A tale of red soles

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.

The Louboutin trademark registration

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/)


Textiles and Tariffs

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


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.

– end –

* 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


MoMA: Is Fashion Modern?

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.


Fast Fashion – Slow Justice?

When you hear the term fast fashion, what pops into your head? Trendy designs, hot off the runways of Europe, reinterpreted at prices for all? Affordable, mass-produced clothing? How about labor unrest?

It’s long been true that the garment industry, as with others in which production is outsourced to developing nations, has had its troubles with employment practices at source factories. Those practices continue, particularly in factories in Asia and Eastern Europe. Most production appears to be completed fairly. Recently, however, an unwelcome spotlight has fallen on Zara and its parent company, Inditex. Back in July 2016, the Bravo Tekstil factory in Turkey, which had manufactured clothes for Inditex under the Zara brand, as well for as other fast fashion houses such as Mango and Next, abruptly closed. The former Bravo workers went to court to obtain a ruling that they were entitled to three months’ unpaid wages and severance pay from their former employer. With the employer’s principal having disappeared with the funds that the factory had received for the production of the garments, the workers attempted to have Inditex and the other fashion houses take responsibility for the payment of their lost wages. Although apparently not legally liable, Inditex had announced in 2016 that– together with Mango and Next – it would establish a “hardship fund” to compensate the workers. The three companies have since offered to pay about one quarter of the claims, collectively offering the equivalent in Turkish lira of about US $700,000.

That did not satisfy the former workers, who have focused their efforts on Inditex and the Zara brand in their attempt to recover their money. A number of these workers recently went into Zara stores in Istanbul and inserted hidden tags into merchandise. The tags advised potential purchasers that the people who had made Zara clothes such as those had not been paid for their work. Although it is not clear if the pieces so chosen were made in the shuttered factory, the resulting publicity surely did Zara no favors. Indeed, if there is a party in the wrong, it is the former employer, but that party is out of the picture, and the result is contention over what was intended to be an act of corporate generosity.

Why do these situations exist? In large part, it is due to the fast-fashion business model, which requires production of vast quantities of inexpensive clothes very quickly (as the name implies). Rapid and cheap can be, and has been, accomplished successfully many times, but the exceptions can be horrific. The Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, which killed over 1,130 garment-factory workers and injured over 2,500 more several years ago, is the most famous case in point.

How can a company as much as half a world away, eager for quick production, trust that its sources pay fairly, honor agreements to workers, provide clean working conditions and—quite literally—assure that the roof will not come down?

Contracts with source factories typically contain clauses prohibiting child labor and forced labor, mandating safe and healthy working conditions—and demanding compliance with often very strictly delineated employment standards and practices. But from far away, that is difficult to enforce, and as anyone who has ever inspected a factory knows, when they are aware that you are coming, things start to look much better—at least as long as you are there.

Earlier this year, a coalition of labor and human rights groups produced a report on transparency in the global garment industry supply chain. The hope is that, by encouraging fashion companies to publish accurate information concerning the factories in which their garments are manufactured, they will undertake to assist further to prevent, address and correct any human rights abuses that may occur there. It remains to be seen as to how successful these new initiatives will be. All that can be certain for now is that the problem will not go away and that counsel for companies seeking sourcing in developing areas should be diligent in working with management to help minimize both business risks and any potential harm to factory workers.

Credit:  Laura E. Longobardi

Laura is counsel to Phillips Nizer’s Litigation Department and Labor & Employment Law and Real Estate Law Practices.


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