My love of Louboutin began with the scarlet-soled stiletto’s frequent appearance on “Sex and the City” and grew with the legions of celebrities who graced the pages of People and US Weekly, striking sexy poses in those sky-high heels. A stint in NYC sealed the deal for me: Impossibly long-legged vixens hailing cabs and sashaying through Midtown Manhattan, seemingly unencumbered by the narrow heel and its towering height.
For the past two summers, my five-inch, turquoise tweed Louboutin peep-toes have been my go-to item. I’ll admit, the compliments and double-takes at those red soles — even here in Wilmington, in a city not known for its fashion savvy — make the $$$ price tag worth every penny.
Recently, I read that Christian Louboutin brought suit against venerable design house Yves Saint Laurent (YSL) for trademark infringement, following YSL’s launch of a red-soled line as part of its 2011 cruise collection. Last week, U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero rejected Louboutin’s request for an injunction to prevent YSL from selling its shoes while the case is before the court and stated:
“Because in the fashion industry color 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.”
Is the red sole indeed entitled to trademark protection? Here’s where the case gets mired in legal mumbo-jumbo with questions of functionality, patents, trademarks and the like, so I’ll leave those to the legal eagles to sort through.
What’s really at stake here is Louboutin’s brand — its identifiable feature(s) and the experience it delivers to the customer.
Coca-Cola, Blue Cross Blue Shield, UPS — these corporations have spent generations and billions of dollars building and protecting their brands. The foundations of these brands are the colors and images immediately identifiable as their own. Red and white, blue and brown…and don’t forget Delaware’s signature color for a period of time: MBNA’s legendary green.
Any designer who has worked with one of these corporations knows its style manual is not to be ignored or subjected to reinterpretation. From color matching to trademark placement, the purpose of these style manuals is not to drive designers and marketers crazy, but to protect the brand.
Louboutin’s projected sales of $135 million this year are built on its brand. And while the red soles were born through Christian’s artistic whimsy, the Louboutin folks knew they had found “it” and rushed to both protect and promote the red soles.
To this marketing aficionado, the color or particular shade isn’t the issue here. Designers should be permitted to use any color in the spectrum, particularly a primary color like red. It’s the application of said red to the soles of YSL shoes that’s a flagrant play on the Louboutin brand and its success in the luxury market.
The signature red sole is the essence of the shoe…and the essence of the brand. Without that identifying feature, Louboutin is destined to be just another high-priced luxury shoe, easily lost in a myriad of red-bottomed flats, pumps and stilettos. And while the thought of confusing a Louboutin with a <gasp> red-soled Jessica Simpson heel strikes fear in the heart of this budding fashionista, what’s truly scary about this case is how little protection you might have for that brand you’ve worked so hard to build.