may leave them vulnerable to other copycats?
The most common mistakes designers make are failure to promote, protect and police their brands. It is essential that designers find a niche and develop branding techniques to differentiate their goods and services from other within their niche market. A federal trademark costs only $325 and can last indefinitely if it is renewed. Additionally trademark owners can list their trademark with the Customs and Border Protection agency that monitors and blocks goods that infringe federally recorded trademarks.

Q: Besides your work in fashion law, you’re also a journalist and a photographer. Have you always had a passion for fashion?
There is great power in fashion. My mom was and is a fierce style maven who paid attention to fashion trends even if she did not always follow them. Mom believed that your style of dressing (up or down) had the power to not only alter your mood but could drastically affect those around you. She taught me the importance of creating a personal style that could elevate a mundane occurrence into a signature event. Since then, I have always had a zeal for fashion. I recall many dreamy afternoons at Martin Luther King Public Library pouring over the biographies of style icons like Eartha Kitt, Diana Ross and Audrey Hepburn. They, like my mom, had monumental individual style. I learned from the best.

Q: How did you get involved in a career as a fashion lawyer?
During my second semester of my third year at Howard School of Law, I took an elective class on trademark and copyright that forever changed my mind about the law. Here was a discipline that combined creativity with sound legal reasoning. I was hooked. Thankfully, after graduation, I was hired as a Trademark Attorney at the US Patent and Trademark Office, the only place in the nation to obtain a federal registered trademark. I was assigned to Law Office 106 where I prosecuted trademarks for the top cosmetic and fashion companies in the world. After a few years at the USPTO, I was ready to start my own trademark law firm specializing in fashion.

Q: How would you describe your personal style? Who are a few of your favorite designers?
Funny Face meets Mahogany. I love to glam it up with looks inspired by my favorite cinema characters…Laura Hunt in Laura; Tracey Chambers in Mahogany; Pola Debevoise in How to Marry a Millionaire. Most of my shopping dollars go towards the purchase of vintage Chanel, Christian Dior and Herve Leroux with a sprinkle of Dolce and Gabanna for a bit of modern appeal.
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Q: When people think of D.C. style the words conservative or buttoned up may come to mind, but we know that you’re working to change all that! Tell us a little about your work with to establish DC as a major fashion capitol.
I grew up in Washington, DC and watched the recent construction boom with much enthusiasm. I decided to get involved with politics to help ensure that some of the new retail space was marketed to unique independent boutiques. In 2007, I drafted legislation to create a Commission on Fashion Arts and Events tasked with developing a fashion incubator for emerging designers, fashion career technical programs for DC youth and a fashion retail corridor to recapture the millions of dollars lost when DC citizens shop in neighboring Maryland and Virginia malls.

Q: Do you have any words of wisdom for anyone who may be thinking about pursuing a career in fashion law?
My advice to any aspiring fashion lawyer would be to strive for top grades in law school…any law school. The fashion industry is very competitive. The largest and most coveted fashion law firms and corporations want the top students. If you are one of them, you increase your chances of success exponentially.

For more Mariessa Terrell and Simone’s Butterfly please visit www.simonesbutterfly.biz

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  • Nice piece.

  • James Edward

    I appreciate and admire your blog. Something intelligent and needed. Fashion, clothes take the humman race to a higher level. More of your blog is needed.