Just as fashion designers and retailers have been struggling to adapt to changing consumer demands, they now must face a new battle: a trade war.
Back in May, the White House announced its plan to impose tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese goods in the hope of pressuring China to stop alleged unfair trade practices and intellectual property infringement. After the U.S. Trade Representative, Robert E. Lighthizer, released the final list of goods subject to the new tariffs, China responded with tariffs of its own on U.S. goods. Upping the ante in July, the U.S. next threatened to impose a second round of levies, resulting in 25% aggregate tariffs on an additional $200 billion of Chinese goods. Once again, China hit back with more tariffs of its own.
Many economists have warned that the effect of a prolonged trade war between China and the U.S. will ultimately increase prices for American consumers and will damage U.S. businesses. Those working in the fashion industry are likely to agree. The May round of tariffs placed on Chinese imports, which covered a range of industrial, agricultural, and medical goods, left the fashion industry relatively unscathed. But the next round of tariffs, initially rumored to include textiles, handbags and suitcases, is likely to hit designers, retailers and, ultimately, the American shopper.
Following the U.S. threats made in July, Mr. Lighthizer agreed to hold a hearing to discuss market opposition to the proposed tariffs. In attendance at the hearing, held in August, were more than 350 stakeholders, including the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the American Apparel & Footwear Association and the Accessories Council.
To say that the American apparel industry relies on Chinese manufacturing may be an understatement. Kathryn Hopkins of Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) has noted that “China is vitally important to the industry with government data showing the U.S. imported $27 billion worth of apparel from the country last year, accounting for 34 percent of all apparel imports. That is more apparel than was imported from any other country, dwarfing second-place Vietnam at $12 billion.”
Concerned about impending tariffs, Edward Rosenfeld, the CEO of Steve Madden, told WWD: “We and others will certainly try to pass on a good chunk of this to the consumer in the form of higher retail prices.” Steve Madden is also looking to move its handbag manufacturing from China to Cambodia in response to the higher duties.
National Retail Federation President and CEO, Matthew Shay, told WWD: “This round of tariffs amount[s] to doubling down on the recklessness of imposing trade policy that will hurt U.S. families and workers more than they will hurt China – it’s two-and-a-half times the amount already imposed.”
Smaller businesses are particularly vulnerable to the proposed levies. Anne Harper, the CEO of OMG Accessories (annual sales: approximately $2 million), expressed her concern for the impending tariffs, stating: “I can’t just absorb that percentage…. The bread and butter of my business is selling to retailers, so that’s a big challenge. Q4 is where we ship all of our holiday goods. If the 10 percent comes into effect right before the goods ship from China, we’re subject to that extra 10 percent so it represents hundreds of thousands of dollars for my business. It’s basically a loss.”
On August 26, 2018, China filed a formal dispute with the World Trade Organization (WTO), alleging that the U.S. tariffs violate WTO rules.
On September 17, 2018, the White House made good on its warnings in July, confirming that tariffs of 10% would be placed on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports – ranging from silk to handbags. China promptly responded again, stating it would impose its own tariffs, of 5% to 10%, on $60 billion worth of U.S. goods. Meanwhile, the U.S. has threatened to increase tariffs on Chinese goods to 25% total on January 1, 2019, unless the two countries can conclude a trade deal.
Is there an endgame in sight? At this point, there are more questions than answers. The White House is slated to share more information following its September 17th announcement. One can only wait for the next episode of Textiles and Tariffs.
Credit: Candace Arrington
Over the years, retailers have liberalized their returns policies. I have been offered thirty days, ninety days, sometimes one hundred eighty days in which to receive forgiveness if I should change my mind. I have even been quietly assured that, if I sign up as a preferred customer, the returns privilege is open-ended, which I suppose means that you can bring back your bar mitzvah suit after you wear it a second time for your retirement party (as long as you have the receipt). Even if formal policy says no to a return, it may simply be ignored if you are polite about it and willing to accept a store credit as a compromise.
In part to soften customer concerns about the risks of buying online, retailers have made buying from the Internet into a shop at home service, making returns as easy as putting the product back into the box, sticking on a return label and sending it back from whence it came—sometimes at no additional cost. (Shoe purchases seem to be particularly blessed in that way.)
When the goods come from a boots-on-the-ground shopping experience, customers are increasingly becoming their own shop at home services, scooping up whatever looks promising (sometimes in alternative sizes and colors) and making final purchase decisions in the privacy of their own bedrooms. The result of all this back and forth is that is that, depending on the category, returns can equal as much as forty percent of a retailer’s sales—perhaps even more in seasonal spikes.
