High-Fashion thievery

French fashion, the game that can cause grown men and women to dress like peacocks and behave like bluejays, is hatching tales of espionage worthy of a le Carre novel these days.

At the unveiling of Paris's spring and summer pret-a-porter (ready-to-wear) collections this fall, the green striped exhibition tent near the Louvre was buzzing with stories of intrigue: Asian and European James Bonds who counterfeit trademark labels, forge press credentials, bribe photographers and models, front for fashion tycoons, steal patterns, and ship them off to sweatshops in South Korea and Hong Kong. Parisian masters like Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent now run security checks on their employees, work with curtains drawn against the telephoto lenses of professional peeping Toms, and run discarded fabrics through shredders to discourage ''garbage moles.''

Sounds far-fetched? Even in hard economic times, fashion piracy is a lucrative profession. And while designers in New York, Milan, and Tokyo beg to differ, the world still takes its cue from Parisian couturiers, who have become the favored prey of fashion spies and counterfeiters.

Christophe Girard is Yves Saint Laurent's Sherlock Holmes. He oversees the company's 200 licenses in 80 countries, and specializes in ferreting out the fakes. For years Girard (fluent in English, Japanese, German, and his native French) scoured Hong Kong's street corners, Seoul's marketplaces, Panama's boutiques, in search of counterfeiters. Now from behind his marble-topped desk at YSL's Paris headquarters on Avenue Georges V, he quarterbacks the firm's detective work.

To reach his office, one takes a mirrored elevator to the second floor, passes the receptionist at the beige word processor, and turns right at the six-foot gold YSL insignia. There you'll find Monsieur Girard, a prim young man in tweeds and flannels. His brow is furrowed; he is puzzling over his next case. How will he foil the forgers in Paraguay, grapple with fake YSL handbags from Australia, combat the look-alike jerseys from Portugal, and contest those irritating but amusing ''Eves St. Lauront'' T-shirts sold in Jamaica?

With outstretched arms Girard brandished the latest evidence of skulduggery - a leather ''Made in Italy'' belt inscribed with the YSL logo. Not a bad-looking belt, he says, ''but YSL doesn't make it.'' Girard has been summoned to solve the crime.

''This belt is now sold all over Europe and Southeast Asia,'' he said, uncoiling it like a serpent. ''The buckles come from Italy, the leather from Hong Kong or South Korea, where they are assembled. As you can see, counterfeiters are getting bold, selling this stuff right under our noses on the streets of Paris. I picked this one up near a subway stop on the Champs Elysees.''

''These guys are sneaky,'' he surmised. ''You buy their belts, then come back in five minutes with the police and they're gone. The counterfeit marketeers keep moving. They never stay in the same place. The operation is decentralized. Better organized, it would be easy to crack down on.

''In Chile, Panama, Hong Kong, and Australia, last year I found counterfeit YSL luggage on the street. The guy in Chile said he got his from Panama. The guy in Panama said he got them in Africa. In fact, they were all coming from Taiwan and Korea. When Saint Laurent, Cardin, and Dior wanted to take out licenses in Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, we found the markets already full of goods with our labels. It has hurt our business in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and South America. Now they're moving into Africa. Look for a lot of future counterfeiting in Nigeria and Morocco.''

Trademark counterfeiting has become a worldwide concern. The International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition, founded in 1978, now has over 70 member companies in 13 countries. The coalition's president, James Bikoff, estimates the counterfeiting business - in products ranging from polo shirts to computers - at around $16 billion. Sales of fashion items with fake labels in the United States alone were an estimated $600 million in 1981.

Customers have felt ripped off by shirts that shrank and plaids that ran, and manufacturers fear a loss of reputation, so Congress is getting in the act. Companion bills were introduced in the US House and Senate last year that would have set penalties of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for individual counterfeiters, up to $1 million for corporations. The bills died at the end of Congress last year, but are expected to be reintroduced shortly.

Europe is attempting a similar crackdown. In Britain, an association of 20 companies recently formed the Anti-Counterfeit Group to exchange information and lobby for legislation. In France, scores of companies have banded together in the Union Des Fabricants (Pour la Protection de la Propriete Industrielle et Artistique). The organization, which acts as a trademark agent for Dior, Cardin, and Saint Laurent, among others, has detectives tracking down counterfeits around the world. When necessary, the group initiates legal action overseas.

