Scarf Dance

Gary Bukovnik says his flowers are sprouting on Gucci neckwear, but that's not where they belong

When internationally known San Francisco artist Gary Bukovnik offered to design a special-edition silk scarf for the S.F. Opera, he was surprised to hear that his signature flower paintings had already appeared on a scarf made by Gucci.

Without his knowledge or permission, Bukovnik says the Italian fashion giant appropriated his amaryllis, tulips, geraniums, and a half-dozen other flowers -- 10 sets of images in all -- and used them on a scarf called Fiori nei Bicchieri ("Flowers in Vases").

Frustrated with the luxury goods maker's apparent arrogance, Bukovnik is taking Gucci -- a company known for zealously protecting its own trademark -- to court. He is suing Gucci America Inc. and Guccio Gucci Spa, its Italian affiliate, for copyright infringement in U.S. District Court here. Both companies have denied any wrongdoing. But the evidence speaks volumes in Bukovnik's favor.

The flowers on the brightly colored Gucci foulard bear a striking resemblance to those in works by Bukovnik that appear in an art book, Flowers: Gary Bukovnik Watercolors and Monotypes, published by Harry Abrams Inc. (1990).

"It's completely outrageous," says Bukovnik. "They took my work and used it as clip art. For them to say, 'We're innocent, we didn't do this,' I mean, come on!"

Gucci ought to know a lot about copyright infringement: The company spends vast resources each year protecting its own designs and taking legal action against those bold enough to copy them. But Bukovnik says the company has been steadfastly stubborn in refusing to acknowledge his claims, though it has made one small offer of monetary compensation.

Over coffee at a cafe a few blocks from his South of Market studio, Bukovnik carefully unfolds the 3-foot-by-3-foot silk square, "the evidence," as he calls it. He leafs through the Abrams book of his works and compares several pages with the scarf.

Of the 30 floral images on the scarf, Bukovnik says 10 are directly lifted from original paintings or limited-edition prints copyrighted by him. On Page 89, for example, in California Still Life #37, a watercolor over pencil on paper, bunches of yellow, pink, and purple tulips sit in a square glass vase, their stems bound by red ties. Gucci's scarf shows what looks like three such vases with the same tulips and the same red twist-ties -- a touch Bukovnik says is a signature in his works.

San Francisco Still Life #53, on Page 59, is a watercolor of a row of six amaryllis blooming in pots. Gucci appears to have lifted the middle pair of flowers, which are blue and red, and replicated them in three places on the scarf. And even more blatantly, while one of Bukovnik's flowers has a blank gift tag tied around its stem, in Gucci's version the tag is inscribed with the company's name.

Bukovnik first learned of the Fiori nei Bicchieri scarf last fall. A longtime San Francisco Opera patron and supporter of the arts, he wanted to donate something to the organization for its 75th anniversary. He and the opera decided he should design a scarf for the opera to sell to raise money. In September Bukovnik's agent wrote to the French company Louis Vuitton, which had produced silk scarves with original designs from other well-known artists in the past.

Bukovnik was puzzled by the reply from Vuitton's director of marketing and communication, Jean-Marc Loubier: He thanked the artist for his inquiry and said he admired the artist's work, but that Vuitton was not interested in working on such a project.

"It will be difficult to pursue this project," he wrote, "since the artist has been developing a similar project with [Vuitton competitor] Gucci."

Puzzled, Bukovnik's agent, Larry Banka, wrote back. The artist had never worked with Gucci, he explained, so how did Vuitton have the impression that he had been designing a scarf for them? Vuitton's Loubier replied that he had seen Bukovnik's paintings on one of Gucci's scarves. As a courtesy, he enclosed a color photocopy.

On Oct. 22, the artist went to Gucci's ornate Union Square boutique and saw the evidence for himself. He bought the scarf ($225 plus tax), then hired legal counsel from McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen, and found himself talking to Neil Boorstyn, one of the nation's foremost experts in copyright law.

"This is one of the clearest cases of copyright infringement I've seen in over 40 years," says Boorstyn. "If you compare the picture on the scarf with the paintings as painted by Gary Bukovnik, I don't think there's any doubt. What appears on the scarf is a virtually identical copy of what he painted."

Boorstyn says Bukovnik's situation is similar to a past cas where someone had copied a client's copyrighted sculpture. The "infringer" had used a mold to make copies, but he had neglected to remove the artist's original copyright notice from the bottom of the replicated piece. "This Gucci scarf is another blatant example," he says.

On Nov. 12, Gucci agreed to stop selling Fiori nei Bicchieri in all its stores worldwide. But the next day, Bukovnik's agent, Banka, went back to the Union Square shop and purchased a second scarf -- despite Gucci's written promises to remove the offending items from the shelves.

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