British Columbia

Kelowna-made baby romper caught in counterfeit conspiracy

A Kelowna-based clothing designer is trying to get knock-offs of her locally designed baby clothes off the internet: it's what one lawyer calls a trillion-dollar problem.

Counterfeiting a massive problem in fashion world for designers big and small, lawyer says

Ruthy Penner, the owner of NooksDesign, says her baby romper design (left) has been counterfeited and sold on other websites. (NooksDesigns)

A Kelowna-based clothing designer is trying to get knock-offs of her locally designed baby clothes off the internet — but the designer says the process has been overwhelming.

Ruthy Penner, owner of NooksDesign, was pitching her popular baby rompers and booties to American retailers when she first realized there was a problem. 

One American retailer emailed her to ask if she was reselling a copied product.

The Kelowna-based designer said she was shocked, as she designs all her products herself in collaboration with local seamstresses and pattern makers.

When the U.S. retailer pointed out similar looking products on other websites, Penner noticed, not only were the products copied, they were using images of her clients and friend's children from her own website to sell the products.

"They were selling knock-offs with my images," she said.

This red romper with a rose collar was one of Penner's top selling designs. She says the copy is nearly identical, except for the shape of the collar and the material used. (Nooks Design)

The biggest difference? The price.

A handcrafted NooksDesign romper, for example, retails for $69, whereas the knockoff was around $5.

Penner says the effect of counterfeiting is devastating.

"It might impact the amount of work that my seamstress gets this month or the next couple of months, because we're not getting the same amount of orders.

"People might wonder whether we're being greedy with that price, but that's really the real cost of making something ethically."

Listen to the interview with designer Ruthy Penner on CBC's Daybreak South:

A global phenomenon

Ashlee Froese, a Toronto-based lawyer and trademark agent who specializes in fashion law, says counterfeiting is a global phenomenon.

"The revenue of counterfeiting products is in the trillions of dollars," she said.

"It's rife within the fashion industry."

It's really overwhelming ... I see it happening with so many of my designer friends- Kelowna-based designer Ruthy Penner

She said what consumers don't know — and what Penner's situation illustrates — is there is a real personal cost to designers.

"I think there's a misconception that fashion designs are overpriced or there's no real cost to buying these cheaper, counterfeit products. There really is a human cost and a human capital cost that is involved and it trickles down through the whole production manufacturing chain," she said.

How to protect designs

As for what designers can do to protect their products, Froese recommends using copyright, trademark protections and other tools in the intellectual property law regime to enforce their rights.

However, she admitted there is no intellectual property watchdog and it often comes down to the company itself to enforce their own rights — which can be expensive.

"You don't want to blow your whole budget on enforcement, but you certainly want to pick and choose where you want to enforce and which is going to have more impact positively in getting rid of the issues."

And online retailers might be more co-operative than expected, she said.

These retailers need buy-in from legitimate brands to survive, Froese explained, and pressure from these brands make it necessary for these retailers to have robust policies to counter fakes.

'It infuriates me'

As for Penner, she's been contacting shops that were selling knock-offs on online retailer Alibaba.

One retailer — Lenny Lemon — contacted Penner directly, and said that all listings, ads and social media posts about the counterfeit red romper would be removed.

AliExpress, a division of the online retail giant AliBaba, also took down the product and said any merchant using the images will be penalized according to internal policies.

But Penner is disheartened by how widespread the problem is.

"It's really overwhelming ... I see it happening with so many of my designer friends," she said.

'It infuriates me and it's such a big problem."