February 13, 2015

When a Dream Becomes a Nightmare

By Liz Fields

I shared the dream of many of the designers showcasing at Fashion Weeks in New York, Miami, and elsewhere – I wanted a career in fashion. And I was fortunate enough and worked hard enough to make that dream a reality.

About six years ago, I created Liz Fields, LLC, a bridesmaid and wedding dress designer, manufacturer, and wholesaler. I was on top of the world and living my dream.  I had made it.

My dresses were everywhere – from celebrities to my childhood friends. They were all wearing the dresses that I designed. They were wearing my ideas that I created for the Liz Fields line. They were wearing my intellectual property (IP).

Along with my team, I worked hard to get our dresses into several retail stores that wanted to carry my line of high-quality made dresses at affordable prices.

But then one day, shortly after launching my first collection, I began to realize that my name and the images of dresses I created were being used illegally by websites claiming that they were selling my genuine product.

I started to get angry phone calls from customers and stores that were selling my actual dresses, demanding price matches on styles they found on various counterfeit sites. These counterfeit sites were not selling the dresses I designed. It became overwhelming.

These sites were selling cheap counterfeit dresses under the Liz Fields brand, and they were seriously cutting into my sales. We estimated our losses due to counterfeit dresses amounted to about $160,000 – $200,000 per year in sales (for perspective, our 2013 sales were about $2 million).

But I wasn’t the only one who suffered from someone using my name and my brand to sell cheap knockoffs. My commission sales representatives were losing money to these counterfeit sites as well. The women who purchased these counterfeit dresses also suffered.  They had poorly made garments that looked nothing like what they expected, but also garments that could potentially be dangerous. Many of these fabrics are not properly tested and could be extremely flammable. With wedding dates approaching quickly, it becomes a very stressful and real problem for these women.

We were a small company – we didn’t have the money to hire a slew of lawyers to track down every one of the more than 1,400 sites selling counterfeit versions of our dresses.

The loses we suffered meant we couldn’t hire more employees, as much as I wanted to give people more jobs.  It was bad enough that the counterfeiters were stealing my money, but they were also diminishing the integrity of my brand, which is my name. It was personal, and it became a nightmare.

We were at the mercy of counterfeiters, and I’ve never felt so hopeless. I knew more had to be done. So I started speaking out.

We created a tool on our website where consumers could type in a URL and check if a site was authorized to sell our goods. We also added a Buyer Beware section to the site to try and educate the consumer on counterfeit goods. I traveled to Washington, D.C. last year to speak to Congress to try and raise awareness of this issue. I published an op-ed in a newspaper. And we became members of a new bridal industry association, the American Bridal and Prom industry Association (ABPIA), which uses membership fees and donations to take bulk legal actions against sites that sell counterfeit goods.

And I started working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Intellectual Property Center (GIPC), which is focused on protecting all forms of intellectual property – trademarks, copyrights, and patents – and the mechanisms in place to enforce IP theft.

Trademarks and intellectual property are important to businesses and industries of every size, not just the big ones.  Protecting IP is just as important, maybe more important, for me and the viability of my business as it is for the largest corporations. For a small business like mine, it can actually mean closing our doors. Indeed, I eventually had enough of fighting with counterfeiters that I decided to accept a small licensing deal to turn over my brand name to a larger manufacturer.

So as you view all the beautiful fashion in the weeks and months ahead, remember that it is all worth protecting. Remember that the dress and the shirt and the pants are more than just articles of clothing. They’re someone’s ideas, and innovation deserves protection to ensure another person’s dream doesn’t become a nightmare.

– Liz Fields is a cofounder of Liz Fields, LLC, a bridesmaid and wedding dress designer. She resides in Fort Lee, NJ.

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