Designers Defending Their Names

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If you are interested enough in fashion to be visiting this page, I cannot tell you anything new about Roy Halston Frowick, better known as Halston. He was unique in many ways, starting with the fact that he launched his career with a single piece: the pillbox hat that Jacqueline Kennedy wore to John F. Kennedy’s inauguration as president, in 1961. (The fact that Mrs. Kennedy was also wore a Halston pillbox while sitting in the car next to the president as he was assassinated, in Dallas, led to the style going out of fashion in the blink of an eye.) By 1983, Halston’s company, Halston Limited, was owned by Norton Simon, Inc. Unless Halston had agreed to all that at some point, the likely explanation was that there had been no form of what lawyers call a non-assignment clause in place in the relationship that Halston, the man, had set up with the owners of Halston, the brand. In any event, within about one year, Halston was no longer designing for Halston Limited. He died in 1990, a man without his own name in design. Once that disassociation occurred, Halston, the brand, which still exists, has a life of its own, and it has since changed hands seven times more.

Catherine Malandrino recently filed a lawsuit against Elie Tahari and others, claiming she was wrongfully deprived of rights under a deal by which she sold her brand (and, for all intents and purposes, her professional name) to a company controlled in part by Tahari, which employed her as its creative director. Malandrino had only minority representation on her new employer’s management committee. She alleges that her co-venturers and others routed around her in subsequent dealings, damaging the brand and failing to compensate her as agreed. Although the complaint is passionately composed, it does not directly address what appears to be the underlying issue: Malandrino and her representatives did not provide, in the agreements she signed, the kind of contractual protections that could have reduced or eliminated many of the alleged wrongs and that would have given her final say as to what was and was not a Catherine Malandrino creation.

On a happier note there is the long, circular tale of Joseph Abboud. His eponymous menswear line debuted in 1987. His name was registered as part of trademarks that he licensed to a joint venture in which he took an interest through a corporation he owned. He then sold off his equity interest and worked as a consultant to the company that now exclusively owned his name in the fashion business—until creative differences caused an abrupt. Abboud tried to start a new brand called “jaz,” making it known in the trade that he was the designer. In the lawsuit filed by the company that owned the Joseph Abboud trademarks, the court ruled, “Abboud is permanently enjoined and restricted from using her personal name to sell, market, or otherwise promote, goods, products, and services to the consuming public.” In all, a humiliating result for one of my favorite menswear designers. Several sales of branding rights and changes in price point later, man and brand were effectively reunited; in 2014, Abboud became chief creative director at Men’s Wearhouse, which is the current owner of the Joseph Abboud brand and trademarks.

And we must not forget that there are many success stories. Karl Lagerfeld is still a walking brand, regardless of whatever house for which he has already has served or may yet serve as designer. Ralph Lauren’s name is owned by his company, which is public and so owned by many shareholders—but he has set up everything quite nicely and is surely not losing sleep worrying about whether he will still be designing under his own name.

The message: every good designer is either a good business person or should work in close company with someone else who is just that—and every good business person watching over a designer’s name should have a lawyer nearby who knows what to do to keep the designer and his name permanently in each other’s company.

Next: we will show a bit of how that works.

Credit:  Alan Behr

See previously published related posts:


Welcome to Designer Hell, No Name

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The applied arts, including fashion, stand in service of utility. There is no l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake) even if you are talented and even if you are French. A useful object made beautiful, fun or even compelling is still something you can use, and things that can be used are objets de commerce, first and foremost. That is one of the reasons, as we have discussed in these postings (and surely will again) that the law treats fashion, jewelry and accessory designs—and related objects such as perfume bottles and lipstick cases—differently from how it treats paintings, sculptures and photographs. All art follows commerce, and artists do not quit their day jobs if they are not commercially successful, but when it comes to fashion, commercial success remains rather the point. If you are a designer and do not believe that, ask your retailers and financial backers if they disagree.

The first and perhaps most personally compelling fact of that distinction between what the law considers design to be versus how it treats fine art is that, although the artist can never lose his name—there was only one artist who could paint a Pablo Picasso and only one artist who could chisel out a Michelangelo—it is possible for a designer to wake up one morning and find that, professionally, his name is no longer his. To his mother, he may always be, “My son, Martin, the designer,” but the clothes bearing his name might be designed by someone else—perhaps someone he does not know, or perhaps even someone whose work he finds indifferent or just plain terrible. Even worse, should he wish to continue designing clothes, he may have to do it under a different name.

The reason for that is because the name is not merely a name; it has become a brand. And brands can be sold, along with the trademarks that represent them, and the goodwill that those trademarks generate and perpetuate. (An artist’s name can also be his brand—but the art market has not yet accepted the idea that, say, Lucian Freud could have sold his name on retirement, for use in connection with fine art by Damien Hirst.) When designers sell their trademarks, therefore, they are, to the fashion world, effectively selling their names.

