Interview with Alice Darwall, French Connection (Part 1)

StyleCounsel is the GCRC’s latest sector that will be focusing on luxury goods, retail and fashion law. Enter the StyleCounsel community to read the latest interviews with GCs of some of the leading companies in the world.

Read out first exclusive interview with Alice Darwall, Group General Counsel at French Connection Group, who talks about ecommerce, globalisation and counterfeiting.
(Interview was conducted by Helena Hill)

Pt.1

Please tell us a little about yourself and your career.

I trained at Hogan Lovells and then spent 2 years post qualification in the EU and Competition Law Dept. I then moved in-house to IBM, and worked initially in tech/media companies – IBM, MTV, Misys before moving into fashion and luxury goods with 2 years at Burberry followed by 9 years at French Connection.

What have been your most influential experiences from your time at French Connection?

I have been very fortunate to work on some really interesting and varied matters at FC from which I have learnt a lot: no two years are the same. One of my first cases was defending a revocation challenge to our FCUK trademark on the grounds of immorality, which was quite unprecedented in trademark law. We won at first instance and on appeal; the case was a fascinating introduction to trademark law and to FC itself as I had to get really immersed in the FC business to prepare our evidence. I have also dealt with copyright litigation in France, class actions in the US, a fascinating indirect sex discrimination case in the UK, the divestment of our Nicole Farhi business, and setting up a JV for China. We have also seen the rise of ecommerce over the past 10 years, from a relatively minor aspect of retail to become a hugely important route to market.

Although the FC business is global and encompasses several different brands, its Head Office management is surprisingly small. In some ways it feels like working in a small business, and being part of such a close-knit team, and having such direct commercial and strategic input into the business has been a terrific experience for me.

The French Connection website states that the company currently operates in more than 30 countries. How does the increasing global nature make the work of in-house lawyers more challenging?

The real change I have noticed in my sector has been the growth of ecommerce and social media over the last 10 years, both of which are obviously international and have had a huge effect on fashion and retail. Commercially, ecommerce and social media are together breaking down the sense of national markets and boundaries. Obviously this can raise some issues that are difficult to foresee and avoid – e.g. the French case against Yahoo over the sale of Nazi memorabilia, accessible to users in France. It is not possible to take legal advice in every country in which consumers can access a merchant’s site or marketing. We have had issues of this kind arising, and resolving them is now part of the cost of doing business on a global level.

Counterfeiting has been highlighted in the media recently following successful raids in the UK and Ireland. Just how difficult is it to monitor both the physical and online fashion market day to day and counteract copycats?

There are certain measures that can be taken to control the physical market in counterfeit goods; e.g. Customs watch notices to try to catch goods at the point of entry, working with Trading Standards. Online counterfeiting is harder to manage; there are services that monitor online sales of counterfeit although these do not come cheap, and if the goods are sold through responsible sites like eBay, it’s possible to get the counterfeit goods removed. But there are many other online avenues for counterfeit goods, and as with all anti-counterfeiting measures, a great deal of effort and expense can be expended for often little result. Brands really need to focus their efforts and investment in the areas of greatest risk to them commercially.

What other topics are prominent for fashion lawyers right now?

In the past couple of years, the spotlight was on the issue of unpaid interns in the fashion world and the Rihanna/Topshop judgment last year was of great interest, but I wouldn’t say that there are any issues particular to lawyers working in fashion, as opposed to our colleagues in other industry sectors.

About Helena Hill

Helena joined the GCRC in December 2013 as StyleCounsel Co-ordinator. Since joining the GCRC, Helena has thoroughly enjoyed interviewing designers and in-house lawyers from leading fashion and lifestyle companies.
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