Are designers undermining their products by supporting Apple?

WASHINGTON • In the legal wranglings between technology giants Apple and Samsung, a group of fashion industry luminaries recently weighed in on behalf of Apple. They include designers Calvin Klein, Lanvin's former creative director Alber Elbaz, Alexander Wang, Louis Vuitton's Nicolas Ghesquiere and Sacai's Chitose Abe.

They have backed Apple in a lawsuit that dates back to 2012, in which the creator of the iPhone accused Samsung of copying some of the smartphone's technical features as well as its design.

Fashion folks might know very little about software and coding, but they understand the importance of aesthetics. And so, in a friend-of-the-court brief, they extolled the power and importance of design. As attorney Mark Davies, the brief's counsel of record, noted in an interview: "It's the design that sells the product."

Four years ago, a jury awarded Apple just over US$1 billion in damages after finding that Samsung infringed on, among other things, the iPhone's design patents - namely those protecting the phone's rounded-off rectangular shape, its screen and its grid display.

Essentially, the jury found that the average observer could be misled into purchasing a Samsung phone, believing it to be an iPhone. As a matter of law, the offender has to turn over the profits made from selling the copy.

Over time, the award has been reduced to US$548 million (S$734 million). But Samsung believes it should be reduced even further, saying it should not have to turn over all of the profits, just a part of them.

Samsung says a cellphone is made up of discrete elements that comprise both form and function, each of which is dutifully considered by a consumer. Design is just part of what sells the product.

Apple says design is wholly and inexorably linked to function. The debate heads to the Supreme Court later this year.

Companies such as Google and eBay have lined up in support of Samsung. They argue that, in the case of a product as complicated as a cellphone, Samsung should not have to relinquish all of its profits because of an overlap of a few design elements. Aesthetics matter, but not that much.

The counter-argument, which the fashion community has embraced, is that design is everything. And it should be aggressively protected. Over the years, in an attempt to protect their work, fashion folks have essentially been arguing aesthetics: That dress looks like my dress.

The Apple brief goes further. It argues that: "Appearance becomes identified with the underlying functional features and with a particular level of product quality."

It is a line of thinking that raises an uncomfortable question: Does a consumer presume that a US$200 copy of a dress is the same quality as the US$2,000 original? If so, one could say that while fashion may win the battle on copying, it most certainly will have lost something far more valuable, which is the integrity of its wares.

In the past few years, Apple has been strengthening its bonds with the fashion industry by inviting designers to collaborate on assorted projects. Abe created wristbands for the Apple Watch and Wang edited personal playlists for Apple music.

Apple has also been drawing top executives from the fashion world. In 2013, Mr Paul Deneve, president of Saint Laurent, and before that, Lanvin, was hired as a vice- president at Apple. In 2014, Ms Angela Ahrendts left her post as chief executive of Burberry to head Apple retail.

This spring, Apple sponsored the fashion industry's biggest celebration of design, the Costume Institute gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This year's exhibition is Manus X Machina: Fashion In An Age Of Technology.

But fashion is not technology. In technology, elegant design may imply a certain level of function and quality. But in fashion, aesthetics tell consumers almost nothing about function and hint only at quality. Beautiful shoes do not have to be comfortable to sell.

Consumers have purchased dresses that can be neither washed nor dry-cleaned or that were not made for sitting. They buy pencil skirts that are hobbling, sheared fur coats that do not keep them very warm and mohair sweaters that make them itch. They buy for beauty.

And every now and then, the gods smile and a gorgeous product is astonishingly practical.

Apple believes it has blended form, function and quality in a single elegant device. It sees design as being as essential to its identity as its proprietary algorithms.

Fashion has signed onto this notion of the unbreakable relationship between form and function. But it is still struggling to turn that philosophy into practice.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2016, with the headline 'Are designers undermining their products by supporting Apple?'. Print Edition | Subscribe