If the price is right, that may be a great idea. Sometimes, however, regrets follow. In posts to come, we will show what has happened and can yet happen when designers lose control of their own names.

Credit:  Alan Behr


The Blogger Blogged

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As everyone knows, lawyers have far too many stellar qualities to enumerate here. We have a sense of humor. (Who can forget, after all, the priceless nugget of wit that goes: “What do you call one hundred lawyers on the bottom of the ocean?” Answer: “A good start.”) We are sure there must be just as many good ones about chiropractors, occupational therapists and entomologists.

And lawyers are media stars. Whenever an attorney is convicted of a felony in the line of duty, doesn’t it always make headlines? Lawyers are also highly respected for their assertiveness, as knows any lawyer whose application to rent an apartment was mysteriously and inexplicably denied.

But who knew that lawyers could also be fashion trend-setters? So it appeared from a blog several months ago, in which the author of this blog was blogged. The post was in the form of a column about accessories worn by attendees at the charity benefit held on the opening night of an antiques fair.

The site is New York Social Diary, in which David Patrick Columbia, combining the roles of Edith Wharton and Henry James for an earlier generation, chronicles the real life moments that those earlier writers drew upon for much of their fiction. The blogger in the guest column was Alison Minton, a friend and queen of New York style, who reports for the site on accessories. In my debut as a fashion icon, you can clearly see the Ralph Lauren necktie and pocket square that were the objects of the author’s attention, along with a fair bit of the Henry Poole bespoke suit that they accented and almost none of my face. As my earlier appearances in New York Social Diary and elsewhere have shown, that omission was no loss at all to the reader. It did, in this instance, force all attention on not who I am but on what I had chosen to wear in the expression of who I am. It demonstrates in pictorial form that what each of us holds as our personal style is both a part of us and an abstraction of us. We are what we wear, but what we wear is also a part of us and a metaphor for how we wish to be perceived.

It also reminds me that, as someone who will on occasion take this forum as a soapbox on which to stand and proclaim what is and is not good style, acting as a fashion authority is uniquely hard work. A theater critic need not act or direct; an art critic is not expected to paint or sculpt; but we all wear clothes. A style critic, therefore, is always in danger of being held accountable for his or her own style success and failures. (And we all have both, to be sure.) This line of work is not for the faint-hearted—but neither is any job in fashion and accessories. Would any of us have it any other way?

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


Seeing Red–and Your Brand

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One of the ways to build brand identity in fashion is to create strong customer recognition of a particular color as a signature of the brand. That has value across all lines of commerce. We can be sure, for instance, that no one will consider starting a worldwide package delivery service that uses solid-brown trucks and driver uniforms. In fashion, there are many examples, from Tory Burch’s orange doors to the red outsoles of Christian Louboutin footwear—the latter of which became the subject of important litigation in the United States.

In the Louboutin case, Louboutin v. Yves Saint Laurent Am. Holding, 696 F.3d 206 (2d Cir. 2013), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that Louboutin could retain its trademark registration for red lacquered outsoles for “women’s high fashion designer footwear” in which the outsole and upper were of contrasting colors. What that means is that, if your competing shoes are monochrome, as was the YSL style (which had a red heel and insole as well), you can use red lacquered outsoles. But for all other such footwear, Louboutin owns the exclusive right in the United States to use lacquered red for outsoles. Both sides in the case were therefore able to claim victory: the particular Yves Saint Laurent style did not infringe the Louboutin trademark because it was indeed all red, but the Louboutin trademark was not stricken from the register, simply limited to what Louboutin has mostly been doing all long—which is to put lacquered red outsoles on women’s footwear with contrasting uppers.

It is not often that litigation ends in such a win-win scenario, but the message remains the same in any situation: If you have an important color that you believe is part of your brand’s “signature,” work with counsel to structure efforts to seek protection of that color as an element of both a trademark (a brand identifier in the form of words and logotypes) and trade dress (a brand identifier in the form of particular elements of product packaging and, with a bit more effort, the products themselves).

There are related issues. One is the color spectrum: if you are claiming the color blue, what range between blue-tinted white to midnight blue, on one hand, and green-blue to gray-blue, on the other, are you claiming as your true blue? Another issue is the business spectrum: what are the product categories and the markets (by type of customer, price point, etc.) for which you are claiming exclusivity for your color? And as the Louboutin case shows us, much may ride on the positioning of your “signature” color on products (and packaging) and your ability to prove that the marketplace understands that the signature is yours alone.

The takeaway from all this remains much the same as with other questions concerning branding in the fashion and accessories sectors: marketers should work closely with lawyers and get them involved as early as possible in the decisions that they make.

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)