When an item is marked “final sale,” however, the retailer is saying: “I’ve had enough of all that; I really want this one to move; here it is at a very good price I would never otherwise accept; now take it and don’t ever let me see it again.” We can all understand why a no-returns policy makes sense for underwear. But consider this as well: every luxury retailer has stories about evening gowns returned the day after a well-publicized big event, fragrant with perfume. For the same reason, it is understandable why a jeweler would make returns difficult or even impossible—to avoid, that is, turning into a free lending library for expensive necklaces and bracelets.
So by all means, take advantage of final sale offers. (By definition, it is your last chance to buy the item anyway.) But keep in mind that there is no turning back when you do. Your moment as your own style consultant has come: if you buy it, you own it, so make sure you like it at point of sale.
A special, final and heartfelt warning: if you are a guy with a wife or girlfriend who examines what you wear as if your reputation and hers depended on it (How, you may ask, would I know of such a guy?), you had better bring her along, just to be sure. If she first sees it when you bring it home and on the spot offers an opinion along the lines of, “What were you thinking? Take that thing back!” it is no time for your response to start with, “Uh…”
Credit: Alan Behr
In the movie A Hard Day’s Night (1964), unscrupulous menswear marketers lure George Harrison into their office, there to assure him that the two new shirts they put into his hands are essential to his self-esteem. When George says the goods are frightful, the head marketer comforts his team that, “within a month, he will be suffering a violent inferiority complex and loss of status because he isn’t wearing one of these ‘nasty’ things.”
The point was that the guiding spirits of the generation of the 1960s formed up against the commercialism and consumerism that were behind marketers’ attempts to pass off “nasty” goods as status symbols for insecure youth. How times have changed. Someone with a device in his pocket that pitches out brands and branding stories faster than summer rain drenches a field views branding and the commercial motives behind it in a much more positive light. Brands ignite consumer interest as never before, and brands win when they have good stories to tell—stories that create interest and become viral once consumers are engaged. Brands are, after all, nothing but good will with consumers, and once that is obtained, the message is spread most effectively by consumers imitating each other and aspiring to what each other has. The bad news that follows from the good is that consumers, in exchanging with each other messages about brands they know, are becoming as important in the control of a brand’s destiny as the brand’s owner—and its marketers.
For that reason, never has the creation and the protection of strong trademarks been more important for the fashion business. The value of the trademarks is applied directly to the bottom line in the form of good will. There are terrific fashion brands that own little else but their trademarks and related domain names—not the factories that make the clothes, not the stores in which they are sold, not even the photocopy machines in the corporate office. What they have are strong trademarks protected throughout the areas of current use and expected operations. The moral of the story: work with your trademark lawyer to develop, as early as possible, a solid and workable trademark protection program, and then stick to it by carefully searching and analyzing all new prospective trademarks and by registering them promptly as soon as the anticipated need arises. What have you to lose by not doing that? Only everything you may have.
Credit: Alan Behr
Luxury, being the thematic opposite of necessity, must be at least as much about what you desire as what you need. Building a brand to fill that role requires both diligence and self-restraint.
A luxury brand and its products should be readily identifiable as superior to both existing and aspirational customers. That is not to say that that non-luxury brands and their products do not require legal protection; we are simply recognizing that the luxury premium adds a new class to the market—those aspirational customers—whose perceptions and desires are vital to the future of brands in the luxury sector. For that reason, and many others, it is particularly important for luxury brands to work with counsel to identify and protect all the important proprietary elements that are capable of being protected. That includes protection, where appropriate, by trademark (and trade dress) registration, design patent registration, and—something rather unique to the United States—copyright registration.
With few exceptions, it is generally better to err on the side of more rather than less when it comes to registrations. Styles and style names that will only be in the catalog for a season or two are usually not worth the trouble, but anything of medium to long-term consequence to the bottom line and brand value almost certainly is. In these posts, we will go into more detail about various forms of legal protection, but a key guideline is this: once each season, have a look at what engages the public with your brand and your products and how that engagement might lead you to adjust your legal protection program. There is probably no more important work that marketers and counsel can undertake together in order to make your protection program both thorough and cost-effective.
This year, the International Trademark Association held its annual meeting in Hong Kong, giving the world’s intellectual property lawyers the opportunity to congregate in an important commercial city where branding is all. Once a playground for bargain hunters for, consumer electronics and rapidly cut and stitched men’s suits, Hong Kong has become a destination for consumers of luxury goods. Indeed, I cannot remember seeing another city in which almost any international luxury brand I can think of had more than one boutique. What was particularly interesting this time is that, for various reasons, visitors from the mainland were uncommonly absent, with the result that, in every store in which I had a look, the sales floors were empty of patrons. That may be a temporary problem, but it raises a bigger question: as surely as luxury is about something greater than necessity, it is also about relative inaccessibility; it is an experience over and above the ordinary that is made all the more desirable by its very lack of ubiquity. When luxury is everywhere, can it start to look commonplace? The risk is that new entrants will have a chance to succeed (in no small part due to their newness and limited production) in poaching customers sated by what has become too familiar. That may be healthy for the marketplace but not for you if you have a valuable brand.
