Could you tell us a little about the history of your ‘Rachel Simpson’ brand and the driving force behind its desire to stay true to high design and comfort?
I started the brand in 2008 having spent several years hand making my own shoe designs as well as working as a freelance footwear designer for a number of high street brands. It’s my passion for traditional shoe making, which is the basis of our ethos, so everything starts with design – both style and comfort.
What keeps you inspired creatively to keep pushing for originality?
One of the most inspiring things is hearing from our customers – the majority of whom are brides to be, so buying their shoes is a relatively emotional purchase. When they say they’ve fallen in love with a particular shoe inspires me to stick to my original ideas, as would they have that same reaction to a copycat/mainstream product?
Your designs have an identifiable vintage aspect, yet also fashion forward style. Creatively and design speaking, how do you draw the line between inspiration and copying?
Many years ago I worked as a children’s footwear designer for a well know household name, and one thing which stuck with me from the legal training there was to ask yourself ‘if you designed the original and you saw this version (i.e. the new design), would you be annoyed?’. I actually think if you’re even asking yourself the question you’ve probably veered too close to the copying side of the line. I think if you’re a true designer you know when you’ve created something truly unique, because it’s hard to stay passionate about something which you know, deep down, didn’t come from within.
‘Rachel Simpson’ is a market leader and survives in a very competitive market 11 years after its inception. Would you put this down to a willingness to consider not only the beauty and quality of a design but also a sense of affordability for Buyers?
Absolutely. Price point has always been really important to me, although it’s also been a bit of a learning curve. I’ve learnt that it’s important to distinguish between price and value. Looking back, In the early days I think suffered from a typical creative’s lack of confidence and as a result probably under-priced for the quality of the product. I don’t think the current trend for fast fashion helps either, as consumers have lost all understanding of how much goes into an individual product. So we’ve tried to educate our customers about what they’re getting, who makes it and all the processes involved from design to manufacture so although our price point is higher, they can see they’re getting true value.
As a result of your investment in design, skill and craftsmanship, ‘Rachel Simpson’ is a leader not a follower. Good design is often copied, have you ever been copied, and how have you overcome it? Could you tell us a little about how you discover and deal with infringements?
I don’t think I realised the extent of the impact we’d had on the UK bridal footwear market until a large mainstream company blatantly copied our bestseller in 2017. It was quite a shock and despite the old adage that impersonation is a compliment, it does hurt when you’ve worked hard to create something truly original and all they’ve done is copy it. We tried to take it to court but it came down to the fact that they had more financial resources than me to keep the solicitor’s (often ridiculous) letters flowing. We’re now a lot savvier in terms of registering designs, but the biggest success is in working even harder on the design side of the brand, so they’ll always be (at least) one step behind. I also think consumers are becoming ever more savvy and want to buy from brands with true integrity and passion for what they do, and you can’t copy that.
What is your message about the pro-copy culture that pervades some of your sector and those who ride rough shod over the law? Do you think that IP ethics, compliance and respect for intellectual property should be the cornerstone of the industry, in terms of declared Corporate Social Responsibility? And if so, how could the fashion sector achieve this?
It’s so hard isn’t it, and I could talk about this all day. I’d like to get to a place where everyone follows fashions and trends, which is vital, but brings their own interpretation and originality to the table and there’s a clear line between inspiration and infringement. Ultimately there will always be leaders and followers – for the former it’s primarily for passion, for the latter it’s profit. Social media has made it easier to call people out nowadays – even the big companies, and like with most big changes, reducing infringement will have to be consumer lead. Hopefully the young people of Generation X, having grown up in a more ethics lead fashion industry, will continue to seek out true originality and support more design lead brands, because the more the copycat brands feel this in their pocket the more they’ll have to take notice and invest in their own, original design.
You invest in your people by helping them to develop skills and craftsmanship. How important do you think this is for the future of the fashion industry?
I think it’s absolutely vital that young designers ensure they don’t forget primary research in the digital age- you can sit at your desk and Google #inspiration from all over the world now, but nothing beats a mooch around a gallery or getting lost in a new city to spark true originality. It’s also so important that they fully understand how something is made, so they can design products which are as much about fit and function as they are about aesthetic.
We now have an IP Act which means criminal provisions for intentional registered design infringement and also for individual directors. Do you believe that if this is extended to unregistered designs infringement, it will become more of a deterrent?
I don’t think it should matter if a design is or isn’t registered – if you’re intentionally copying someone else’s design you’re infringing their copyright regardless. For independent brands it can be unachievably costly and to register every single design, and as it’s often the larger companies doing the copying, it seems unfair that unregistered designs aren’t equally protected.
Can you indicate areas in which ACID has been of particular benefit and support to your/the design world? What could we do in the future to raise further awareness about IP theft?
Annoyingly, joining up to ACID had been ‘on the list’ for ages but it was only when we experienced the copyright infringement close to home in 2017 that we finally got around to it. Now we’re careful to upload all new designs to their databank before they’re released so we’ve got a reliable source of proof should we discover any future infringements. It’s also good for our customers – both wholesale and retail – to know we’re a member, as a sign of how important design and integrity are to us as a brand.
As you know ACID is the main policy and campaigning body for Design & IP reform. What are your 3 recommendations to Government to stem the tide of blatant design theft to support the fashion industry and broader design sector?
Firstly, now it very sadly looks as though the UK will be leaving the EU, I think it’s important the government give us some guidance and clarity on how we protect our unregistered designs within EU27. I think it’s vital they move quickly to allow unregistered designs to be heard in the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court Small Claims Track Court. Lastly I do believe that infringement of an unregistered design should be made a crime, as this will formally recognise the value of design to the UK and create a true deterrent to would-be copycat companies.