Many Happy Returns

Final-Sale-Sign

Over the years, retailers have liberalized their returns policies. I have been offered thirty days, ninety days, sometimes one hundred eighty days in which to receive forgiveness if I should change my mind. I have even been quietly assured that, if I sign up as a preferred customer, the returns privilege is open-ended, which I suppose means that you can bring back your bar mitzvah suit after you wear it a second time for your retirement party (as long as you have the receipt). Even if formal policy says no to a return, it may simply be ignored if you are polite about it and willing to accept a store credit as a compromise.

In part to soften customer concerns about the risks of buying online, retailers have made buying from the Internet into a shop at home service, making returns as easy as putting the product back into the box, sticking on a return label and sending it back from whence it came—sometimes at no additional cost. (Shoe purchases seem to be particularly blessed in that way.)

When the goods come from a boots-on-the-ground shopping experience, customers are increasingly becoming their own shop at home services, scooping up whatever looks promising (sometimes in alternative sizes and colors) and making final purchase decisions in the privacy of their own bedrooms. The result of all this back and forth is that is that, depending on the category, returns can equal as much as forty percent of a retailer’s sales—perhaps even more in seasonal spikes.

When an item is marked “final sale,” however, the retailer is saying: “I’ve had enough of all that; I really want this one to move; here it is at a very good price I would never otherwise accept; now take it and don’t ever let me see it again.” We can all understand why a no-returns policy makes sense for underwear. But consider this as well: every luxury retailer has stories about evening gowns returned the day after a well-publicized big event, fragrant with perfume. For the same reason, it is understandable why a jeweler would make returns difficult or even impossible—to avoid, that is, turning into a free lending library for expensive necklaces and bracelets.

So by all means, take advantage of final sale offers. (By definition, it is your last chance to buy the item anyway.) But keep in mind that there is no turning back when you do. Your moment as your own style consultant has come: if you buy it, you own it, so make sure you like it at point of sale.

A special, final and heartfelt warning: if you are a guy with a wife or girlfriend who examines what you wear as if your reputation and hers depended on it (How, you may ask, would I know of such a guy?), you had better bring her along, just to be sure. If she first sees it when you bring it home and on the spot offers an opinion along the lines of, “What were you thinking? Take that thing back!” it is no time for your response to start with, “Uh…”

Credit: Alan Behr


Decoding Suit Sales Talk

Gentleman-In-Business-Suit-SeniorSometimes we write here for the fashion crowd, and sometimes we write for the rest of us. So, regular guys—here are a couple quick points about what to watch out for when buying a suit:

If the suit is for business (and how many bought by anyone who is not a groom are anything but?), be careful when bringing along the lady in your life. She probably does dress herself better than you do yourself, but you are not dressing for her: mostly, you are dressing for your boss. If you bring your lady love, and the sales staff see her walking in ahead of you, they know from experience that they have to sell her, not you; the next thing you know, you become the mannequin for an ensemble of her creation. Unless you are dating Donna Karan or happen to bring along Miuccia Prada, do not let that happen to you.

Maybe you look great in brown or maroon. Nearly all proper business suits are “city colors,” which means blue or gray. Best to make your peace with that and move on.

Fit is everything. After you have tried on three or four suits, you will nearly always do best by going with the one that fits best before the tailor makes alterations. The shoulders are everything. If they work, the suit may have a chance; if they do not, try something else.

When in a fitting, put on both the trousers and the jacket. During the fitting, if the salesman or fitter asks, “Are you going to wear the jacket open or closed?” answer “Both,” and give back the suit you have on. You have just been discreetly informed that the jacket is too tight and cannot be altered to fit properly. If the salesman asks if you “have enough room” in the pants, he is hinting that they look too small. Make sure that there is enough extra cloth at the waist and in the seat to let them out properly or hand that one back too.

Conventional wisdom holds that, when you try on the suit and stand in it before the fitter’s triptych mirror, you should look not at the suit but at yourself—to understand how you look in it. That is not as easy to do in practice as it sounds. Lots of guys who try that just see their own faces staring back at them in bewilderment. Others, myself included, start to notice that the mirror adds an unpleasant green cast. So look at the suit, look at yourself, tilt your head up and look at the light fixtures, glower at the price tag—just keep looking until something clicks in your head that you like what you have on. And if that does not happen, take it off and try again with something else.