''Unfortunately, there is no single international law,'' said YSL's Girard. ''Catching counterfeiters depends on the cooperation of foreign countries. In Europe, the US, and Canada, when we find one there is almost no problem. These countries want a respectable reputation to attract investment. Other countries refuse to work with us. Korea used to be near-impossible. Brazil is still very difficult. We went in there in 1972 and found that someone we didn't know had already registered our trademark. Brazil wanted us to pay to get our trademark back. We refused and lost in court twice before winning the case at the last minute. Coca-Cola, Sony, and Nike weren't as lucky.''

Sometimes the only way to beat the counterfeiters is to join them: ''You know the famous story of Cartier,'' said Girard, ''who couldn't sell his watches in Mexico because someone had already registered the trademark. Some guy was counterfeiting Cartier's watches, and even advertised the watches as coming from France. The only way Cartier could get the fakes off the market was to make the counterfeiter his official agent in Mexico.''

At the Paris headquarters of designer Georges Rech is another fashion show, another plate of tiny sandwiches. The room is packed with female journalists. With the exception of the woman in navy who came with her Irish setter, everyone arrived in objective black. Black derbies, black wool skirts, black necklaces, black patent-leather pumps with tiny, black-satin bows. A bleached blonde from Elle magazine chews on the black stem of her dark glasses and jabs a black fountain pen in the direction of the last model. ''Hmmph. I saw those pleats and padded shoulders three years ago. Show me something new.''

Danielle Jagot, who has worked at Georges Rech for 16 years, designed most of Rech's spring line this year. When asked about espionage in the business, she lowered her voice to a hush. ''You're onto a good story,'' she whispered, glancing furtively back and forth, as if standing in the middle of a busy intersection. ''It happens all the time, even between the big prestigious [ fashion] houses in France. But I can't say much more than that.''

Imagine someone shouting ''Stop, thief!'' at a photographer snapping a picture or a designer scribbling notes on her invitation during a chichi Paris fashion show. Tres gauche? The captains of French fashion, now outraged by the audacity of copyists, say it's time to call a spy a spy.

Some years ago, the prominent Paris designer Kenzo apprehended some 50 ''stowaways'' who had slipped into his building around closing time hoping to steal a peek at the new fall fashions. More recently, an usher at a major collection caught a woman in the front row mumbling into her trench coat lapel. Wired with microphone, she was describing in detail each passing model.

While reproducing major fashion-house designs may be ethically questionable, unlike counterfeiting it is technically legal - and nearly impossible to prevent. ''Laws don't apply in the world of fashion,'' said Marielle Righini, taking another bite of her chicken salad. ''You can change one button or move a zipper and claim you designed it. It's a hard blow for an industry which invests millions in research and design. But there is no way to fight it.''

Righini, one of Paris's leading journalists, writes for Le Nouvel Observateur. Italian by birth, she speaks elegant French, and, like most French fashion writers, dresses as if she were attending a funeral. Over lunch at the Angelina, a tea shop on the Rue de Rivoli, we discussed spying in French fashion. ''French law protects a design if it's registered, but it's too expensive to register an entire collecton of 80 designs. As far as copying, international law is inoperative.''

Emmanuel Marphettes, a veteran Paris fashion photographer, was hired last year by Depeche-Mode, one of France's top fashion magazines, to document the spring collections. When the two-week assignment was completed, he had photographic proof of every dress, blouse, and bathing suit shown - just the sort of information for which the black market would pay a bundle. He showed nothing but disdain for ''double agent'' photographers.

''Many of the photographers working the collections are not authorized,'' said Marphettes. ''Some get credentials from a magazine and work for clients on the side. They fly from Paris to Milan, then New York, making the whole circuit, and then send their photos off to Hong Kong. Not my cup of tea.''

At dinner one night I met a Polish-born designer who worked for a San Francisco firm which annually flies her to Paris, Milan, and Tokyo to snoop around for new ideas. ''Espionage?'' she huffed. ''Everybody does it. We all borrow from each other. So what's new?''

What was new, she confessed, was the unusually tight security at the collections now. ''I began taking pictures this afternoon at the Kenzo show, got about 30 of them before some little old lady told me I needed a press pass. I ended up taking notes but still came away with some great ideas.''

Girard at Yves Saint Laurent rebuts: ''All the spies say 'That's business,' but, for that matter, the Mafia does business, too.'' Even major Paris designers pinch designs from each other. ''Mr. Saint Laurent,'' Girard continued, ''decided once at the last minute not to show a dress he had designed for his couture collection. The next day the same dress showed up in a competitor's collection. Someone on the inside leaked out the design.''

