Players: Christian Louboutin, a French luxury shoe designer whose clients like Sarah Jessica Parker, Victoria Beckham and Kate Moss have catapulted his desirable red-soled shoes, which go from $319 to $4,645 per pair, into fashion super-stardom; Yves Saint Laurent or YSL, the luxury design house created by one of the most iconic fashion designers in history in 1962 and is now operated by The Gucci Group
The Opening Serve: In April, Louboutin started legal proceedings against YSL accusing the design house of infringing on Louboutin's trademark red soles and producing "virtually identical" shoes. Louboutin sought $1 million in damages and an injunction on the shoes. The legal drama that ensued involved private investigators and covert shoeplans, reference to the red soles of King Louis XIV and The Wizard of Oz's Dorothy, and some resulting giggles in the court room. The YSL defense rested on an argument for artists: "Louboutin’s trademark should have never been granted,” David Bernstein, attorney for YSL, told WWD on July 13. "We just don’t think that any fashion designer should be able to monopolize any color." Louboutin's lawyer, Harley Lewin, fired back calling YSL's remarks, "utter rubbish," adding, "unless you are living in a cave, the consumer most definitely recognizes a red-soled shoe as a Louboutin," reported The Cut. “We are not claiming to own every red under the sun. There’s a particular red that Christian uses on his shoes, a bright, lacquered red,” he said. “We aren’t saying burgundy or orange-red, we aren’t saying pink. We don’t own any other red but that red.”
The Return Volley: Flash forward to yesterday, where Federal Judge Victor Marrero has given the first round to YSL, reports the Telegraph. "Because in the fashion industry colour serves ornamental and aesthetic functions vital to robust competition, the court finds that Louboutin is unlikely to be able to prove that its red outsole brand is entitled to trademark protection," wrote Marrero, despite the fact that the shoes have "gained enough public recognition in the market to have acquired secondary meaning." Lewin, Louboutin's lawyer responded when contacted by New York magazine: "We are profoundly disappointed in Judge Marrero’s decision, ... He has concluded that the fashion industry needs to use colors on outsoles without restriction and this, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary," added Lewin, citing an decision by the "2nd Panel of Appeal at OAMI in the EU" which called Louboutin's soles "brilliant." YSL's Bernstein fired back, "As Judge Marrero indicated, YSL designers are artists and, like other artists, they should have the right to use the full palette of colors in designing their fashions for each season."
What They Say They're Fighting About: If YSL copied the Louboutin soles.
What They're Really Fighting About: How big of a star Louboutin is. The $1 million in damages is an afterthought for a company whose sales are projected at $135 million this year. What Louboutin and his lawyer are positioning for is fashion supremacy and asserting their dominance.YSL and its storied past are fighting to remain relevant in the shoe business which Louboutin has cornered, and the legal battle seems to be about challenging his supremacy.
Who's Winning Now: Louboutin. Though Marrero has failed to grant the crimson-soled shoe designer an injunction, the two parties are meeting next week. At this point the worst accusation that Louboutin faces is looking like an overly aggressive artist while YSL is battling the reputation of being a knock off--which, in the fashion industry, is a label you generally want to avoid.