Competition Law Issues in the Fashion Industry

By: Cheshta Tater 

When one thinks of the fashion industry, the first words which come into one’s head are “designer wear” and “exclusivity”. A small consumer share but a considerable revenue and profit share of the fashion industry comprises luxury fashion.[1] Luxury fashion thrives on exclusivity and brand value and is always a status symbol, never a need. Given its exclusive and expensive nature, one cannot help but wonder how it rarely ever comes under the lens of the Competition Commission of India (“CCI”) or any other anti-trust regulatory body.

The objective of competition law is to create a healthy market environment by protecting and balancing the interests of businesses, consumers, and the economy. Lower but competitive prices allow consumers to make informed decisions about the substitutive products they wish to purchase while ensuring that no business abuses its dominant position. However, in the luxury sector of the fashion industry, the prices of products are always sky-rocketing. The much affordable products can not substitute them since the cost of a product, and its brand carries high social standing value, and are often one of a kind.

In the past few years, there have been several mergers and acquisitions in the luxury fashion sector worldwide, leading to a few dominant players. However, none of them has come under the beat for violating provisions of competition law. Through this article, the author would elaborate upon regulatory authorities’ findings regarding the monopolies present in the luxury sector. After that, the intersection of Intellectual Property Rights (“IPR”) and Competition Laws concerning the fashion industry. Lastly, the author would present their views on the necessity to check on the dominant players in the luxury and high fashion sectors.

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  1. Escaping the Watchdogs

The 1990s saw the boom of luxury fashion houses as well as fast fashion houses across the globe. With India’s globalisation in 1991, these brands became household names for the affluent and aspirational products for the middle class. One such brand was “Louis Vuitton”, the first label of the world’s largest luxury fashion group, LVMH.[2]

Since 1987, LVMH has acquired many luxury labels, both within and outside the fashion sector. Today, the group owns 75 luxury houses[3] in the industry of, inter alia, clothing, cosmetics, bags, watches, wines and spirits, and perfumes. In 2000, the joint acquisition of the fashion house Prada by LVMH and Fendi was approved.[4] The European Commission allowed for such a merger since these companies’ market share did not exceed the 25% limit.[5] Even though the 25% mark was crossed in the luxury handbags sector and leather accessories, the Commission chose to look at the luxury sector as a whole rather than dividing it into segments such as luxury clothing, luxury handbags, and luxury wines, and the likes.[6] The Commission believed that despite the merger, the parties would not be a dominant player in the market,[7] and the same was reasoned by stating:

  • Luxury items have low to no substitutability with other similar but non-luxurious products[8]; and
  • The purchase of a luxury good is linked to prestige rather than consumption of a specific item,[9] indicating that one luxury label’s product can not be substituted by a similar effect of another luxury label.

The goodwill, brand name, and the trademark value of a luxury fashion group is the most significant factor in deciding the cost of its goods and its worth as a status symbol. The intersection of IPR and Competition law is discussed in the following segment. This will help understand the exorbitant prices and the Commission’s reasons behind allowing the joint acquisition.

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  1. The intersection of IPR and Competition Law

IPR refers to a bundle of rights which give the owner the right to exclude others from accessing the product, subject to a limited period, i.e., it aims towards providing a sort of monopoly to the owner of the said invention by giving them the sole right to use or distribute it. On the other hand, Competition Law strives for the exact opposite and actively works towards a non-monopolistic market. Hence, a tussle arises between the two–which while talking of similar subjects, are complementary to one another in nature in certain areas and balancing them is essential for having a near-perfect market.

The denotation of ‘competition’ in the IPR and Competition Law are contextually different. The primary objectives of granting IPR encourage fierce competition among the intending innovators and simultaneously restrict the competition in many ways. At the end of the specified duration, the rights go to the public domain ending the completion. The objective of Competition Law is to prevent abusive practices in the market, promote and sustain competition in markets and ensure that the consumers get the right products at a reasonable price and better quality.[10]

While competition in IPR is reward-based, it aims to regulate and eliminate the unfair advantages wielded by monopoly holders in Competition Law. Competition Law also does not recognise the concept of right, while IPR on the other hand, by way of competition, allows for exploitation of rights, albeit in a restricted manner. However, in both, the basic concept of competition is the main driving force of respective legislation. While it may seem that the objectives of both are poles apart, somewhere down the line, their ultimate goals are the same, i.e., to achieve consumer welfare.

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When it comes to luxury fashion, a dire need is seen to strike a balance between the two laws. While IPR is essential to luxury brands as more than anything, it is the brand’s uniqueness, which makes it a luxurious one. For example, it is the red sole of Christian Louboutin’s, which attribute them their high value. The principles of IPR must remain intact to promote innovation and cater to the public who may value uniqueness as an important factor while purchasing. For the same, evils such as Counterfeiting must be avoided and actively punished not to bring down the value of said luxury brands and in the background, the importance of innovation.