''You guys in the United States,'' he added, ''happen to have one of the world's biggest copiers, a guy in New York named Jack Mulqueen, who's undercutting everybody. . . . Why should anyone buy a Saint Laurent dress for $ 300 when you can get a copy for half the price with Mulqueen's label?''

Mulqueen is a first-class copycat - and proud of it. Alternately known as ''Fast Jack'' and the ''Knock-off King of Seventh Avenue,'' Mulqueen cranks out inexpensive ''interpretations'' of fancy French and Italian silk dresses and blouses. He is the scourge of the world's high-priced fashion designers. Apparel manufacturing is the fourth-largest industry in the United States; last year Fast Jack did close to $200 million in US business and another $50 million in Canada, Europe, South America, and Australia.

''Jack can copy a $645 Chloe blouse, line for line, in pure silk for $75 and you can't tell the difference,'' said Marianne Dube, Mulqueen's advertising director and assistant. ''We now have a little blouse Chanel showed a few days ago in Paris. Theirs runs between $300 and $400. Ours will be $40 and in the stores in the next few days.''

With fashion previews from Women's Wear Daily and ''W,'' and slides of the European collections from press photographers, Mulqueen and his 200-member New York staff produce exact patterns of the masters. Months before the originals hit the US market, the copies are in the stores, according to Dube.

''When Jack sees a blouse he likes,'' she said, ''he calls in his designers. They make a blowup of the photograph and perhaps choose more American colors. That evening the pattern is sent to Korea. Jack doesn't order dozens or by the gross; he talks in thousands. Every night we send orders to Korea. We have 22, 000 people working for us there. It's a real vertical operation: We produce everything from the silkworms and the leaves they eat, right down to the finished garment.''

According to Dube, Mulqueen is now putting out his own originals. ''Knocking off exact copies'' of the intricate designs of Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani, and Laura Biagotti got to be expensive, she said. Even so, Mulqueen remains ''very open about his copying,'' she said. ''[European couturiers] may bite their fingernails over it, but they can't do much about it. Once the photographs appear in the magazines, those designs are in the public domain.''

Few previews of the Paris spring collections drew more journalists, buyers - and spies - than that of Jean-Paul Gaultier, youngest of the pret-a-porter crowd and currently one of Paris's hottest fashion stars.

Gaultier, the designer with a Boy Scout face, dates the beginning of his fashion career at age 14, the year he dyed his grandmother's hair violet. By 18 he had landed a job with Pierre Cardin, and in his late 20s fled the heavy mantle of haute couture to start his own pret-a-porter studio. Gaultier has made a reputation rejecting classic cover-girl notions of beauty; he says he draws his inspiration from current cinema, new wave music, and the ''aux puces'' (flea-market) generation.

Gaultier's studio and apartment are set in an old Right Bank house overlooking the Seine. At the bottom of the marble staircase is a ''Continental 200'' jukebox, his father's old red motor scooter, and two pinball machines which cast an eerie glow throughout the lobby. On the top step visitors are met by Gaultier's assistant, Donald, a gaunt David Bowie look-alike in a skinny white necktie and sharkskin tuxedo jacket with a ''Jean-Paul Gaultier University'' insignia.

Upstairs, American and Japanese buyers come and go. Those jazzy lavender jackets and sheer salmon slips, the ''Gaultier look'' which three days ago were the talk of this town, hung limp and lifeless on chrome clothes racks.

Lanky, handsome, boyish, Jean-Paul Gaultier wore black denims, green socks, black tennis shoes with maroon laces, and a brown plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled. ''Everybody copies.'' The Wunderkindm guzzled a glass of orange juice. ''But the Americans, Germans, and Japanese are the worst. When I worked with Pierre Cardin, if you were a buyer and wanted to see the show, you would have to pay $1,000. Many people photocopy invitations. Others sell their tickets for hundreds of dollars. Then there's the Mafia of the fashion, hiring out spies, selling collection photographs and videos. You still even find spies going through your garbage, looking for scraps of material or clues to your new designs.''

''As far as I'm concerned, haute couture is dead,'' he concluded. ''The most exciting thing in fashion today are the street fashions on young people in London. That's where I get my inspiration.''

Marielle Righini speared the last of her almond tart. ''Designers always have an eye toward the eccentrics in the street. But when you're borrowing ideas, where does thievery begin and inspiration end? Perhaps the moral of the story is the robbed are also the robbers.''

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