If you live in what in North America is the temperate zone, you are probably in a place where the difference between winter chill and summer heat is so extreme, you will need two separate suit wardrobes: one in winter weight and another in tropical weight. (A good rule of thumb is that a summer suit should have a weight of cloth of between about 7.5 ounces and—at a maximum—nine ounces.) There is a third option, invented by sales people, known as “year-round weight.” That applies, as needed by them (but not you), either to a summer-weight suit the sales person is trying to sell for winter or a winter-weight suit being pushed for summer. Wool does not change its thickness to preference. If you call the sales person out on it, you know that he or she is really having you on if the response goes: “You can wear it ten months of the year.” If that happens, vacate the area immediately and find someone who will give you a straight answer.

Finally, when fitting a suit: if you let the sales person and the fitter know how much you really like it, and you see that the reaction is guarded hesitation—ask them politely to come clean and also ask if the sales person can recommend an alternative. Together, they have likely seen plenty of these come and go, and if your test model does not work for them there and then, the chances are good that it will not work for you later.

There, that was easy. Next step—accessories!

Credit:  Alan Behr


The Frostbite Award

PhotoPin-BlackFlipFlops

Each year, as winter approaches, I prepare for a presentation—solely in my own mind—of the Frostbite Award. That is the imaginary award that I give to the last person seen wearing flip flops in the course of a given autumn/winter season. Flip flops as working or commuting footwear have always been something of a mystery to me. Flip flops are, after all, beach sandals, but as urban footwear, the flip flop trend has had formidable staying power far north of the Tropic of Cancer. In spring/summer, I assume it is all about comfort, but how does that explain the continued presence of urban flip flops as the days shorten, the leaves fall, and even as the snows arrive? Only the recipient of the Annual Frostbite Award knows for sure—that brave, hearty urbanite who freezes from their toes to their heels in the name of style. We can only admire their perseverance.

Credit:  Alan Behr

Photo Credit: placeboe (Creative Commons)


When Just the Licensor is Not Enough

magnifying glass with trademark icon

Companies often place their trademarks in a separate subsidiary or affiliated company. And then, sometimes, rather than being the direct “licensor” of the trademarks, the owner will enter into a master license with another subsidiary or affiliate. Use of a master licensor/licensee structure is appropriate from an operational perspective if the sole business of the trademark owner is to own the trademarks, since it therefore would be unable to provide the services normally required of the “licensor” under any of the various license agreements it hopes will be consummated.

Just as a licensor should require representations from a guarantor of its licensee’s obligations and should seek to bind the guarantor to many of the restrictions imposed on the licensee, sometimes parties receiving licenses (technically, sublicenses) from master licensees will think to ask for various representations from the master licensor/trademark owner, such as those relating to the rights and authority of the master licensee, to the absence of grants of conflicting rights to any third parties, etc., and some of these sublicensees will think to bind the trademark owner to some of the restrictions imposed on the master licensee under the sublicense agreement, particularly in regard to honoring whatever exclusivity rights may have been granted to the sublicensee. But most sublicensees will not think to protect themselves against the potentially adverse effects of changes in the master license agreement itself. For example, if for some reason the master license is terminated during the term of the sublicense agreement, the trademark owner should be bound to substitute itself or a successor master licensee as the (sub)licensor under the (sub)license agreement. And similarly, the customary “binding on successors and assigns” provision of the sublicense agreement should be expanded so that, if ownership of the trademarks is transferred during the term of the sublicense agreement, it is clear that the sublicense agreement is binding on the new trademark owner; and it would not hurt also to bind the trademark owner to be required to cause the new trademark owner to agree that it (or its master licensee) automatically will be substituted as the (sub)licensor under the (sub)license agreement upon the closing of the transfer of the trademarks.

Credit: Jonathan R. Tillem


Don’t Try This In Your Own Home

Fashion designers working together on an outfit in design studio

We have been meditating in these posts (here, here and here) on some of the problems that arise when two or more people start and run a new venture. Many of the issues that arise are common to all businesses, but when it comes to fashion—especially fashion good enough and fresh enough to build a brand from scratch—the question of talent moves to the forefront. Whatever else the business might do, if it is going to succeed, someone involved with it right from the start is going to have to be either very talented or very lucky. (You will soon know if it was just the latter because, as things move along, talent tends to repeat itself and luck does not.) In its simplest form, whether in design, execution or just in knowing how to buy, talent is what you see when inspiration finds a means of expression.

Luckily, like a roast lamb with a robust Bordeaux and a fish salad with a chilled Riesling Spätlese from lovely parts of the Pfalz (just beyond where I own a turnip field with a unique terroir), talent in fashion pairs well with talent in business. It is a paradox of American life that, in a country obsessed with prospering in business, managers are not considered “talent.” But that is exactly what they are. If being able to run a business were not a question of talent, and if it did not require a truly deft intelligence and plenty of self-confidence, artists, philosophers and humanities professors would be running the Fortune 500.

