The University of St Andrews has threatened a scholastic dress supplier with legal action as it claims they have been misleading their students.
The company in dispute, Churchill Gowns, produces similar red gowns to the ones sold by the University of St Andrews to students.
Churchill has been marketing red gowns at £89, in contrast to official University gowns priced at £159. Churchill’s price is similar to that of second-hand academic dress sold by students and alumni.
Churchill Gowns manufactures their product using lower-cost red fleece, as opposed to the University gowns which are made of wool. Both products are similar by colour, as well as the collar being made of the same velvet material. Both also sport an inner-pocket.
However, the University’s official supplier of gowns manufactures their products in the UK, whereas Churchill Gowns outsources to China.
In cease and desist letters uncovered by The Saint, legal representatives of the University of St Andrews allege that Churchill Gowns advertised their products in such a way that suggested “a false endorsement by or association with the University” and thus was “likely to deceive the public into a mistaken belief” that the goods being sold were official University products.
The cease and desist letter also claimed, “Your website advertises the products as ‘St Andrews undergraduate gowns’ and states that the gowns are ‘made to university specifications and are indistinguishable from other suppliers’. The flier also refers to the gowns as ‘THE RED GOWN’, making a clear connection between the gowns being sold by you and those traditional gowns supplied by the University or its official suppliers.
“This is misrepresentation designed to confuse the students and public into believing they are purchasing official University or University endorsed products.”
Describing the company’s history, Ruth Nicholls, Director of Operations for Churchill Gowns UK, said, “Churchill Gowns was founded in Australia in 2014 by two university students who were shocked at the price of graduation, especially the rip-off prices charged for hiring the cap and gown for a couple of hours.”
The company came to the UK when they noticed the situation was “even worse” here and wanted to offer a “more student centric service that cut the universities out of the equation and thereby offered a better value service for students.” Their gowns are also ethically made, with all of their graduation gowns made from recycled plastic.
Speaking of the situation in St Andrews specifically, Ms Nicholls said, “The price being charged by the University shop was just so high for a single item of clothing that would be worn a handful of times.
“We were aware of the second hand market, but saw online that lots of students were missing out on second hand gowns because they didn’t get to the sale early enough in Freshers’ week, or because there weren’t enough sizes available.”
They effectively shut down our Freshers’ Week sale
In addition to online sales, Churchill Gowns also endeavoured to sell their gowns in person during St Andrews Freshers Week between Sunday 9 and Tuesday 11 September.
The company partnered with a local business to sell their gowns and offered a free print with each in-person gown sale. Ms Nicholls stated that the sale went well initially and they received “lots of positive feedback from students.”
While advertising outside of the Students’ Union on Sunday morning, Ms Nicholls alleged that members of the Union approached their employees flyering and told them not to advertise their products there.
She added, “We were then told by some of our customers that when they had earlier visited the University’s gown sale, they were explicitly warned off buying our products by the staff at the sale. As they were representatives of the University, we feel like this amounted to unfair pressure being placed on freshers to buy what the University have termed an ‘official gown’ rather than [giving] a free choice as to where they spend their money.”
On Tuesday morning, the local business where the sales were being held received a cease and desist letter from the University’s legal representatives, Thorntons Law LLP, and informed Churchill Gowns they could not sell their products there, leaving the company unable to conduct their final day of scheduled in-person sales.
“They effectively shut down our Freshers’ Week sale,” Ms Nicholls said, referring to the incident.
The cease and desist letters sent by the University asked Churchill Gowns to sign a ‘form of undertaking’, to be returned to the University no later than Wednesday 12 September.
The form requests that Churchill Gowns not sell any University gowns or goods with the trade marks “University of St Andrews” or “St Andrews,” or any mark similar, and not pass themselves off as being associated with, endorsed by, or connected with “the University or its business.”
The University further requested Churchill Gowns to “cease use of any and all advertising and promotional materials which suggest any association, endorsement or other connection between Churchill products and the University, including but not limited to amending its website and, insofar as possible, withdrawing any printed or electronic promotional materials which are already in circulation.”
The Saint spoke with Churchill Gowns who stated that they had not signed and returned the document, and had no intention of doing so.
Churchill Gowns, as of the time of writing (23 September), continues to trade their red gowns and has made no alterations to their website as requested by the University.
For their online sales, Churchill Gowns has a disclaimer visible on their website which states, “Churchill Gowns is not affiliated with and does not represent this institution in any way.” This is in addition to a graph which compares their prices to the University of St Andrews. This information was obscured or not presented in the evidence provided in the University’s cease and desist letters.
In response, a spokeswoman from the University of St Andrews said, “The purpose of the cease and desist letter is to make clear the concerns of the University and its students. In our view it is not sufficient that a company states it is not affiliated with the University, while it also claims gowns are made to University specifications.
“This is a false endorsement, which we believe constitutes mis-selling of gowns to students who believe they will be of equivalent quality to the official University gown.”
Although not explicitly clear from their website, Churchill Gown’s assertion that their gowns are made to “university specifications” is not a reference to University of St Andrews guidelines. The reference appears throughout their website and is in fact a reference to George Shaw’s classifications, a scholastic dress scholar who designed academic robes for the University of Bath, among others.
