Primark chic: Copies may spark legal battle

Cut-price 'copies' of catwalk clothes made the chain ruler of the high street. But legal battles may stop their sale
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The Independent Online

The reclusive 71 year-old owner of Primark, the cut-price fashion chain that has transformed the British high street, could have been forgiven for raising a glass of champagne at his headquarters in Dublin last week. The news was good.

After consistently out-selling its competitors over the past three years, it was revealed that Primark was part of a growing trend for cheap clothes that has seen one pound in every four spent on fashion in the UK going to low-end retailers.

But Arthur Ryan, who has refused to give interviews for 30 years and has never been seen by some long-standing employees, may not be celebrating for long. Lawyers are circling.

A landmark ruling last month could herald the end to catwalk fashion at high street prices and lead to a series of law suits against the likes of Primark and Topshop, whose clothes often bear striking resemblance to designer fashions.

The UK judge ruled in favour of cosmetics company L'Oréal which claimed that the Belgium firm Bellure was copying its brand by producing "smell-alike" perfumes that were packaged to look like L'Oréal.

Mr Ryan could be forced out of the shadows of the fashion industry if Primark faces a court case over its designs. The company already had to defend itself against allegations of copying designs. Last year, Monsoon and H&M took Primark to court for alleged copying of their lines. Both cases were settled out of court; Primark paid out £23,000 in a settlement relating to a Monsoon top and dress. But with the new ruling, companies could sue for higher damages.

Thayne Forbes, L'Oréal's expert witness in the case as a marketing analyst, said the implications of the ruling in the fashion world are wide reaching: "Companies that are sailing a bit close to the wind will now have to be careful. The dividing line as to what people might think is all right has shifted quite a lot. It will now be more difficult to copy [designs] legally. Clothing that bears specific attributes and similarities to other designs are now more of a problem than they used to be, particularly in the high street."

Mark Shillito, a trademark lawyer at Herbert Smith, agreed: "There will be those who try to use this case to broaden the principles into other areas." The effects could be catastrophic for the fashion industry, which appears particularly susceptible. "That is exactly what [the big retailers] are about: getting their version of what they see on the catwalk to the shop floor as soon as possible.

"Companies have people advising them daily on how close to the line they can get without crossing it."

One industry source said: "The ruling is groundbreaking in that has gone beyond previous rulings. But fashion is by its nature ephemeral."

It takes little more than a week for a key look on the catwalk to be replicated for a third of the price and then hit the high street. Mass fashion shops have their clothes made in factories in Bangladesh, China and Vietnam where labour costs are cheap which enables the high street stores to sell fashion at bargain prices.

The company's remarkable success has not been at the hands of a major publicity drive, but has come despite its owner shunning the limelight. Primark sales topped £1bn last year. Cheap is suddenly chic.

Sarah Harris, Vogue features writer, said: "It isn't just about the prices. These are often really, really good catwalk copies, possibly the best out there. Take the naval jacket for example. The detailing is absolutely right - the buttons, piping, the ruching at the back."

According to Grazia magazine's Paula Read, even fashion editors can be found comparing notes on Primark's latest offerings. "I find fashion editors in Milan talking aboutPrimark, which is kind of extraordinary."

Additional reporting by Ian Griggs

ALL DRESSED UP

Peaches Geldof

Peaches Geldof is not afraid to eschew the haute couture look in favour of the latest Topshop clothes. Has been seen with her sister Pixie wearing a red and white polka dot Topshop dress, priced at £40. The teenager has become one of the latest people to sign up as a designer for the clothing chain's jewellery range. But in keeping with her father's passion for the planet, Peaches has promised that her African-inspired jewellery range will be 'ethical, fashionable and original'.

Samantha Cameron

The Tory leader's wife proved the Conservatives are a modern force in British politics when she was photographed arriving at this year's party conference in Bournemouth wearing this four-pocket yellow Topshop coat, priced at £70. While her husband struggles to convince voters of his green credentials, Mrs Cameron is out to show that the days of dowdy first ladies in twin-sets and pearls are a thing of the past.

Kate Moss

After she was spotted carrying a £2.99 charity bag from Superdrug earlier this year, the high street chemist reported a tenfold increase in sales. She has also been seen out with her partner, Pete Doherty, wearing a Topshop cheetah print dress with scoop neck, priced at £35. The dress is a perfect example of how the model moves between the worlds of high fashion and street wear because animal print has been championed by the Italian designer Roberto Cavalli this year.

Javine Hylton

When a gold sequin shirt, priced at £12, came out at Primark last year there was a stampede to get hold of one and the chain sold out of the item very quickly. Javine Hylton, a former 'Pop Stars: The Rivals' contestant and the UK's representative at the Eurovision Song Contest, must have been one of the first in the queue to get one.

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