All the Hot Fashion Trade Secrets c. 1925
Véronique Pouillard on the Illegal Copyist Networks in Haute Couture
The workers at haute couture houses were sometimes accused of using their proximity to design creativity to earn additional money through illegal copyist networks. In 1931, a worker could receive an average of 50 to 100 French francs for sneaking out a new design. Haute couture workers were also hired for after-hours work in copy houses, where they would be asked to replicate what they had seen and done during the day.
Along with the three previously discussed classical categories of intellectual property rights—trademark, copyright, and patent—was another one, perhaps more difficult to define, that might be subsumed under the concept of the trade secret. The emphasis of the couturiers’ intellectual property strategies might rest to varying degrees on some of these rights, according to place and time and to entrepreneurial preferences.
During the 1920s, the haute couture houses increased their surveillance of their workers and developed a policy of professional secrecy that produced strict rules for the trade. The statutes of the Chambre Syndicale outlined that it was perfectly legal for a couturier to insist upon rules regarding the employment conditions of haute couture workers. Leaving one couture house for another could be considered a breach of contract, and litigation between haute couture houses and employees on these grounds was quite common in the industry.
Most of these conflicts played out at the employment tribunals (Conseil des Prud’hommes). The section in charge of the fabric industries for the Seine Department met on Fridays. Cases were exclusively work-related litigation, and most questions were about the payment of wages. Counterfeiting was not part of the realm of law covered by the trading court, but, at times, litigation between workers and employers touched on the question of intellectual property rights. In the second half of the 1920s, the case of Martiale Constantini, modéliste-décoratrice, and Muguette Buhler, dessinatrice, both of whom worked for Madeleine Vionnet & Cie, sheds some light on the relationship between the employees and the ownership of their contribution to their workplace.
Buhler entered the house of Vionnet in May 1925, earning 1,000 francs per month and a hot lunch on workdays, which would start at 9 am and last until 7 pm (4 pm on Saturdays). Only Sunday was work-free. Upon starting her job in 1925, Buhler had, like all employees in the firm, been asked to sign a clause of design confidentiality that had been prepared by Armand Trouyet, the house’s managing director at the time. It read as follows: “The creations of Madeleine Vionnet, being registered and published according to the law, it is forbidden to reproduce them, or to draw inspiration from them. You declare accepting to work to the benefit of the Société Madeleine Vionnet, and you also declare knowing that every copy, every reproduction, even modified, of the designs, results for its author in the penalties issued by the law.”
Over the next five years, Buhler’s salary was raised to 1,250 francs per month, and eventually, in 1929, 2,200 francs per month. Buhler had high hopes of being promoted to modéliste and felt that she was a participant in creating designs. On November 13, 1929, Buhler arrived at work and saw that the closet where she kept her personal objects and drawings had been unlocked and that everything had been taken without notice. Buhler had one key to the closet, and the management of the firm had another key. Upon discovering that the closet was empty, Buhler called the police and filed a complaint of theft.
But the next day, Trouyet gave Buhler notice to leave her position without a clear reason. Another employee, décoratrice-modéliste Constantini, expressed her solidarity with Buhler. Subsequently, Constantini was also given notice without a stated reason. Both Buhler and Constantini then sued Vionnet at the trading court, seeking reparations for having been laid off so abruptly and, in the case of Buhler, for having lost her personal belongings and drawings. Each employee asked for 1,100 francs in salary, 13,200 francs for breach of contract, and 50,000 francs in damages. The trading court granted them each 1,100 francs for salary due. The correspondence between Vionnet and Trouyet and the two employees shows that the atmosphere in the workplace had deteriorated. Vionnet, who had at first been very happy with the two women, had in recent months noticed that they were arriving late and cultivating “a spirit of revolt and anarchy.”
Trade secrets in this case seemed to have rendered the atmosphere of the workshops quite oppressive, and Buhler felt cheated when she discovered that her drawings had been taken. According to the statement by the firm’s direction, the change happened suddenly, when Vionnet ordered that all drawings within the workshops be stamped with the firm’s mark; this was done overnight and was the reason why the closet in which Buhler kept her drawings had been raided. Vionnet, in return, declared that she was furious that Buhler had “introduced a police officer in her House,” and Constantini was fired because she showed solidarity with Buhler.
The case of Buhler and Constantini shows that being a modéliste was a coveted position that came with responsibility in a context of trade secrecy. Although work litigation and counterfeiting litigation took place at different courts, Vionnet was represented by the same defense lawyer, Maître Flach, in either type of case. In the late 1920s, the monthly salary for a modéliste in a Paris haute couture or haute mode firm could be as high as 4,000 French francs—which was also the price of one Vionnet dress. For comparison purposes, we know that during the 1920s, aside from her financial interest in the firm, the fixed salary of Vionnet herself was 10,000 French francs per month. Modélistes had the right to three months’ notice prior to dismissal, as opposed to one month’s notice for seamstresses.
Several cases show that houses could be reluctant to assign workers the title of modéliste. It was also a contentious position thanks to the ambiguity surrounding who actually represented a work’s creator—was it the modéliste or the entrepreneur? Who owned a design, if the modéliste had created it? The trading court cases underline “the secrecy that is attached to the designs” and conclude that ownership of such designs went to the entrepreneur. A way to reinforce trust between the leadership and employees was to offer them some perks, and in haute couture firms that include Vionnet, the development of welfare benefits for employees occupied an important place in the management. Besides philanthropy, the link between welfare and the preservation of knowledge within the industry was a coherent part of the management culture in haute couture.
Excerpted from Paris to New York: The Transatlantic Fashion Industry in the Twentieth Century by Véronique Pouillard, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2021 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.