Any business will come up against legal issues in due course, and fashion, despite its glamorous sheen, is no exception.
Players in an industry valued at well over a trillion dollars may even be more litigious than one would expect, considering the financial future of a brand like J. Crew, Puma, or Chanel can hinge on something as ephemeral as a stripe or the “good will” of a name.
Although retail and fashion are facing some fundamental changes to shopping habits and industry machinations, it hasn’t stopped companies launching cases that could have broad effects on everything from trademarks to financial loans.
Here, some of 2017’s biggest ongoing cases in fashion and retail:
Updated Aug. 29
Summary: Tired of waiting to be served with yet another lawsuit, Forever 21 asked a federal court to not only find that it’s not infringing any of Gucci’s various stripe trademarks, but to invalidate the marks altogether. Gucci, unsurprisingly, didn’t take kindly to the lawsuit and said its grosgrain stripes, or “webbing,” are central to the brand’s identity and characterized Forever 21’s actions as “reprehensible exploitation” and a clear infringement of its trademarks.
What It Could Mean: Should the court side with Forever 21, it would undermine trademarked design elements everywhere, and it could cause trouble in particular for Adidas, which is a fierce protector of its own trademarked stripe designs. If Gucci wins out, the company will have even stronger support behind its stripe trademarks.
Case: Puma vs. Forever 21
Issue: Rihanna shoe designs
Summary: Puma claims that Forever 21 is selling blatant copies of several shoe styles from Rihanna’s Fenty for Puma collection and the athleticwear company is still trying to get the alleged copies off of shelves, even after a federal judge rejected the request, twice. Puma has had some trouble with its case against the chain, and the same judge has dismissed all of its infringement claims save for one covering design. Forever 21 has argued that the Rihanna designs at issue are not original enough.
What It Could Mean: Sweeping rulings on design infringement in fashion are scarce. Should a judge find Forever 21 nicked Puma’s ideas, it could at least dampen the fast-fashion retailer’s proclivity for copycat designs and send a sign to others that courts are taking a serious look at litigation over designs.
Case: Adidas vs. Skechers
Issue: Stan Smiths and stripes
Summary: Adidas doesn’t appreciate a “Skecherized” version of its classic white Stan Smith sneaker, nor does it like the similarities between its Ultra Boost shoe and Skechers’ Cross Court shoe. A judge has already noted that Skechers has essentially admitted to its copying based on orders from the company’s ceo and instead chosen to argue largely that its copying was legal.
What It Could Mean: The days of designers and corporate execs (as in this case) making their own version of a popular product could be numbered if the court comes down hard on Skechers. If not, it will be business as usual.
Summary: In separate lawsuits Chanel, arbiter of luxury, and Adidas, patron saint of ath-leisure, are going after dozens of web sites and Amazon store operators for selling merchandise with fake logos and trademarks and seeking combined damages of $249 million.
What It Could Mean: While the damages being sought will likely be trimmed heavily by the court, it’s clear that big, popular companies are getting better and better about finding counterfeiters and shutting them down through the courts.
Case: Lenders vs. J. Crew (Round Two)
Issue: Last-ditch loan
Summary: J. Crew cut a deal with the majority of its term-loan lenders after being sued for using its valuable intellectual property to back a new loan, but a couple of hold out lenders aren’t on board and are still pushing a New York judge to block the move, which would effectively bankrupt the struggling retailer.
What It Could Mean: If a judge found J. Crew’s financial maneuvering to be in violation of its $1.5 billion term loan, it would be put in default and need of an immediate financial lifeline to stay out of bankruptcy. If the new loan, which has been approved by a vast majority of its lenders, is OK’ed, it could give other companies some creative financing ideas.