Much has been said and written about Christian Louboutin’s iconic red sole brand. It has sparked endless debates about trademark law in various courts around the world, including in the U.S., France, Switzerland, and most recently at the EU Court of Justice.
Christian Louboutin began selling his high-heeled red-soled women’s shoes in the early nineties. The red soles gradually became a signature brand, somewhat comparable to the famous Burberry check pattern. The creator’s idea starts as a mere decorative design, just like any fashion design. But over the years, it gradually becomes a brand in itself because the public begins to perceive it as a source identifier even without any concurrent word mark on the product. Burberry registered its design as a two-dimensional trademark around the world; it recently sued Target in the U.S. for selling scarves with a similar design. As has been the practice of Burberry over the years, that is a trademark claim, not a copyright claim—which would present greater challenges to Burberry under U.S. law.
Back to Louboutin’s red soles: The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in 2012 that Louboutin owns a valid trademark for his red sole shoe design. Louboutin had taken Yves Saint Laurent to court for trademark infringement. The red sole trademark was deemed inherently distinctive, Louboutin having given ample evidence that the trademark had acquired secondary meaning. Those words sound like music for the fashion brand owner and its lawyers because it means that the court rewards years of investments in sales, advertising and free publicity. (As the court duly noted, Louboutin shoes are popular items to wear when walking red carpet events in the entertainment industry.) Louboutin’s victory was unfortunately limited to the court having confirmed the validity of the trademark; the court also ruled that the same trademark registration could not be invoked against shoes – such as those sold by YSL – that are monochrome red, covering the insole, outsole, heel and upper part.
The U.S. thereby paved the way for Louboutin, which is, after all, a French brand. A long-awaited judgment in the European Union was recently rendered by the EU Court of Justice. This time, it was the Dutch discounter Van Haren that was selling red-soled women’s shoes. The court held, after a long debate, that a red sole applied on the sole of a shoe can be a valid trademark in the EU. Under pre-2018 EU law, the shape of an object that “gives substantial value” to the product itself could not be registered as a trademark. (An example would be the distinctive shape of the Perrier bottle.) The court that the color red, as applied to a shoe, was not as a “shape,” as Van Haren had asserted; after all, Louboutin had not sought to register a shoe but merely a color applied at a certain location on shoes. Following the EU court’s guidance, the District Court in the Netherlands that had referred the issue will now ban the sale of Van Haren’s shoes throughout the European Union.
A crucial takeaway from this case is the reward given for the smart way in which the trademark had been registered. In many trademark systems, the registrant is allowed to specify its two- or three-dimensional object with a brief description. Louboutin’s lawyers had wisely specified the filing as follows: “The mark consists of the color red (Pantone 18‑1663TP) applied to the sole of a shoe as shown (the contour of the shoe is not part of the trade mark but is intended to show the positioning of the mark).”
That victory may not last very long, however. EU trademark law was recently amended, with the effect that not only “shapes” but also “other characteristics” giving substantial value to the product may be barred from trademark registration. This change in the law opens a new can of worms: in particular, it remains to be seen whether pre-2018 trademarks, such as the one owned by Louboutin, can be invalidated on the basis of the new law.
Credit: Diederik Stols | Guest Post
Phillips Nizer would like to thank Diederik Stols for the contribution of this post to the Fashion Industry Law Blog. Diederik is a partner at the law firm BOEKX Advocaten in The Netherlands where he specializes in intellectual property, media and entertainment and e-business. (http://www.boekx.nl/en/)
Just as fashion designers and retailers have been struggling to adapt to changing consumer demands, they now must face a new battle: a trade war.
Back in May, the White House announced its plan to impose tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese goods in the hope of pressuring China to stop alleged unfair trade practices and intellectual property infringement. After the U.S. Trade Representative, Robert E. Lighthizer, released the final list of goods subject to the new tariffs, China responded with tariffs of its own on U.S. goods. Upping the ante in July, the U.S. next threatened to impose a second round of levies, resulting in 25% aggregate tariffs on an additional $200 billion of Chinese goods. Once again, China hit back with more tariffs of its own.
Many economists have warned that the effect of a prolonged trade war between China and the U.S. will ultimately increase prices for American consumers and will damage U.S. businesses. Those working in the fashion industry are likely to agree. The May round of tariffs placed on Chinese imports, which covered a range of industrial, agricultural, and medical goods, left the fashion industry relatively unscathed. But the next round of tariffs, initially rumored to include textiles, handbags and suitcases, is likely to hit designers, retailers and, ultimately, the American shopper.
