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May 29, 2009 11:33 AM

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Trovata, Forever 21 Return to Square One

It was a letdown for both sides. After two years of legal wrangling, days of testimony and thousands of pages of court documents, Trovata and Forever 21 are back at the starting line because of a mistrial over allegations the...

It was a letdown for both sides.

After two years of legal wrangling, days of testimony and thousands of pages of court documents, Trovata and Forever 21 are back at the starting line because of a mistrial over allegations the cheap-chic retailer knowingly copied Trovata's designs. The conclusion of the trial, which had the potential to clarify intellectual property rights in a time when knockoffs of runway looks often find their way into specialty chains before the originals, didn't bring closure, but Trovata accomplished what design houses with bigger budgets and bigger names could not. It forced $1.7 billion Forever 21 into court to answer questions about mimicking looks from designer collections.

And the game isn't over. Trovata has indicated it will seek a new trial.

The juror on the panel of six men and two women who blocked a Trovata win spoke with conviction after the mistrial. Stephen Sharp said design elements in Trovata garments weren't widely known and, therefore, any similar merchandise in Forever 21 stores didn't confuse the public about the brand.

"The jury is placed under difficult circumstances to be ad hoc fashion experts and the law is somewhat vague and contradictory," he said. "There is no impartial body analogous to the patent office. All of these things made it a difficult exercise to go through."

The seven other jurors didn't see things Sharp's way, which suggests the public may have sympathy for the small guys. Take juror Michael Marien, who said he'd had his intellectual property pilfered. "I know how it feels when somebody steals your stuff," he added.

There was plenty of intrigue in the case. A woman shrouded in mystery, Jin Sook Chang, the co-founder of Forever 21 and the Los Angeles-based retailer's head buyer, testified on May 19. Short and demure, she was, for the most part, emotionless.

Chang, who has lived in the U.S. almost 25 years, said she spoke little English and used a Korean interpreter who relayed  that Chang didn't know Forever 21 pulled in more than $1.5 billion. She didn't know the top executives of the company, aside from her husband, chief executive officer Do Won Chang. She hadn't heard of Trovata until the lawsuit.

Off the stand, Chang calmed herself by sitting in a small conference room with her hands clasped in front of her and her eyes closed, as if in prayer. Her prayers appear to have been answered -- at least until the retrial.
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