Whether starting up or expanding is the question, however, no one is of greater importance, at least at that moment, than the person known in show business as “the money.” Seed capital can come from the venturers’ pockets (if deep enough), friends and family, crowd funding, banks and others, but as dramatized for effect on television in programs such as Shark Tank, money comes at a price—often one that appears disproportionate to the commitment made. You may well bristle at the thought of surrendering a healthy portion of the equity in your business to someone whose contribution is little more than writing a check, but that person knows all too well that without him or her, your dream enterprise will remain just that. (And think about it for a minute: do you really want that person providing guidance for your fall/winter collection? Maybe it is better if your investor is the strong, silent type.)

So sometimes, when it comes to handing out equity, you have to give until it hurts. On the other hand, mathematics tells us that equity interests can never total more than one hundred percent, so if you shell out ownership percentages in exchange for cash, advice, goods or services, keep in mind that your control ends when more than half the equity belongs to other people.

Whatever you do, always understand this: all divisions of that magic one hundred percent must be carefully documented. You have heard the expression “Don’t try this at home.” That applies double for anything commercial or financial, such as equity participation that has a legal effect. In our experience, few things have been more painful to read than important documents with binding legal effect that were written by non-lawyers who deceived themselves into thinking that they could save the money and do it themselves.

Life is too short to prove to yourself why you decided not to practice law: when legal issues come into play—as they will from day one—it is always best, for the calm and confidence of all, to bring your lawyer into the process. If you are a designer, think of it this way: would you let your lawyer design your wardrobe for you? Turn that around, and now you know why he or she does not want to see you writing your own contracts.

Credit: Alan Behr


What Chanel and Kleenex Have In Common

Chanel-Words-BoardedStoreFront

When Chanel filled the back cover of WWD with an advertisement that was nothing more than black words on newsprint—without a perfume bottle, a skirt suit or even Karl Lagerfeld anywhere in sight—you knew that the topic was serious. The ad was an open letter directed to “fashion editors, advertisers, copywriters and other well-intentioned mis-users of our Chanel name.” It reminded them that CHANEL stands for the designer Coco Chanel, the signature perfume and the company’s other products, and that, “CHANEL is our registered trademark…”

And right they are. There are major brands that are virtually nothing other than trademarks. Run as design studios, they own no factories, and at least under US law, often have little hope of securing legal protection for the exclusive rights to their most successful designs. The good will, which for them is the core of enterprise value, is in the trademarks that identify the source of the products marketed under their brands and by which the public and trade recognize their goods.

The easiest way to dilute or otherwise damage a mark is for the owner and others to misuse it. That is why Chanel insists that a jacket not be called “a CHANEL jacket” unless Chanel makes it. Another easy way to lose a mark for goods is for it to become a generic term, which can start to happen when it is misused as a verb when applied to the goods of others, as in (to use Chanel’s hated examples), “Chanel-ed” and “Chanel’ized.” The ad closes the way you would expect by a piece that, by necessity, is a mild scold—by blaming the lawyers.

Kleenex-Tissue-BoxChanel is right, and even its lawyers are right. So are the lawyers for Xerox, who have been after writers for decades to knock off saying, “Go xerox it” or, just as bad, calling a rival maker’s photocopier a “Xerox machine.” They would rather that you say instead, “Go make a photocopy on the Xerox machine” or, even better, “let’s trade in that clunker of a photocopier for an authentic Xerox brand device.” As that example shows, the price of popularity of a trademark is that it comes to symbolize not merely a single source but an entire product category, which could cause the owner actually to lose exclusive rights to the mark. Other beneficiaries of this happy dilemma are KLEENEX, for facial tissues, and, in the UK, HOOVER, where it is often misused as a verb for operating any vacuum cleaner, as in, “Get your bum off the sofa; I’m going to hoover the floor now.”

Should any trademark for your fashion brand become so well known that it brings to mind an entire product category, you should consider doing what Chanel has done—get the word out that your trademark belongs to you alone and that it identifies you as the exclusive source of your products. To help achieve that goal in day-to-day usage, always use your trademark as a proper adjective, as in, “For my birthday, honey, I’d just love a little trinket, nothing more—say, a Chanel watch.” Your mark should never to be used as a (lower case) noun as in, “I had such a chanel moment today,” (when being admired while walking the dog in a Nike tracksuit). And it must never be used as a verb, as in, “Go chanel your look with a counterfeit Gucci purse.” (The two wrongs in that sentence do not make a right.)

Trademarks last as long as they are used and protected. Use yours well.

Credit:  Alan Behr


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