Following the U.S. threats made in July, Mr. Lighthizer agreed to hold a hearing to discuss market opposition to the proposed tariffs. In attendance at the hearing, held in August, were more than 350 stakeholders, including the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the American Apparel & Footwear Association and the Accessories Council.
To say that the American apparel industry relies on Chinese manufacturing may be an understatement. Kathryn Hopkins of Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) has noted that “China is vitally important to the industry with government data showing the U.S. imported $27 billion worth of apparel from the country last year, accounting for 34 percent of all apparel imports. That is more apparel than was imported from any other country, dwarfing second-place Vietnam at $12 billion.”
Concerned about impending tariffs, Edward Rosenfeld, the CEO of Steve Madden, told WWD: “We and others will certainly try to pass on a good chunk of this to the consumer in the form of higher retail prices.” Steve Madden is also looking to move its handbag manufacturing from China to Cambodia in response to the higher duties.
National Retail Federation President and CEO, Matthew Shay, told WWD: “This round of tariffs amount[s] to doubling down on the recklessness of imposing trade policy that will hurt U.S. families and workers more than they will hurt China – it’s two-and-a-half times the amount already imposed.”
Smaller businesses are particularly vulnerable to the proposed levies. Anne Harper, the CEO of OMG Accessories (annual sales: approximately $2 million), expressed her concern for the impending tariffs, stating: “I can’t just absorb that percentage…. The bread and butter of my business is selling to retailers, so that’s a big challenge. Q4 is where we ship all of our holiday goods. If the 10 percent comes into effect right before the goods ship from China, we’re subject to that extra 10 percent so it represents hundreds of thousands of dollars for my business. It’s basically a loss.”
On August 26, 2018, China filed a formal dispute with the World Trade Organization (WTO), alleging that the U.S. tariffs violate WTO rules.
On September 17, 2018, the White House made good on its warnings in July, confirming that tariffs of 10% would be placed on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports – ranging from silk to handbags. China promptly responded again, stating it would impose its own tariffs, of 5% to 10%, on $60 billion worth of U.S. goods. Meanwhile, the U.S. has threatened to increase tariffs on Chinese goods to 25% total on January 1, 2019, unless the two countries can conclude a trade deal.
Is there an endgame in sight? At this point, there are more questions than answers. The White House is slated to share more information following its September 17th announcement. One can only wait for the next episode of Textiles and Tariffs.
Credit: Candace Arrington
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is currently hosting the exhibit, “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” So, what is modern? Back in 1944, the MoMA asked, in an exhibition titled, Is Clothing Modern? in the hope of inspiring museumgoers to, “reconsider their relationship with the clothing they wore.” Today, MoMA asks: Is fashion modern? to provoke thought about the world’s relationship with fashion and to examine how and why it is made. In this exhibition, we see fashion born out of creativity and necessity; created by man and machine. The museum’s elevation of both the evening gown and the flip flop illustrates society’s multifaceted relationship with fashion, clothing, and art.
The curators walk you through the history of fashion, using fashion as a lens through which to view and analyze culture and society. Upon entering, I was pleasantly surprised. The galleries, sparsely but carefully filled, teased visitors with vivid colors, sounds, textures, and interactive displays. The exhibit progresses chronologically and also practically, by starting with base layers like undergarments, switching to classics like the little black dress, then working toward wardrobe fundamentals such as pants and later on, accessories.
Underwear starts out not to be a simple thing. Brassieres, stockings, and then jumpsuits pique visitors to contemplate form, function, and aesthetic. Subsequently, the exhibition moves to khakis, trousers, and collared shirts. This casual wear showcase also highlights how pants have evolved for women. With images of a pants-clad Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Mary Tyler Moore in capris on the Dick Van Dyke Show in the 60’s, the exhibit’s wall labels provide gender-charged commentary on how pant suits became socially acceptable for women.
The exhibit moves forward to a survey of the quintessential little black dress. Just within the exploration of the little black dress, one can see the evolution of fabrics, design, class, and social custom. This collection contains a range of dresses from Christian Dior to Thierry Mugler; starting with a modest Chanel evening dress from 1925 and ending with the controversial, close-fitting Versace cocktail dress worn by Elizabeth Hurley in 1994. The exhibit even highlights the relationship between technology and fashion by including a 3-D printed dress designed via a form of classical mechanics and motion called, kinematics.
