Many Happy Returns

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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


Keeping Control Over Your Brand

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In the movie A Hard Day’s Night (1964), unscrupulous menswear marketers lure George Harrison into their office, there to assure him that the two new shirts they put into his hands are essential to his self-esteem. When George says the goods are frightful, the head marketer comforts his team that, “within a month, he will be suffering a violent inferiority complex and loss of status because he isn’t wearing one of these ‘nasty’ things.”

The point was that the guiding spirits of the generation of the 1960s formed up against the commercialism and consumerism that were behind marketers’ attempts to pass off “nasty” goods as status symbols for insecure youth. How times have changed. Someone with a device in his pocket that pitches out brands and branding stories faster than summer rain drenches a field views branding and the commercial motives behind it in a much more positive light. Brands ignite consumer interest as never before, and brands win when they have good stories to tell—stories that create interest and become viral once consumers are engaged. Brands are, after all, nothing but good will with consumers, and once that is obtained, the message is spread most effectively by consumers imitating each other and aspiring to what each other has. The bad news that follows from the good is that consumers, in exchanging with each other messages about brands they know, are becoming as important in the control of a brand’s destiny as the brand’s owner—and its marketers.

For that reason, never has the creation and the protection of strong trademarks been more important for the fashion business. The value of the trademarks is applied directly to the bottom line in the form of good will. There are terrific fashion brands that own little else but their trademarks and related domain names—not the factories that make the clothes, not the stores in which they are sold, not even the photocopy machines in the corporate office. What they have are strong trademarks protected throughout the areas of current use and expected operations. The moral of the story: work with your trademark lawyer to develop, as early as possible, a solid and workable trademark protection program, and then stick to it by carefully searching and analyzing all new prospective trademarks and by registering them promptly as soon as the anticipated need arises. What have you to lose by not doing that? Only everything you may have.

Credit:  Alan Behr


Do More But Restrain Yourself Too

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Luxury, being the thematic opposite of necessity, must be at least as much about what you desire as what you need. Building a brand to fill that role requires both diligence and self-restraint.

A luxury brand and its products should be readily identifiable as superior to both existing and aspirational customers. That is not to say that that non-luxury brands and their products do not require legal protection; we are simply recognizing that the luxury premium adds a new class to the market—those aspirational customers—whose perceptions and desires are vital to the future of brands in the luxury sector. For that reason, and many others, it is particularly important for luxury brands to work with counsel to identify and protect all the important proprietary elements that are capable of being protected. That includes protection, where appropriate, by trademark (and trade dress) registration, design patent registration, and—something rather unique to the United States—copyright registration.

With few exceptions, it is generally better to err on the side of more rather than less when it comes to registrations. Styles and style names that will only be in the catalog for a season or two are usually not worth the trouble, but anything of medium to long-term consequence to the bottom line and brand value almost certainly is. In these posts, we will go into more detail about various forms of legal protection, but a key guideline is this: once each season, have a look at what engages the public with your brand and your products and how that engagement might lead you to adjust your legal protection program. There is probably no more important work that marketers and counsel can undertake together in order to make your protection program both thorough and cost-effective.

This year, the International Trademark Association held its annual meeting in Hong Kong, giving the world’s intellectual property lawyers the opportunity to congregate in an important commercial city where branding is all. Once a playground for bargain hunters for, consumer electronics and rapidly cut and stitched men’s suits, Hong Kong has become a destination for consumers of luxury goods. Indeed, I cannot remember seeing another city in which almost any international luxury brand I can think of had more than one boutique. What was particularly interesting this time is that, for various reasons, visitors from the mainland were uncommonly absent, with the result that, in every store in which I had a look, the sales floors were empty of patrons. That may be a temporary problem, but it raises a bigger question: as surely as luxury is about something greater than necessity, it is also about relative inaccessibility; it is an experience over and above the ordinary that is made all the more desirable by its very lack of ubiquity. When luxury is everywhere, can it start to look commonplace? The risk is that new entrants will have a chance to succeed (in no small part due to their newness and limited production) in poaching customers sated by what has become too familiar. That may be healthy for the marketplace but not for you if you have a valuable brand.