The University spokeswoman also claimed that students were being led to purchase gowns “which do not support the Students’ Association or teaching and research within the University as official gowns do.”
She added, “A unique student tradition is being diminished by this confusion.”
Churchill Gowns is not affiliated with and does not represent this institution in any way
The University of St Andrews also vocalised their lack of support for Churchill Gowns on its social media, writing, “Please note these gowns are not endorsed by the University, and do not support the circular economy and community benefits our red gowns symbolise.”
The post emphasised the red gown as an emblem of the University for 600 years. President of the Students’ Association Paloma Paige also stated in the post that wearing a red gown meant “joining the family” and that students should source their gowns from an official supplier “to help ensure the integrity of what they represent.”
Members of the community expressed both positive and negative views of the University’s recommendations. However, there were many calls for the University to re-evaluate the pricing of its gowns.
The top comment on the University’s Facebook post from Nasos Cafrillio read, “Someone should have thought of that before putting a price tag of £159 for a gown…”
Stephen Allen commented, “If the alternatives being offered new at half the price are of the same quality, then perhaps the Uni shop [sic] needs to review its pricing and / or [sic] find a more cost efficient supplier … They will thank you for that rather than being browbeaten into spending more of their loans on an overpriced item.”
Lorraine Callaghan, former SRC Member for Age Equality, said, “A lot of money if you buy one to hang in the wardrobe, a reasonable price if you get involved with the Ambassador scheme, town and gown celebrations, ceremonies and traditions … It helped me (a mature student on a tight budget) feel part of something pretty special.”
The red gown is traditionally worn by University students for weekly pier walks, formal dinners, appearances on “University Challenge” and debates, among other occasions.
In addition to the University’s social media efforts, Ms Paige also emailed students asking them to respond if they had bought an unofficial red gown and made a complaint or sought a refund.
Churchill Gowns offers a 100 per cent money back guarantee if the customer is unsatisfied with their purchase.
Speaking to The Saint, Ms Paige said, “Students have come to me saying that, at the point of online purchase, they were unaware that Churchill gowns were not the same as those sold in the University shop. It was only after they arrived, or the notifications from myself and the University were published, that they realised there was a significant difference.”
She added, “I heard from 10 students who noted any or multiple of the following: poor quality of the Churchill gowns, they were seeking a refund for the Churchill gown, they had been unaware that Churchill was not related to the University, they had felt misled by tactics used by Churchill.”
Clarifying comments that unofficial gowns did not support “the circular economy and community benefits” which the red gowns symbolise, Ms Paige said, “I understand that a new official red gown is not a small purchase. The cost is high, but it is important to note that the Shop does not charge nearly as much as it could for such a product.
A unique student tradition is being diminished by this confusion
“The profit it does make gets funnelled back into the University and, by extension, the Students’ Association, which are both registered charities working for the benefit of all St Andrews students.”
However, it is unclear how great a margin of profit the University Shop receives per purchase of every new red gown.
The University of St Andrews has refused Freedom of Information requests to disclose this information, citing that the University Shop is a registered business and claims exemption from disclosing this information in order to allow gown suppliers to remain “competitive.”
St Andrews’ easily recognisable red gowns have been criticised in the past for being elitist.
Earlier this year, an independent adviser to the Scottish Government, Professor Peter Scott, called for the abolishment of the dress.
Professor Scott said at the time, “A university such as St Andrews, that prides itself on its traditions, needs to take into account the fact that that might act as a bit of a put-off for certain applicants.”
According to 2015-16 figures, the University of St Andrews, in comparison with other mainstream higher education institutions, was found to have the most privately-educated student body in Scotland.
At the time, St Andrews had the lowest proportion of state school students at 56.7 per cent, over 10 per cent lower than the University of Edinburgh, which was the second-most privately educated institution.
The statistics contributed to accusations that the University has an elitist student culture and traditions, discouraging those who aren’t privately educated from attending.
Professor Scott added, “Students there parade around in red gowns. That is probably not an image some people want to be associated with. Such universities need to work a bit harder to provide to those people that they would fit in and would be welcome there.”
“It is important to note that the [University] Shop does not charge nearly as much as it could for such a product” -Paloma Paige, Association President
While other universities engage in a gown culture akin to St Andrews, their gowns, though much different physically, are significantly lower in price.
Shepherd and Woodward, a supplier of Oxford University’s undergraduate and postgraduate gowns, sells commoner – first year and undergraduate – gowns at £19.99 and scholars gowns at £49.99.
At Durham University’s Grey College, gowns are compulsory and cost £53 bought new, though they also offer a limited selection of second-hand gowns for £25.
Currently, the University bears an informational sign outside of its official shop, that reads, “We are aware some students have bought red gowns from a third party supplier, Churchill Gowns and [a local business]. These are not official University gowns and have not been endorsed by the University. Proceeds from the University shop and sales flow through to the Students Association as well as to the University, where it supports teaching and research.
“Should students receive a refund for their purchases from Churchill Gowns and [the local business], official University gowns can still be purchased from the University Shop.”
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