Brooks Brothers at 200 – Part 3: Lessons

Earlier in this series of posts (here and here), I reported on my interview with Arthur Wayne, the vice president, global public relations of Brooks Brothers. We discussed how the brand maintains continuity throughout hundreds of points of sale (wholesale and retail). In business and legal terms, here is the short and simple version:

  1. Stylistic consistency creates trademark consistency. Brooks Brothers maintains uniformity of cut, pattern, SKUs and style names worldwide. I own suits and jackets in the 1818 line, which is the company’s standard, positioned between its premium Gold Fleece line and Red Fleece bridge line. My pieces are of Italian fabric, sewn, variously, in Italy, Thailand and the company-owned workrooms in Haverhill, Massachusetts. All bear the trademark 1818, all are in the slimmest of the company’s fits, which is branded Milano. As a customer, I know that, wherever I find Brooks Brothers in the world, I can put on an 1818 Milano jacket made in any of three continents and know it will fit just as do the ones in my suitcase. In legal terms: The more consistent the message, generally speaking, and the more clearly a trademark represents just one source of origin, the stronger will be that trademark.
  2. Control the message, but respect regional differences. Japanese customers much prefer the company’s products made in its US factories—which they view as a mark of authenticity. French customers, in contrast, want to experience the brand, but they care relatively little where items they buy are sourced. (Interestingly, offered Mr. Wayne in an aside, when foreign buyers visit, it is the Japanese men who typically have the best interpretation of “American traditional style.”) United States trademark law does not permit the registration of geographically descriptive marks, so from a legal point of view, where it is made is of no matter: if customers get that the brand is about the American experience (reinterpreted and, to my taste, noticeably improved, by Italian ownership), that is what matters most.
  3. As in the movies, story is everything to a brand. Marketers and lawyers do not always see eye-to-eye. Every business day, in multiple places around the world, marketing teams are presenting to their lawyers exciting new trademarks, only to hear the lawyers say that they are unavailable for use. On the importance of story for a fashion or luxury brand, however, there should be no disagreement. Just as the mere mention of Veuve Cliquot brings to mind the story of the taste and luxury of Champagne and the mention of Leica brings to mind the story of precise German optics, so does a reference to Brooks Brothers open a page on a story about the American experience—in style of dress and in style of living. When Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” he omitted any reference to wise consistency. That is the path taken by Brooks Brothers and by other international brands that know that, from consistency comes the strength to endure and prosper in multiple territories, among multiple customer bases.
  4. Newness is the best tradition. “People think of us as a traditional brand,” said Mr. Wayne, “but our founder, Henry Sands Brooks, was a fashion guy—a dandy. Look at what followed: collars with buttons; readymade suits; pink shirts on men. All of these things were innovative in their time—probably even shocking to many.” Tradition, in other words, is what happens when innovation meets inheritable acceptance. And that is the best way a marketer, together with his or her lawyer, can build, expand and ultimately preserve a fashion brand.

Credit:  Alan Behr

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Video: Brooks Brothers | Made in America: Makers and Merchants


Brooks Brothers at 200 – Part 2: Method

In my last post, I offered some of the history of the Brooks Brothers brand provided to me by Arthur Wayne, Vice President, Global Public Relations, during a recent visit with him at the company’s headquarters in New York. Having been to Brooks Brothers stores from Milan to London and beyond, I asked if the styles, brand names and trademarks appurtenant to them were used consistently throughout the world.

“When Claudio Del Vecchio bought the company, in 2001,” explained Mr. Wayne about its Italian owner, “he already ‘got’ the brand. The first thing he did was undertake a comprehensive product review. Under its prior owners, the company wasn’t really looking in its own garden—for quality of construction, tailoring—the core elements of the brand.” Mr. Wayne noted that, in the mid-to late 90s, there was much talk that casual Friday would be the death of tailored clothing, and the result at Brooks Brothers was that too many items were inexpensively made—something that is possible to accomplish credibly with fast fashion but is not possible to do stylishly with most tailored clothing.

“Claudio approached the brand as a customer,” continued Mr. Wayne. “His thinking has always been, ‘If I feel this way about what I am seeing, others must, too.’ He brought back quality tailoring and made sure the stores have a consistent Brooks Brothers look. The review was a long process and not everything was changed, but the initiative made us ready for the next challenge: brands are now in their customers’ hands.”

