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IP in Fashion - Characteristics of the Fashion Industry

author/source: Geoff Caesar
HJOL - Katie Morel Orchard

Characteristics of the fashion industry

In this article in the Alinea Law Member series on intellectual property in the fashion industry we cover:

  • Transience and in-built obsolescence
  • New technology
  • Speed
  • The importance of brands
  • Multi- and omni-channel retailing

Transience and in-built obsolescence

These issues affect most, if not all, consumer goods today. The smartphone bought as “top of the range” may soon feel obsolete when a new charger is introduced. The short-term nature of the design of a fashion item is part of its very nature and, arguably, part of its appeal.

New technology

The availability of new technology not only means that new designs of all manner of goods, from mobile phones to sports shoes, are launched with increasing frequency but it also means that it is easier to produce good quality lookalike copies of designer items very quickly indeed. An item on the catwalk can be copied and in a high street store before the catwalk version arrives in the designer’s own outlet, although some brands are removing this copying “window” by launching “see-now, buy-now” collections.

This technology also means that many items can be made in good (or at least acceptable) quality very cheaply. High Street fast-fashion chains sell items strongly influenced by the latest in designer trends at pocket-money prices. Copies of the dress Kate Middleton wore for the public announcement of her engagement to Prince William were on the high street within a week of the engagement, with stock of the actual “Issa” dress itself selling out in the UK within 24 hours.

The positive impact of the Duchess on UK fashion brands has been widely reported with the Duchess wearing designs by the likes of Alexander McQueen and Alice Temperley, as well as High Street labels such as Reiss, Zara, Whistles and LK Bennett. The use of 3D printing by fashion brands and infringers is also increasingly prevalent. 


Since the early twentieth century speed has been an important factor in the fashion world. The fashion year is dictated by the now long-established custom of designing, showing and selling two collections a year; spring/summer and autumn/winter. This model has been facing some disruption, including with the trend in “see-now, buy-now” collections being adopted by some brands.

Today fashion houses are under pressure to supplement these established collections with additional mid-season or “cruise” collections. Each collection will, on average, comprise at least 100 pieces and sometimes many more. Creativity needs to be continuous, and because so many designs are being released this can make it difficult to stop to consider whether and how best to protect new designs.

In reality, certain variations to, say, the basic design of a pair of trousers may not be very significant. They may consist of minor adjustments to the length and width of the legs, the addition of turn-ups, cutting the waist a little higher (or lower) and so on. Such variations are often dictated by a trend set by one designer whose star happens to be in the ascendant at the particular time. Finding an “intellectual property hook” to protect that particular design of trousers may be difficult, if possible at all. However, every season will feature designs worth protecting from copying – and it is therefore worth the time considering the best form of protection, and then monitoring and taking action against infringements as appropriate.

The importance of brands

The fashion industry has its share of internationally famous brands. In the Interbrand report on the 100 Best Global Brands for 2016, the highest-ranking fashion/luxury brand remained (as for 2015) Louis Vuitton (at 20, showing a brand value of US$23,998 million). Many other luxury brands continue to appear, such as: Hermès (34), Gucci (53), Tiffany (81), Burberry (83) and Ralph Lauren (98). The importance of sports clothing is also demonstrated by the high-ranking position of Nike (18) and Adidas (60). The upward trend for fashion brands is also shown in the rapid rise of some high-street brands, and this is shown by the positions of H&M (20) and Zara (27). However, Gap (previously at 100 in 2013) no longer appears in the top 100.

A brand name which is strong and attracts a public following is a very valuable asset since in the fashion world it opens up other doors for a fashion designer. One of the most lucrative ways for a fashion designer to use its brand is to enter into a licence for the use of that brand name on a fragrance. It has become increasingly common for designers and fashion houses to introduce eponymous fragrance lines; see, for example, Gucci, Hermès, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Burberry, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren to name but a few. A fragrance line can be a very valuable asset to a fashion house because if successful it will generate profit and cash flow without a great deal of time pressured and repetitive design work. But it is also high risk; seven out of eight new perfume launches fail each year.

Multi- and omni-channel retailing

Online is currently estimated to account for approximately 7-10% of sales, but this share is set to continue growing steadily versus bricks-and-mortar. The rise of new digital technologies, social media and mobile devices is increasingly changing the retail environment and providing new marketing opportunities. Fashion brands that once snubbed the online marketplace for being incompatible with their prestigious image are now very rare, and brands are expanding increasingly from multi-channel physical and online retailing to more integrated and seamless omni-channel retailing – including through unified in-store and digital marketing, “click-and-collect”, and “white glove” delivery.

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