Next, fashion is studied as an extension of culture. The collection exalts prints, fabrics, and silhouettes from all over the world, showcasing an anthology of Indian saris, Cuban guayaberas, Ghanian gowns, Brazilian jumpers, and Dashikis inspired by Nigerian prints, yet made right in Harlem.
Flanking one side of the exhibition is a spotlight on men’s suits. The stylistic progression goes from the zoot suit to the power suit, and even a double-breasted pant suit by Ralph Lauren for women. The wide range of tailoring, fabric, and shape is also a reflection on style, age, and class.
After covering each major piece of clothing, the exhibit moves on to highlight accessories. What some may consider superfluous or merely decorative additions, the accessories prove to be staples on their own. This collection looks at show-stopping shoes, handbags, hats, furs, and jewelry. The curators even established a small homage to the famous Hermès Birkin bag and Alexander McQueen’s platform armadillo boots, as worn by Lady Gaga.
But wait: there’s more. The exhibition has small fashion asides where one can find a biker jacket derivative made from polymers and LED lighting, and a textile designed through a computer-programed knitting machine.
“Items: Is Fashion Modern?” is indeed a modern take on fashion. After examining the entire 111 items, it is impossible to walk away uninspired and unprovoked. The curators do an excellent job of covering a wide range of subject matter, addressing the fundamentals of fashion, and examining where fashion is purely aesthetic and less functional, yet nonetheless enthralling and important. The exhibition demonstrates the complexity of fashion, as it can serve as adornment, a reflection of culture, or counterculture. If modern is to reflect the present and recent times, then yes, fashion is modern.
The Museum of Modern Art exhibit, “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” runs through January 28, 2018. https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1638
Credit: Candace R. Arrington
Candace Arrington works in Phillips Nizer’s Intellectual Property, Corporate, Fashion, and Entertainment Law Practices.
My partner Helene Freeman has offered her reflections on these pages about the recent Supreme Court opinion in Star Athletica, L. L. C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc., commonly known as the cheerleader uniform case. Our Fashion Practice held a seminar recently for the industry where Helene provided further thoughts based on her posts, and I provided some practical considerations based on the court’s ruling. Here is a brief summary.
The key point to remember is that the Supreme Court has greatly simplified how you look at cases of apparel and accessory copyrights and claimed infringement. Because the case involved fabric patterns, I will limit my discussion to them, but there are broader implications, from belt buckles to furniture. The bottom line is this: from now on, we will not examine the garment itself, just the surface design. It no longer matters that, if you take stripes, chevrons and other familiar cheerleader-uniform patterns off the uniform, all you have left is a tennis dress–that is, something with a different function from a cheerleader uniform. All we need do is look at the pattern on the fabric used to make the dress, as if it were unrolled from a bolt of cloth and laid flat. In fact, it does not even matter if a cutter snips pieces from the bolt into a recognizable shape of a dress. It’s the design of the fabric, and just that design, that matters from now on.
That possibly makes even more important the question that the Supreme Court sent back for consideration by the trial court: whether the design that was allegedly copied embodied enough original expression to warrant protection by copyright. The rule is that even modest creativity, when fixed in a creative work, is protectable by copyright. (All you haiku writers, take heart.) Using neckties from several makers and nations as an example, I showed our conference attendees that original variations to familiar patterns (such as bees and starbursts) could be protectable. Even if what results is a “thin” copyright, it is still enforceable.
That leads to a follow-on reflection: There being no central database of protected designs, and with fabric designs now being viewed as if standing alone, as some kind of sartorial Ding an sich (a “thing in itself” in Kantian philosophy), if you have a pattern that looks like it might be original, and if you intend to spend time and money using it to make clothing (or other products), now, more than ever, it is important that you seek copyright registration–and that you discuss your options with counsel. Because the cut of the cloth and claimed usefulness (as in, “Those look like the kind of stripes I would find on a cheerleader uniform.”) are now irrelevant for copyright purposes, you will have to undertake your analysis in a field of potential risk beyond that formed by the goods you are making. Using cheerleader uniforms as an example once more: stripes and chevrons on those uniforms, if upheld as protectable by copyright, could, in theory, be infringed upon not merely by designs on competing uniforms but also by fabric designs on anything that is nonfunctional (such as a purely decorative wall hanging) or functional (such as neckties, carpets and sofas).