There are no perfect formulas, of course, but here is a general reflection that might well apply when protecting a luxury brand and its products: under law, more is better; when preserving the reputation of a luxury brand and its products in a business sense, less may sometimes indeed be more.
Credit: Alan Behr
It can be said that a licensing arrangement is inherently symbiotic in nature, with the good faith efforts and cooperation of both the licensor and the licensee being necessary for success. The licensor provides its trademark, perhaps some degree of design expertise (particularly in the fashion field), and perhaps also brand customer relations and certain advertising and promotional assistance; and the licensee contributes its expertise in the particular industry covered by the license and possibly its customer relations, its organizational structure and capital resources. The resulting relationship, in a very practical sense, is that of a joint venture or a partnership. Although on one level the negotiation and drafting of a license agreement must be approached as an adversarial process, both parties also should recognize that they will be more likely to view their arrangement ultimately as a success if it strikes a balance, on the one hand, between the licensor’s legitimate concerns for the maintenance of its image and quality standards, for the protection of its trademark and for fair compensation for the rights it has granted and, on the other hand, the licensee’s legitimate desire to exploit the rights granted to it in an economically advantageous manner consistent with industry norms in the applicable market segments and without fear of termination if it is performing in good faith. Ideally, therefore, the parties should approach the negotiation and documentation of the license agreement from the perspective that each of them is looking to make the venture a success for both of them and should recognize and attempt to satisfy the other’s needs.
That said, no matter how much the parties aim for “fairness,” there almost surely will be provisions that a licensor perceives as necessary to protect important interests which a licensee considers unfair, unduly burdensome or overreaching. Before proceeding with an agreement, a licensee must remember that words have meaning and a licensor can seek to force the licensee to conform in its performance to what the agreement says. A licensee cannot rely on its business sense (or gut) to assume that a licensor would “never do that,” even if the licensor assures it that the licensor never has done so before. There also can be no great comfort in the thought that the provision might not be enforceable, since the time and cost involved in adjudicating the issue can be enormous, even if the licensee succeeds. If the agreement requires certain conduct or prohibits certain acts, a licensee should assume that those words control and that, if it ignores them and its licensor’s demands for conformance, it does so at its peril.
Credit: Jonathan R. Tillem
The constitutional rights of businesses are hot topics. Freedom of speech is a fundamental tenet of liberty, protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, that benefits commercial entities as well as individuals. The right to spend unlimited money to support the election or defeat of particular candidates for office derives from the right to freedom of speech. But does the same First Amendment right protect businesses from being compelled by government regulations to speak on matters as to which they would prefer not to comment, whether or not they are “controversial” or “political”? Is there a freedom to refrain from speaking?
If you think this question has nothing to do with fashion, you would be wrong. Every manufacturer in the fashion and accessory business labels its products with their “country of origin”, guided by detailed regulations promulgated by the Federal Trade Commission. Decisions in two recent cases, which have nothing to do with fashion, but everything to do with government regulations compelling businesses to speak on the source of their products, suggest that the “country of origin” regulatory scheme for the fashion industry may be challenged on First Amendment grounds.
A federal statute requires country of origin labeling for meat to address the country where the animal was born, raised or slaughtered. New rules for implementing the statute were promulgated in 2013 to comply with a World Trade Organization ruling on a complaint from Mexico and Canada, requiring greater specificity in describing separately the country where each of these events in the animal’s life occurred. A group of trade associations, feedlot operators and meat processors filed suit to enjoin the rules, claiming they violated the First Amendment. The argument was rejected by a three judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, holding that the First Amendment did not bar the government from compelling factual speech on a non-controversial matter that might be of interest to consumers. The full court, however, voted to hear the case anew before all eleven judges of the court. The parties were directed to address the scope of First Amendment protection for mandatory disclosure of purely factual and non-controversial commercial information, compelled for reasons other than preventing consumer deception.
The outcome of this review may be foreshadowed by the same court’s decision on April 14, 2014, striking down Securities and Exchange Commission regulations that required public companies to disclose whether they used “conflict minerals” (minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo used by warring factions to finance their operations) in products they marketed or manufactured. The three judge panel found that it was unconstitutional to compel speech in the absence of a need to prevent consumer deception.
So one might well ask whether it is unconstitutional to compel apparel manufacturers to say anything about the subject when they are not marketing goods based on the country of origin. What purpose does it serve and do consumers need the information?
Credit: Helene M. Freeman