February 15, 2012

Louboutin’s Defense Brings Color Branding into Question

Considered one of the most interesting fashion intellectual property cases in history, French designer Christian Louboutin filed a suit in August against French fashion house Yves Saint Laurent in an effort to protect his signature red-soled shoe. Back in court on January 24th after appealing the decision made in August, Louboutin now must wait for the decision that will determine the fate of the brand equity associated with his red-sole trademark. The identity of Louboutin’s brand hinges on his use of red soles. Those who buy Christian Louboutin shoes know that to don a pair of red-soled shoes is to show your sense of fashion and your appreciation for luxury.

The case calls into question the universal legitimacy of trademarking colors. If a designer can own a name, a signature print, and a logo, then is a color any different? Louboutin was given a 2008 trademark on the use of “China Red” for the soles of his shoes, which is now being called into question. Not the only company with a trademarked color, Louboutin has gotten support from Tiffany & Co. who owns the famous robin egg blue of all its packaging.

In August of 2011, U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero denied Louboutin’s request that YSL be prohibited from continuing sales of its monochromatic red-soled shoes on the basis that, in fashion, color does more than identify the commercial source of a product; it serves a creative purpose. On Tuesday, January 24th, Louboutin was amongst a very well-dressed audience in court in Manhattan where his lawyer argued to appeal the ruling by Judge Marrero.

Without red soles, Louboutin has nothing but nicely made, beautiful shoes, which may be worth hundreds, but not the thousands of dollars they currently sell for. Taking his red soles away would be like taking away Polo’s pony logo or telling Lacoste that their green alligator was fair game for anyone. Color is a crucial element of brand identity and recognition. Why should an iconic placement of color be treated differently than a logo or name when it is just as essential to brand recognition for Christian Louboutin as the swoosh is for Nike?

Contributed by Christy O’Keefe

One Comment

  1. Erik Guillot   February 16, 2012 5:55 pm / Reply

    Interesting point. In the Netherlands, there was a similar dispute (although not about color) with lingerie designer Marlies Dekkers. Her trademark ‘band’ above the cups (very visible feature) was imitated by Sapph, offered at much cheaper prices in ‘everywoman’s’ retail chains. The band, intellectual property of Dekkers, became the trend. Same as the Louboutin example.

    Marlies Dekkers won the lawsuit, apparently as there are a lot of individual components in bras which shape can be defining for a brand’s value. Lawyers find that easier to defend, I guess. A certain color, especially when used in fashion, is much harder to defend against copycats.

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