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Wireless Designer Labels Help Chic Shoppers Show Off
March 6, 2006

MILAN--In a bid to both attract technologically savvy clients and combat the scourge of high-fashion knock-offs, a special research committee of the Joint Council for Fashion and Design announced Wednesday the final draft an open standard for the wireless authentication of designer garments. "The standard has been a longtime in development," notes Greta Weif, Chair of the Council's steering committee. "And we are very pleased with the results. The system will, at last, bring the technology of fashion awareness into the 21st century."

The system, known as 'Authus,' features wireless chips stitched into the labels or linings of designer garments. The flexible chips, made of a durable, semi-conducting polymer, each include identifying information, a unique 'private' encryption key, and bluetooth-compatible radio frequency wireless functionality. When in the proximity of an Authus garment, bluetooth aware devices will be able to receive information about the garment and it's provenance, including the designer, season, line, and studio.

"Though it is about brand awareness, [Authus] is nothing as vulgar as advertising," notes Hilbert Monroe, Helmut Lang's Chief of Anthropology. "Our fieldwork indicates that many clients in our core demographic hesitate to inquire about a garment's origins out of a fear of appearing ignorant. Authus ensures that the signature on our garments is available, always, discreetly, to everyone."

The Authus standard also calls for use of a key-pair encryption scheme for authentication of a garment's label. "Each label includes a private encryption key paired with a public key stored on a designer's or studio's secured server," explains the Council's Weif. "Information coming out of the chip is signed by the chip's private key, and can be opened only by the public key. If there's no public key for the garment on the designer's server, then you can't open its label and you know the garment's a fake."

In addition to information about the designer and season, Authus labels also identify the location of purchase, the amount paid for the garment at the time of purchase, and, for past-season garments, a depreciated value. "Our customers tend to be very price conscious," explains Anthropologist Monroe. "Price transparency is crucial. If a customer paid $8,500 for peppermint cashmere socks, he wants the world to know so, in a verifiable way. That same customer wants to know if the other guy with the same socks bought them at-market, in-season, in Bal Harbor, or if he picked them up marked-down at an outlet, off-season."

By pursuing open standards, the Council aims to enable cross-designer aggregation functions, including the ability of an ensemble including garments from different designers to produce a unified informational profile through a combination of inter-garment and inter-server communications. Weif explains: "What you should be able to do is point your PDA at somebody on the street and get an instant profile, including a total gross expenditure for the whole ensemble: where they shop and how much they spend, in a snapshot."

Responding to the Authus announcement, privacy experts sounded notes of concern. "We are justifiably concerned about how this system is going to be used," worries First Privacy founder Willamette Quan. "Beyond the nightmare possibilities of 'fashion police' devices looking for 'knock offs' is the subtler, but deeper, threat the system poses to the anonymity that is crucial to equality in public spaces. Do we really want to live in a world where everybody walks around with a dollar figure over their heads?"

"Fashion is about publicity, not privacy," responds Prada spokesman Michael Adams-Green-Bury. "Our clothes make a complex social statement, and the [Authus] labels are part of that statement. Our clients choose us because they have something to say. Our job is to help them say it."

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