Trademarks are perhaps the most widely used form of Intellectual Property Protection in the fashion industry. The main advantage for fashion designers is that they afford strong legal protection in preventing infringement. While some designers come up with unique names for their brand, most will use their own names. It makes sense, if you’ve been at design school, or built up a reputation for your deigns, that reputation will probably be attached to your own name and it may open doors for you that would otherwise remain firmly closed. But designers beware!
Personal names, when used as a trademark, can become entwined with the goodwill associated with the brand itself rather than with you, the designer. When you think of Christian Louboutin, do you think of a small bald French man or do you think of an exquisite pair of red soled shoes?
Problems can arise if and when you acquire a financial backer. If further down the line you part ways with the financial backer, you may use the right to design under your own name. John Galliano, Roland Mouret and Helmut Lang are just some of the high profile designers that have lost the right to use their own name when they parted ways with the corporate backers who had acquired the rights.
Sigerson and Miranda Morrison, the duo that started the shoe line Sigerson Morrison, are the latest high profile duo to lose the rights to design under their own name. Last year Siegerson told the New York Times “It’s like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, “I went into Barneys, and I didn’t even recognize them”. She was referring to her namesake shoe label. In 2011 she and Miranda Morrison were fired from the company that they had built from scratch in 1991. The pair’s story was every design student’s dream. The label was a hit from day one with legions of celebrity fans and shops in New York, Los Angelos and Tokyo. By 2005 Sigerson Morrison was reportedly worth $30 million, and the designers wanted to grow bigger still. By this time Sex and the City mania had taken off and brands like Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik were household names. They believed that with financial backing they could reach similar status.
Unfortunately the financial backer they chose did not work out as expected. He insisted they move production from Italy to China where it was cheaper, he copied their designs for his own cheaper shoe line and rumors suggest he made unwanted sexual advances towards both women. The relationship soured and both women were fired in 2011. Not only did they lose their business, they lost any rights to design under their names again
But what’s the lesson? Don’t trademark your name, or choose your financial backer more carefully? After all, even if your label isn’t called after you personally, you could still risk losing a business you’ve poured blood, sweat and tears into if you choose the wrong backer. But it’s the pain of losing your own name, one you’ve had since birth, that is just so much more personal. To walk into a shop and see that name on products that have no connection to you must be truly soul destroying.
Right now, when you are starting out, ideas of corporate backers may seem a million miles off, but a developing fashion business must think long term. The name you give your business now may last a lifetime, or for the really successful, beyond. Nobody knows what the future holds, but you must think strategically and consider where your brand, and your name, might end up.