There are no perfect formulas, of course, but here is a general reflection that might well apply when protecting a luxury brand and its products: under law, more is better; when preserving the reputation of a luxury brand and its products in a business sense, less may sometimes indeed be more.

Credit: Alan Behr

Photo Credit: Iskciedlam (Creative Commons)


License Agreements: Aim for Fairness — But Words Have Meaning

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It can be said that a licensing arrangement is inherently symbiotic in nature, with the good faith efforts and cooperation of both the licensor and the licensee being necessary for success. The licensor provides its trademark, perhaps some degree of design expertise (particularly in the fashion field), and perhaps also brand customer relations and certain advertising and promotional assistance; and the licensee contributes its expertise in the particular industry covered by the license and possibly its customer relations, its organizational structure and capital resources. The resulting relationship, in a very practical sense, is that of a joint venture or a partnership. Although on one level the negotiation and drafting of a license agreement must be approached as an adversarial process, both parties also should recognize that they will be more likely to view their arrangement ultimately as a success if it strikes a balance, on the one hand, between the licensor’s legitimate concerns for the maintenance of its image and quality standards, for the protection of its trademark and for fair compensation for the rights it has granted and, on the other hand, the licensee’s legitimate desire to exploit the rights granted to it in an economically advantageous manner consistent with industry norms in the applicable market segments and without fear of termination if it is performing in good faith. Ideally, therefore, the parties should approach the negotiation and documentation of the license agreement from the perspective that each of them is looking to make the venture a success for both of them and should recognize and attempt to satisfy the other’s needs.

That said, no matter how much the parties aim for “fairness,” there almost surely will be provisions that a licensor perceives as necessary to protect important interests which a licensee considers unfair, unduly burdensome or overreaching. Before proceeding with an agreement, a licensee must remember that words have meaning and a licensor can seek to force the licensee to conform in its performance to what the agreement says. A licensee cannot rely on its business sense (or gut) to assume that a licensor would “never do that,” even if the licensor assures it that the licensor never has done so before. There also can be no great comfort in the thought that the provision might not be enforceable, since the time and cost involved in adjudicating the issue can be enormous, even if the licensee succeeds. If the agreement requires certain conduct or prohibits certain acts, a licensee should assume that those words control and that, if it ignores them and its licensor’s demands for conformance, it does so at its peril.

Credit:  Jonathan R. Tillem


Is the Country of Origin Labeling Requirement Unconstitutional?

ClothingLabel-MadeChinaThe constitutional rights of businesses are hot topics. Freedom of speech is a fundamental tenet of liberty, protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, that benefits commercial entities as well as individuals. The right to spend unlimited money to support the election or defeat of particular candidates for office derives from the right to freedom of speech. But does the same First Amendment right protect businesses from being compelled by government regulations to speak on matters as to which they would prefer not to comment, whether or not they are “controversial” or “political”? Is there a freedom to refrain from speaking?

If you think this question has nothing to do with fashion, you would be wrong. Every manufacturer in the fashion and accessory business labels its products with their “country of origin”, guided by detailed regulations promulgated by the Federal Trade Commission. Decisions in two recent cases, which have nothing to do with fashion, but everything to do with government regulations compelling businesses to speak on the source of their products, suggest that the “country of origin” regulatory scheme for the fashion industry may be challenged on First Amendment grounds.

A federal statute requires country of origin labeling for meat to address the country where the animal was born, raised or slaughtered. New rules for implementing the statute were promulgated in 2013 to comply with a World Trade Organization ruling on a complaint from Mexico and Canada, requiring greater specificity in describing separately the country where each of these events in the animal’s life occurred. A group of trade associations, feedlot operators and meat processors filed suit to enjoin the rules, claiming they violated the First Amendment. The argument was rejected by a three judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, holding that the First Amendment did not bar the government from compelling factual speech on a non-controversial matter that might be of interest to consumers. The full court, however, voted to hear the case anew before all eleven judges of the court. The parties were directed to address the scope of First Amendment protection for mandatory disclosure of purely factual and non-controversial commercial information, compelled for reasons other than preventing consumer deception.