That was elegantly put and it shows the current problem faced by all brands and their lawyers: a brand in its legal form is its portfolio of trademarks, along with other intellectual property rights. And a trademark is above all an identifier of source of origin. If you see the trademark COCA-COLA on a soda bottle, that means it comes from Coke, not Pepsi—and so on. If someone else uses your mark, you take legal action to prevent that or risk potentially losing control of the mark and its registrations.

But how do you accomplish that in the age of social media, when consumers get to rate a brand’s offerings down to individual products—and when the brand feels obligated to post negative consumer reviews of those products on the very website where it is trying to sell them—and when it must deal as well with influencers, who can influence whosoever they please, on their own terms? Those forces can alter the perception of where a brand stands, rather as the gravity of the sun bends the approaching light of a distant star, changing the perception of the position of that star. Brooks Brothers partners with influencers, and it features two of them—one American and the other Polish—in its anniversary edition of its house lifestyle magazine. It is all about what Mr. Wayne calls, “the importance of creating a dialogue with your customers. This is what matters to them.”

What is a fashion lawyer to do with all these new forces and new demands? In the third and final post in this series, we will consider some contemporary lessons for international branding.

Credit:  Alan Behr


Brooks Brothers at 200 – Part 1: Background

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At a time when the fashion press engages in a group hug with brands over how labels can stay viable in the digital age, it is fitting that we should pause to consider a brand that has been doing just fine, thank you, since James Monroe was president of the United States. Brooks Brothers, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, has had different owners and various designers (with Zac Posen now directing womenswear), but has adhered to a consistent philosophy that can be described in abstract terms as “wearable and confident American style.” Brooks Brothers can also be described, more explicitly, as one of the few places where, no matter what you buy, if the color and fit work, you can forget the term “fashion victim.” To celebrate its anniversary, the brand mounted its first show at Pitti Uomo in January. Sixty-one models (including eight women who made the term American style into a synonym for chic) were presented to the accompaniment of a full symphony orchestra; unusual for almost any show anywhere, every piece could have been worn out the door of the Palazzo Vecchio onto the streets of Florence (or New York, London or Tokyo).

As a branding lawyer, constancy in branding message and in legal protection are always on my mind. Managing that from the flagship at the corner of Madison Avenue and E. 44th Street in Manhattan may have been easy enough back when, if someone said he was going to Brooks Brothers, you just assumed that he meant going to that corner and into that store. Keeping consistency in message and legal protection became a bit more complicated when the brand expanded across the USA (eleven stores by the 1970s) and then, in 1979, to its first international location, in the prosperous Aoyama neighborhood of Tokyo. The challenges are global now, with the brand maintaining hundreds of stores in nearly fifty countries, and with a wholesale business that places Brooks Brothers products onto shelves and racks of many third-party retailers.

I sat down recently with Arthur Wayne, the vice president of global public relations at Brooks Brothers, in his office in the tower behind the company flagship, to gain some understanding on how it is done.

The first thing that became clear in speaking to Mr. Wayne is that Brooks Brothers adheres to the strategy (which I fully support in general and for fashion in particular) that a brand is its story made temporal. The Brooks Brothers story is the American experience. There are many examples, but consider just three outlined briefly by Mr. Wayne: when miners landed in New York from around the world and headed (one might say herded) west in 1849 during the gold rush, Brooks Brothers innovated, with the ready-made suit. No need to wait to be measured and return for fittings. Pick one off the table,* let it out or take it in, and off you went to California, well-dressed, with a pickaxe in hand. Then came the Oxford button-down shirt, which has been copied by nearly everyone trying to look American.** And I have gone into detail on these pages about why the stripes of American ties, led by Brooks Brothers, go from right to left instead of left to right, as do the British regimental ties of their inspiration.

In my next post, I will pick up with what brought the company to where it is now—and what it is doing to keep its brand on message.

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* Until comparatively recently in the company’s long history, men’s jackets were neatly folded and presented in stacks on counters.

