Fashion, Federal Judges, Frank Easterbrook, Richard Posner

A Rather Random Meditation on Techne

dress form.jpgGee, we sure wandered off the reservation. We started off intending to write about this interesting Wall Street Journal article, discussing the lawsuit filed by high-end handbag maker Coach against big-box retailer Target (pronounced by some “tar-ZHAY”).
Sure, the news is a few days old. But we couldn’t resist writing about it, since it combines two of our great interests: law and fashion. As we mentioned earlier, lately we’ve grown quite interested in handbags, after reading Andrea Lee’s fascinating article about them in the New Yorker’s recent fall style issue.
From the WSJ article about the case:

Coach alleged that Target was a counterfeiter by selling a Coach-style purse, complete with a hang tag that says “Coach,” according to Coach Chief Financial Officer Mike Devine. The allegedly fake bag has Coach’s signature C-pattern and a touch of snakeskin-like fabric in the center of the bag, according to a photo of it included in the lawsuit. The bag, purchased from a Target store in Largo, Fla., is an “exact replica of a genuine Coach handbag” bearing at least one Coach trademark, the suit says.

This reminded us of the famous Coco Chanel quote: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Of course, Coach seems more incensed than flattered by what Target has allegedly done.
That in turn made us think about this great piece in the Times magazine, which we just finished reading, about the late Madeleine Vionnet. Vionnet, who passed back away in 1975, is widely regarded as the twentieth century’s queen of cut and drape. Here’s how the Times describes her:

White-haired and unglamorous, [Vionnet] shunned the limelight sought by her archrival, Coco Chanel, who got her start making hats and whom Vionnet often derided as just a milliner. Late in life, Vionnet conceded that Chanel had taste, but she forever felt superior to the popularizer of quilted handbags and black-toed slippers.

While we adore Chanel (who doesn’t), we must profess special admiration for Vionnet. Many professionals, once they reach the top of their field, become “big picture” people, refusing to sully their hands with little details. Chanel and many other designers, for example, reach a point where they don’t make clothes themselves, but just give the “thumbs’ up” or “thumbs’ down” to what their junior designers have come up with.
But we deeply admire people at the top who haven’t lost the skills they honed while climbing the ladder to success — and who can still exercise those skills when called upon to do so. This type of knowledge is what the Greek philosophers referred to as techne, i.e., “art, craft or skill.”
Here are some categories of people we admire on these grounds:

— Biglaw partners who still draft their own briefs, like many of the ones we worked with at Wachtell Lipton;

— celebrity chefs who still prepare meals with their own two hands, like Thomas Keller and Mario Batali; and

— contemporary artists who, instead of having workshop minions execute their abstract concepts, still paint their own paintings (extra points if the work is figurative).

And, of course, judges who still draft their own opinions, like Seventh Circuit judicial deities Richard Posner and Frank Easterbrook. They aren’t just Article III machines dispensing outcomes, and issuing marching orders to their clerks; they are legal craftsmen. They are the federal bench’s answer to Cristobal Balenciaga, about whom Judith Thurman wrote the following (in the July 3, 2006 New Yorker):

Arbiters of fashion generally agree that Balenciaga, the son of a Basque fisherman and a seamstress, was the greatest couturier of the last century. Dior considered him the primus inter pares, and Chanel conceded that Balenciaga alone could construct a perfect garment from start to finish with his own hands, whereas everyone else was merely “a designer.”

Actually, maybe our Balenciaga comparison goes too far. Here’s what we need to know about Judge Posner and Judge Easterbrook before we dub them the Balenciagas of the federal judiciary: Do they do their own Westlaw and LEXIS research? If so — if they can locate, Keycite, print out, and highlight the cases, statutes, and other authorities they rely upon — then they truly can “construct a perfect [opinion] from start to finish with [their] own hands.”
(This was quite a digression. We thank you for your indulgence.)
Not Our Bag, Coach Says [Wall Street Journal via WSJ Law Blog]

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