However, it is also crucial that these exclusive rights do not turn into Monopolies which in turn do not just turn exploitative to other producers, but are also unfair to the consumer as because of this exclusivity, not only can be charged exorbitant prices for said ‘unique products’, but also result in lesser variety for the consumer to choose from. And hence, the balance between Competition Law and IPR needs to be struck perfectly to neither take away from the Innovators and Owners, but also not hamper the consumer.

  • Bring them under the lens.

As discussed earlier, luxury brands are known for their exclusive goods and sometimes, even their exclusive customers. A luxury handbag label, Birkin, is so exclusive that bags aren’t available in retail stores and only a very few loyal customers are even offered to purchase a Birkin handbag.[11] This exclusivity of the brand and its reflection lies in the originality and sophistication of the product’s creation, the qualitative level of the materials used, and the products’ marketing.

Considering such exclusivity of the brand and its goods, presupposing luxury products’ interchangeability does not set a good precedent. For instance, no other label’s handbag is at par with a Birkin bag when it comes to exclusivity and status. As established earlier, luxury products are not purchased for their utility but their reputation. Even a product of the same fashion house cannot replace the more exclusive product at such a point. Taking the example of Birkin, a Birkin bag cannot be substituted by a bag of Hermès, which is the parent company of Birkin. Their cost indicates the same. While the cheapest Hermès bag sells for $540, the cheapest Birkin doesn’t trade for anything less than $12000.[12]

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Suppose the interchangeability of luxury products cannot be presumed. In that case, the entire luxury market cannot be created as a single competitive space, i.e., a more transparent and distinct division of products is necessary to correctly evaluate competitiveness and dominance in the luxury market. Wines and bags cannot be created in the same market. Once distinct relevant market needs are defined, it will be apparent that LVMH is a dominant player in two sectors: luxury handbags and luxury leather accessories.[13] The pertinent question in competition law now arises: Is this dominant position being abused?

In LVMH’s case, it is crucial to understand that the group owns 75 brands, many of which are “must-have” goods for retailers, i.e., an essential product that retailers have to stock and display to meet their customer’s requirements.[14] This leads to lower bargaining power in the hands of the retailer so that they have to stock more from the house, apart from the most-have. In turn, this leads to the absence or reduced presence of other dwellings in such a boutique because the retailer only has so much capital to invest.

Companies are free to enter the market in a competitive market to compete with existing players, without immediately devoured by more powerful rivals. It is becoming difficult for existing players to compete with LVMH; one can only imagine how new players will be slaughtered in the market. LVMH’s turnover of 53.7 billion euros in 2019 marked its dominance as the strongest player in the luxury market. Gucci, the second-largest luxury fashion house, has still not reached the 10 billion euro turnover landmark.[15]

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The numbers speak for themselves, indicating that the abuse of a dominant market position is not always active but is passive. If too much emphasis is placed on active abuse, there may be a risk that the market’s actual situation and concerns are overlooked.

[1] McKinsey and Company, The State of Fashion 2020 (2020) <> 90-91

[2] Deloitte, Global Powers of Luxury Goods 2019: Bridging the Gap between the Old and the New (2019) <> 15, 42

[3] LVMH, Houses, <,exquisite%20caliber%20of%20its%20products.&text=Our%20group%20of%20wines%20and,no%20other%20in%20the%20world> last accessed 22 December 2020

[4] Commission approves joint acquisition of Fendi by LVMH and PRADA (European Commission, 26 May 2000) <> last accessed 22 December 2000

[5] Commission of the European Communities, LVMH / PRADA / Fendi (2000) COMP/M.1780 [16]

[6] ibid

[7] ibid [22]

[8] ibid [11]

[9] ibid [10]

[10] Shubhodip Chakraborty, Interplay Between Competition Law And IPR In Its Regulation Of Market (Lawctopus, 15 November 2015) <,adverse%20effect%20on%20the%20market> last accessed on 23 December 2020

[11] Sarah Lindig, This Iconic Bag is Still the Most Exclusive in the World (Harper’s Bazaar, 14 June 2015) <> last accessed 22 December 2020

[12] Hermès <> last accessed 23 December 2020

[13] LVMH / PRADA / Fendi (n 6)

[14] Commission of the European Communities, Coca-Cola/Amalgamated Beverages GB (1997) IV/M.794 [136-138]

[15] George Arnet, Gucci on Track to Hit €10 Billion in 2020 (Vogue Business, 26 April 2019) <> last accessed 24 December 2020

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