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Celebrity-Worn Haute Couture Dresses Can’t Avoid Customs Duties

US Customs ruled that no specialty provisions existed to avoid the payment of customs duties, or severely reduce them, on haute couture garments imported by Christian Dior Couture® (CDC).  According to US Customs, a determination was sought acknowledging that the garments could either qualify

(a) for duty free treatment enter under an A.T.A. carnet as samples

(b) under a Temporary Importation Bond (TIB) as articles not for sale or sale on approval to be repaired, altered or processed, or

(c) for unused merchandise drawback.

Each of these types of treatment would have resulted in a preferred duty treatment sought.

The facts presented with respect to the use of the garments were as follows:

“Christian Dior Couture imports haute couture garments so that they may be furnished to celebrities at no cost to wear at high-profile events, such as the Academy Awards ceremony. The garments serve an important form of advertising for the company because they allow the company to increase its brand awareness and showcase the latest fashions and increase sales.  Once entered into the United States, each piece is fitted to the particular person wearing the haute couture piece so that it may properly display the intended design. Such fittings include hemming, shortening, and/or otherwise altering for the measurements of the person displaying the piece. Only one of each piece will be imported. After exhibition at the event for which the piece was imported, the piece is returned to the company’s U.S. office, and shipped back to the company’s office in Paris, France. During this time, the company does not sell the garments, but retains ownership. The haute couture pieces generally spend no more than a week in the United States.”[1]

Despite these details, Customs claimed that while it did meet the test of being for purposes of soliciting orders, it was also served to provide a celebrity with a garment to use to a high-profile events, which is precisely the environment that are meant to be worn in and in the manner intended.  These therefore, constituted a normal use of the garment, and when you factored in the reality that there was no intention of soliciting orders for the item while being worn, the haute couture did not qualify for entry under an A.T.A. Carnet.

As for qualifying under a TIB, CDC needed the garments to qualify as articles being repaired, altered or processed here in the US and for which would be exported within 1 year from the date of importation.  From CDC’s description of the use of the garments however, it was clear to Customs that the main purpose for importation was something other than for an alteration, repair or processing, and for this reason, it didn’t qualify under a TIB.

Regarding drawback, to qualify for this the garments needed to be exported in the same condition as imported within 3 years from the date of importation, having not been used in the US.  Customs reasoned however, that since the pieces of haute couture were furnished to celebrities for use at a high profile event, that the garments were in fact “used,” and therefore not eligible for duty drawback either.  This is because Customs description of “use” turns on being “employed for the purpose for which it was built, which in this case, include[d] celebrities wearing and exhibiting the haute couture pieces at events.” [2]

While there is a special provision does allow women’s wearing apparel to enter duty free for purposes of soliciting orders, it cannot be removed from the importer's establishment for reproducing, copying, painting, sketching, or for any other use by others, nor be used in the importer's establishment for such purposes except by the importer or his employees.

[1] Customs ruling HQ H251771, 12/16/2014.

[2] Id. Citing HQ H240038 (6/16/14).

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