** American style is about looking effortless; that does not mean it is easy to do. I shared with Mr. Wayne how I once knew the American representative of a renowned British shirtmaker. As he explained it to me, after several failed attempts on Jermyn Street to get that American collar right, he walked over to Madison & 44th, bought two Brooks Brothers button-down shirts off the shelf and sent them back to England with the message to please just copy this.

Credit:  Alan Behr


What’s In A Letter?

Recently, the New Balance footwear company won a landmark $1.5 million trademark decision in the Suzhou Intermediate People’s Court, near Shanghai, China. Daniel McKinnon, the New Balance senior counsel for intellectual property, told the New York Times: “If the China marketplace can be thought of as a schoolyard, New Balance wants to make it abundantly clear we are the wrong kid to pick on.”

The schoolyard brawl all started when New Balance alleged that three Chinese brands infringed upon its well-known New Balance “N” trademark. The three Chinese shoemakers, New Boom, New Barlun, and New Bunren, saw fit not only to use similar brand names, but also to trade off of New Balance’s international acclaim by mimicking its slanted “N” design on their shoes. A Suzhou Court cited the defendants’ free-riding, consumer confusion, and market harm as the basis for its ruling in favor of New Balance.

What makes this case important is not only that New Balance was prepared to fight for its rights in China—often a challenging thing to do—but also that it was willing to do so over a single-letter trademark.

A trademark is a source indicator that can convey a range of messages about your brand such as quality, price, taste and reputation—the sometimes obvious and sometimes mysterious factors that, in total, are the goodwill of the brand.
Brand owners often reflect upon the value and protectability of words, names, logotypes, slogans and even colors as trademarks. The victory by New Balance in a famously tough territory tells us that a lot can ride on who is found to own and have the rights to exploit a single letter.

Minimalism is as much a factor in trademark recognition as anywhere else in the broad field of visual expression. Mercedes Benz has made a simple three-pointed star one of the most recognizable marks on earth. In the USA, Louboutin owns the color red for the soles of shoes, and Federal Express owns the truncated version of its mark popularized by the public: FedEx. Take it down even further, and you get marks with one or two letters: PayPal is recognized by two cerulean stylized “P’s” and Facebook by a solitary but consequential byzantine blue lower-case “f”. Uber upgraded its former “U” mark to a modernized “U” enclosed by emerald green.

In fashion, designers have been using single-letter marks for decades. Hermès uses its elegant “H”; and of course, New Balance is using its slanted “N”. A few logos have doubled letters: Gucci has made the twin “G” into a brand; as with the seemingly reflective Tory Burch “T”, the mirrored Fendi “F”, and the interlocking “Cs” of Chanel.

Single-letter marks can be significant in fashion because a single letter can serve not only as a logo, but also as a design that can be emblazoned on clothing, handbags, shoes, etc. Meanwhile, the boom in online retail—where a mark may be only barely visible—has been the basis for the further simplification of marks. The large British online retailer Asos recently abbreviated its trademark to the letter “a,” the better to identify the brand on its mobile app.

 

Credit: Candace R. Arrington

Candace Arrington provides research support as a law clerk to our corporate and business law, intellectual property law and entertainment law practices.


Star Athletica: An Unsatisfying End

If you were hoping that following the Supreme Court’s decision in Star Athletica you might learn whether common stripes, chevrons, color blocks and zig zags are sufficiently original to be copyrightable—a question expressly reserved by the Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit– you will be disappointed. On August 10, 2017, the district court permitted Varsity Brands to voluntarily dismiss its copyright infringement action against Star Athletica with prejudice, over the objection of Star Athletica, which wished to pursue its counter-claims seeking to invalidate the Varsity Brands copyrights.

You might well ask, as we did, why after seven years of largely successful litigation, Varsity Brands would be permitted to walk away. Or you might ask, as we also did, why Star Athletica would object to having the suit end with no apparent injunctive or other relief awarded against it. Both are fair questions and the answer to each is unusual: The insurance company that was defending Star Athletica reached a settlement agreement with Varsity Brands, without the participation or approval of Star Athletica. The terms of the settlement are confidential. The only clue is the court’s reservation to Varsity Brands of the right to return to court if it does not receive the payment from the insurer required by the settlement. As far as Varsity Brands is concerned, not only does it get money, but it also avoids the potential for invalidation of its copyrights, having made its point that the two dimensional designs reflected in its uniforms are separable from their utilitarian features and theoretically capable of copyright protection. It now has a stronger threat to hurl at potential competitors.

