A Toronto designer says a major snowboard company ordered a pair of her no-slip mittens for kids, then started selling a similar product the following year, highlighting a problem faced by many independent designers as they try to protect their designs while looking for customers.
Anna-Maria Mountfort says the idea for her Mimitens came to her when she was a new mom, more than a decade ago.
She was frustrated by how easily her daughter threw off her mittens, but noticed she was unable to shake off a pair of socks Mountfort put on her hands while changing her diaper.
The mother-of-two’s design consists of a mitten with a knit sock-like long sleeve and a cinched cuff so it won’t slip off a child’s hand.
Mountfort said she was talking to a potential retailer for her mittens in 2015, and was told they already carried similar mittens that were made by Burton Snowboards.
Burton’s website at the time sold Minishred mittens for kids with a patterned “extended length stay-up knit cuff.”
“I was so mad. I couldn’t believe it,” said Mountfort.
At the time, Mountfort’s design was patent-pending, which left her without a legal leg to stand on.
Three years later, after a series of emails back and forth with Burton CEO Donna Carpenter and a company lawyer, Burton says it has stopped making its Minishred mittens for the 2018-2019 winter season, and doesn’t plan on making the mitts again, according to an email Carpenter wrote Mountfort which CBC Toronto has seen.
The company has also told Mountfort it will not be compensating her.
Mountfort says she’s still stung by the fact that Burton has never acknowledged that one of its employees ordered a pair of her mittens and has never said whether or not her mittens inspired the ones Burton ended up making.
As long as those products are out there, people might have the impression that it’s Burton’s idea, and it’s not.– Anna-Maria Mountfort, designer and owner of Mimitens
In a statement to CBC Toronto, Carpenter did not address those questions, but said she had looked into Mountfort’s concerns “and found that Burton had done nothing wrong as far as patents go,” and that “multiple brands make gloves and mitts with extended cuffs.”
Mountfort says she doesn’t expect anything from Burton and believes “they don’t respect” small designers. But she wants people to know “where the idea comes from.”
“As long as those products are out there, people might have the impression that it’s Burton’s idea, and it’s not — and ideas matter.”
Mountfort received the patent for her design in Canada and the U.S. earlier this year.
How can designers protect themselves?
Getting those patents was an important legal step in protecting Mountfort’s design going forward, according to a Toronto fashion lawyer and trademark agent.
In general, Anjli Patel recommends that designers look into getting a copyright, patent or trademark on the products they’ve spent so much time developing and bringing to market — something that will be necessary if they ever need to pursue legal action.
Patel says these kinds of issues come up “all the time.”
Fast fashion retailers are notorious for copying established and independent designers and artists.– Anjli Patel, fashion lawyer and trademark agent
“Fast fashion retailers are notorious for copying established and independent designers and artists,” she told CBC Toronto.
Another novel option Patel came across recently involved an independent designer “vetting each and every customer prior to their purchase,” which highlights “the extreme lengths designers will go to to protect their design.”
Mountfort told CBC Toronto she knew it was a Burton employee placing the order for her Mimitens because it came from a company email address, but she had hoped that meant the company might want to collaborate with her.
Designer looks to CEO after hearing interview
Mountfort initially reached out to Burton by email in late 2015 after finding out about the company’s Minishred mittens. A Burton lawyer responded saying there was no infringement on her patent because it was still pending, and that Burton’s mittens were different from her design.
Early in 2017, Mountfort was still waiting on her patent in Canada and the U.S. when she heard an interview with Carpenter on CBC Radio’s As It Happens. The Burton CEO was talking about how she was paying for her female employees to attend the Women’s March on Washington.
In the interview Carpenter also talked about supporting women in entrepreneurship — something Mountfort thought was hypocritical given her own experience.
“I was beside myself with rage,” said Mountfort. “But then I had to calm down and be like, OK, maybe she’s cool. Maybe she’s the person she says she is.
“I’m fully prepared to accept that the CEO of a large company doesn’t know every single thing that happens in every corner of the shop.”
Mountfort wrote to Carpenter directly.
Carpenter replied, telling Mountfort the company was “dropping this style for next [winter ’19] season, eliminating this issue for you,” and said Mountfort should let her know “if there’s anything I can do for you or your daughters.”
More emails followed between the two women, until this year when Mountfort reached out again after receiving the U.S. patent for her design, and asked Burton to pay her as a collaborator for the Minishred mittens it had made.
Carpenter responded, “We at Burton do truly value women entrepreneurs like yourself,” but “unfortunately, Burton is not in a position to collaborate with you or retroactively reimburse you with regard to your mittens.”
The email went on to say that Mountfort’s patents “do not include the same technology used in Burton’s mittens.”
Mountfort wrote back, urging the CEO to reconsider, and telling Carpenter: “You said that you were stoked women were standing up and asking for what they deserve. Look at what that has gotten me with you.”
CEO says Burton ‘has done nothing wrong’
In a statement, Carpenter told CBC Toronto, “It was clear from the angry tone of her message that she was hoping to receive money from us — even though we had done nothing wrong.
“All along, we’ve taken Anna-Maria’s concerns seriously, looked into them and responded transparently. Despite our difference in opinion on this matter, I wish her the best of luck with her business.”
Mountfort says she’s just looking for recognition as an inventor and small business owner. This summer she opened a store on Queen Street East near Pape Avenue, in Toronto’s east end.
“I made a thing and it’s valuable and I deserve some respect,” she said.