MZ Wallace’s quilted bags case has come undone.
The handbag company filed suit against Sue Fuller and Black Diamond Group Inc., referred to by the company’s brand name Oliver Thomas, in March, charging trade dress infringement.
Such cases are often filed and then settled, but MZ Wallace’s case went all the way through a trial and the firm lost, revealing some of the inner workings of the company.
MZ Wallace laid claim to trade dress consisting of a nylon bag with a quilted grid of 7/8-inch squares placed at a 45-degree angle with the corner facing downward. The brand sold hundreds of thousands of items meeting that description over the past four years, driving millions of dollars in sales for its web site, two stores and retail partners, such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and Net-a-porter. The bulk of the brand’s sales come from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Its Metro Tote retails for $125 to $235.
Over the past six years, MZ Wallace sent 12 companies cease-and-desist letters, claiming the competitors were infringing on its intellectual property rights. Seven of the firms backed off and stopped selling the bags identified in the letter.
The judge said the brand “has offered no admissible evidence of consumer confusion” over the quilted bags and also offered something of a rebuke.
“MZ Wallace has attempted to rely on negative comments about Oliver Thomas that its employees or their friends posted on the Oliver Thomas Instagram page,” Cote said. “These posts do not show confusion and reflect poorly on those who posted the comments or encouraged the writers.”
At the trial, MZ Wallace argued it was the size of the square quilting in combination with the other elements that rendered its trade dress protectable. But Cote said the brand has offered various descriptions of its trade dress over the years.
“The only common element in each of these many articulations of its trade dress has been the use of quilting,” the judge said. “MZ Wallace had a very weak claim to trademark protection in this case.”
However, she said the case was “not frivolous” and did not force MZ Wallace to pay Oliver Thomas’ attorney fees.
While MZ Wallace has clearly gained traction in the market, the look of the bags in question could not necessarily be tied back to the brand.
As part of the legal proceedings, an expert witness for the defense surveyed 200 women who were likely to spend at least $200 on a quilted tote or shoulder bag.
“Of the 200 women surveyed, only 11 percent — 22 respondents — associated the ‘look of the bag’ shown with only one particular company or brand,” said Cote, detailing the proceedings. “Half of those respondents — 11 respondents — identified that company as Vera Bradley. Only two of those 22 respondents — 1 percent — named MZ Wallace as the company.”
MZ Wallace did not immediately respond to a WWD query Friday.
Oliver Thomas said in a statement, “This ruling should finally put an end to MZ Wallace’s years-long campaign of trying to intimidate handbag manufacturers from using quilting on their nylon and other synthetic bags.”
And the brand’s founder added, “Quilting isn’t new nor is it owned by anyone.”