That brings us again to our favorite money-saving advice: discuss these issues with knowledgeable counsel before you invest your time and money. In the law, that ounce of prevention is worth at least a ton of cure.
Credit: Alan Behr
Whether you call it shoplifting or shrinkage and the people tasked with stopping it the house detectives or the asset protection department, and regardless of what new technology you put into place, if you are a retailer, stealing is a problem that will never go away. When I was in high school, back in New Orleans, I worked weekends and summers at the department store my family owned and operated (and long since shuttered). I got to see firsthand the extent of the problem—which was harder to track in those days before electronic inventory controls. The manager of my department was arrested for stealing a pair of Mickey Mouse suspenders from the warehouse. He had been collared by the four-man security team brought in to replace the aging and quite ineffective store detective. During a big three-day sale taking place over a long summer weekend, as the junior and surely least valuable member of our sales team, I was relegated to sitting in the men’s fitting room, watching for thieves. All I got for my trouble was the chance to alert security to the customer who thought that the fitting room stall belonged in the men’s bathroom and had used it accordingly. That incentivized me to petition for repatriation to the sales floor and, just to be sure my position did not revert, I became the top sales person of my department during the next three-day sale.
Jump some years ahead, and now I find myself working with clients in retail on the law of asset protection. There was the time I had to work with the manager and assistant manager of one department store branch that was being sued for assault and false imprisonment by an alleged shoplifter who claimed he had been injured in his apprehension. The plaintiff appeared at the first hearing on crutches, and justice being as slow as it is, by the time the second hearing came around, he was practically pole vaulting with the things, which his lawyer, who could now hardly catch up with him, obviously told him to keep using in an effort to garner sympathy and a favorable settlement.
It was frustrating to our client, but none of that has changed much. You still need to be sure that you work with counsel to know what you can and cannot do in pursuing, approaching and ultimately challenging a suspected shoplifter. There are rules about that, and they vary from state to state. Just as an example, in New York you need to show that the suspect took possession of the item with an intention to make off with it. If you are found purposefully trying to sneak out a T-shirt by wearing it, give your lawyer a call; but if you tuck the T-shirt under your arm while paying for something else and mistakenly head out with it, you are guilty only of absentmindedness.
As long as retailers work very hard to create demand for what they sell, and as long as objects of desire hang and lie in public view, shoplifting will be a problem. As with all other problems that are certain to occur, it is always best to have policies and procedures in place and to make sure that the individuals charged with being the first line of defense—the sales staff—are thoroughly briefed on what to do. It is prudent to have counsel and the security team conduct periodic joint seminars with sales and security personnel. As with everything else in the law, the proverbial ounce of prevention will alleviate the need for the more than typically expensive, when it comes to litigation, pound of cure.
Credit: Alan Behr
Designers have been famously cautious not to offend men’s perceptions about masculinity. The old axiom that men will not buy clothes bearing the names of women led to some novel solutions. Jhane Barnes was born Jane Barnes, but by the time men had figured that out, they were sold on her clothes—even the many who assumed from the name that they were wearing clothes designed by a man. Kate Spade’s line for men came out as Jack Spade.
Then there are the brands that started for women and have migrated successfully to selling to men. Salvatore Ferragamo may have built a reputation as the shoemaker to the women of Hollywood, but my wife’s devotion to Salvatore Ferragamo handbags is mirrored by my policy that all my business shoes come in red boxes.
When it comes to individual styles, however, the crossover path is not always easy. Late in the last century, women started wearing fitted tights. That never caught on with men, even those with fantasies of playing Robin Hood. There was some initial hesitation by men, but after women had given up on stockings and started wearing beach sandals (flip-flops) around town and just going barefoot at home, men eventually followed along. I bought my first pair of flip-flops since my age was in single digits, and no sooner did I wear them out of my building, on a late-night milk errand, than I caught my doorman trying to do his best not to stare at my toes. It was a hot night and those toes did feel rather nicely chilled by the milk fridge’s chill, so I could see that the comfy factor was indeed in play. But at the end of the day, I just have to go with the obvious: light and delicate things like thong sandals may look correct on women—but on guys: you know, those black Ferragamo loafers I am never without are looking better than ever.
Credit: Alan Behr
Photo Credit: Salvatore Ferragamo
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