The outcome of this review may be foreshadowed by the same court’s decision on April 14, 2014, striking down Securities and Exchange Commission regulations that required public companies to disclose whether they used “conflict minerals” (minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo used by warring factions to finance their operations) in products they marketed or manufactured. The three judge panel found that it was unconstitutional to compel speech in the absence of a need to prevent consumer deception.

So one might well ask whether it is unconstitutional to compel apparel manufacturers to say anything about the subject when they are not marketing goods based on the country of origin. What purpose does it serve and do consumers need the information?

Credit: Helene M. Freeman


License to Kill (Your Business)

Licensing represents an opportunity for a fashion brand founded on one or a small number of product lines to stretch into almost any clothing, jewelry, beauty or accessories category—and beyond.  Moving into a broad range of products and services has been an especially successful strategy for luxury brands.  Consider that Ralph Lauren started as a maker of men’s neckties and that Hermès began as a maker of harnesses for carriage horses.  Although you sometimes hear the saying that, “No one ever got rich licensing a brand,” licensing can be a useful, even necessary tool to build brand awareness among both old and new classes of customers.  When you leap into categories that have specialized production requirements, unique distribution methods or simply just high barriers to entry—consider timepieces, fragrances and eyewear—licensing is about the only sensible way to make it happen.

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But what is a legal article without a warning about pitfalls?  (Just as designers are paid to create and merchants are paid to awaken and satisfy customer desire, lawyers are paid to worry.)

  • For the licensor, a key concern is that its licensing agent or licensees themselves may prove unmotivated or unable to bring the brand’s image to new product lines.  A licensor can find itself devoting an inordinate amount of time to servicing the product development needs of its licensees—to the point that, in extreme cases, the licensor can start to feel as if it is working for its agent or licensees.  On the other hand, licensees’ successes may kindle the temptation to over-license, risking dilution of the brand.
  • For the licensee, pitfalls can include disapprovals of products by the licensor that result in missed shipping dates, lost markets or revenue, confusing or incomplete branding direction or support (especially after a change of control at the licensor), and all the potential dangers that come from devoting your business to enhancing the goodwill of someone else’s brand.

Any one of those concerns can cause serious—and in extreme cases terminal—problems for participants in the licensing game.

In subsequent posts, we will review the ins and outs of licensing in more detail.  As with a good story, where the art is in the telling, with a good license, the art is in the drafting.

Credit:  Alan Behr


Fashion: It is a business.

In business law, whatever the business might be, commercial considerations come first.  An airtight contract or brilliantly argued appeal means nothing if it showcases the lawyer’s prowess but fails to deliver on the client’s business objectives.  For anyone practicing fashion law, the first rule, after knowing the law, is to know fashion and the fashion business.

Dressmaker dummies / mannequines / modelsWithin that broad mandate, we all bring our personal points of view, as future posts on these pages will surely reveal.  And here are a few of mine:

Our Fashion Practice Group represents designers, manufacturers, brands and retailers.  That translates roughly into hope, expectation and reality.  Design has every right to be seen as one of the applied arts; as with all the arts, practitioners must be mindful of the marketplace but not be a slave to market expectations.  Overall, I see designers as optimists by nature; they are energized by hope even as they labor to fulfill our dreams.

In representing designers, we borrow methods from our art law and general business practices, working to defend originality in design with the legal tools of copyright, trade dress and design patent protections.  In contracts, we help designers in their relationships with the makers of the fashions they conceive and in the protection of their names as brands.

For a manufacturer or brand owner, the designer’s work has transformed into expectation–of sales, market share and ultimately of brand enhancement.  Here is where we devote much of our work to trademark protection, contracts with suppliers ranging from manufacturing sources to advertising agencies, to factoring deals, and contracts with retailers.

What is retail if not a bucket of true reality for every fashion design ever to make its way to the judge and jury of all fashions—the eye and wallet of the consumer?  To make that a successful encounter, we help with store leases; the employment of sales staff and others; stop-in-shop deals; and, of such increasing importance, website development and maintenance, and social media utilization.  However inspired the vision, however brilliant the execution, and however clever the marketing and display, if the customer does not buy it, what you have on the racks are rags, not riches.  The job of the fashion lawyer is to do what he or she can to bring each fashion fairytale to a close in the way that all fairytales should—with a happy ending.

Credit:  Alan Behr