But what of Star Athletica and its interest in settling its rights to compete with Varsity Brands in the cheerleading uniform market? In the view of the court, Star Athletica receives what is in effect immunity from future claims of copyright infringement related to the copyrights and uniforms at issue in the action. And also in the court’s view, Star Athletica’s counter-claims to invalidate the copyrights were only defenses to the copyright infringement claims and not independent bases for legal action once the threat of copyright liability was removed. And that is the rub: Varsity Brands has many other copyright registrations for which similar challenges to their validity might (or might not) have merit. Because the court did not provide guidance on that fundamental point, competing uniform makers remain exposed to similar infringement claims.

One can’t help feeling that the broader fashion public had an interest in the resolution of the question of whether stripes and chevrons are original when applied to garments. But it is an axiom of federal court litigation that the courts do not decide hypothetical cases or controversies for the edification of the public.

For now, if you are interested in whether stripes can be protected in fashion, you will have to focus on trademarks and not copyrights. There is always Gucci’s suit against Forever 21 for knocking off what it claims is its stripes trademark. And then, too, there is Adidas’ pending suit against Skechers for knocking off its three stripe trademark. The district court in Oregon just decided that Adidas’ trademark infringement suit can proceed.

Credit:  Helene M. Freeman


Bikinis and Copyright

The beaches of summer remind us that it is no disrespect for any of us to confess that most people do not look their best in swimwear and that those who do probably would look great in just about anything. Simply, the more the body is revealed, the more the aesthetic duties that are commonly undertaken by fashion are left to uncovered skin. Call it a triumph of artifice over nature, but for most of us, more clothing, rather than less clothing, even on the beach, is often a good thing. Fashion may make the great-looking come across even greater, but it is often a turning point, in the direction of great, for the rest of us in how we present ourselves to the world.

My colleagues and I have been writing and speaking quite a bit this year about the Star Athletica case—the Supreme Court decision that turned cheerleader uniforms into the biggest issue in fashion law in years. (Law is made by the cases actually brought, and this one just happened to be about uniforms worn by cheerleaders, but by its potential impact, you might well imagine the clothes were couture evening wear.) If nothing else, the case reaffirmed (that is, it did not change) the fact that, in the USA, anything functional in fashion cannot be protected by copyright registration (or with a design patent). When applied to swimwear, which typically represents about the minimum that the law allows any of us to wear in public, whatever precious square inches of cloth are involved almost always serve some kind of function. Finding something protectable in what is there can involve examining decorative clasps, closures and add-ons—but minimalism is the essence of swimsuit design, and such design elaborations are quite rare. That leaves for examination whatever small amount of fabric is actually in use.

As we have noted in these pages before, fabric patterns are protectable, and here, Star Athletica may be helpful in providing guidance. The Supreme Court has now told us that we need only look at a fabric pattern laid flat (in reality or imagination) to view it as we would any two-dimensional artwork to determine if it is original enough to be protectable by copyright. The shape into which it is cut—as swim trunks or a bikini, for example—is irrelevant. That is good news for fabric designers. It confirms that it does not matter how little of the design is there to see: if it is original and visible, it is theoretically protectable.

During the 4th of July weekend, I heard a young man compliment another, his tennis partner, on baggy swim trunks and a matching baseball hat—both made of blue cloth filled with an exaggerated white pattern that looked like multiple slash marks. At a pool the day before, a woman was similarly complimented for a black bikini that had small but intricate white designs only on the cloth that just about covered her right hip and left breast. If any of that is original, it may well be protectable.

Does that mean it is getting harder for a fashion company to know if a fabric being offered to it for use in garments is potentially infringing on the rights of others? Does it mean you have to worry about some design that would not fill the space that could be occupied by a chocolate-chip cookie? Unfortunately, that is likely the case. Where that next takes us is for the courts to decide—but not for now. Summer is here and many of those people you will see on the beach are copyright lawyers and judges, putting much of this behind them until fall.

Credit: Alan Behr