Does Christian Louboutin Own Red Soles?

August 12, 2011 § 1 Comment

Louboutin with his signature red-soled shoes (via NYTimes.com)

Judge Victor Marrero refused to grant Christian Louboutin an injuntion against the production of four Yves Saint Laurent red-soled shoes from its 2011 Cruise collection. Judge Marrero ruled that the trademark Louboutin procured in 2008 for its red soles was probably “overly broad” to be a protected trademark.

It’s important to point out that Louboutin heels did not have red soles from the outset. According to a profile of Christian Louboutin in the March 28th issue of The New Yorker, Louboutin came up with the idea for red soles in 1993, the third year for the brand. He was trying to make a certain pair of shoes pop, when he saw an assistant painting her nails red. He snatched the nail polish from her and began painting the underside of the prototype. It was his eureka moment.

But as nothing is new in fashion, neither were Louboutin’s red soles. According to Valentino’s partner Giancarlo Giammetti, Valentino first showed red-soled shoes almost a quarter of a century ago in 1969, and then again, in 1983. Louboutin himself would have been about 5 years old at the time of the first shoe. Maybe there is a deeply ingrained childhood memory?

The question though, is what constitutes a trademark in fashion, and by extension, trademark infringement. The case brings to mind another popular case of trademark infringement when Polo Ralph Lauren sued the US Polo Association for the latter’s use of – gasp! – polo players. The USPA wanted to use its logo of two polo players to sell a perfume. Ralph Lauren sued, and won, arguing that the logo was too similar to theirs and would result in brand confusion.

The logos of Polo Ralph Lauren (left) and the US Polo Association (right)

As the photo above illustrates, the two logos seem different enough to warrant separate trademarks. But the absurdity of that case aside, what about something like red soles, which isn’t a logo, but rather a signature? It is undeniable that when one thinks of red-soled shoes, one thinks of Christian Louboutin. But does that preclude any other brand from painting their soles red?

YSL’s use of red shoes is more akin to Marc Jacobs’ sly reference to Common Projects sneakers. Common Projects sneakers, which are gorgeous exercises in minimalism, have serial numbers printed in gold along the side of the shoe. Marc Jacobs has recently been producing men’s sneakers in a similarly minimalist aeshetic with “Marc Jacobs” printed in gold along the side as well.

Marc Jacobs (left) and Common Projects (right)

Marc Jacobs is clearly “taking inspiration” from Common Projects and putting his own spin on it. While he doesn’t put serial numbers along the side, from a distance, the shoes could easily be mistaken for Common Projects, the way that the red-soled YSL shoes might be for Louboutins. Intent, while difficult to ascertain, is an important component here. Is the spirit of the design (and designer) to copy or to be inspired by another design? I doubt that YSL is going to continue lacquering their soles red from here on out, and come next season, they are probably already on to the next thing.

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