ORTENBERGS BACK LITTLE GUY IN MONTANA WARS
Byline: Eric Wilson
NEW YORK — The cause of a tiny, Montana-based knitwear manufacturer wrestling with designer Claude Montana over its use of the name Montana Knits has drawn a new ally, also with a formidable fashion name.
The retired founders of Liz Claiborne Inc., Art Ortenberg and Liz Claiborne, said Friday that they feel Claude Montana’s recent actions contesting the Dillon, Mont., knitwear manufacturer’s application to trademark its name are unjust. Ortenberg has now offered to finance Montana Knits’ legal defense.
“We were both very annoyed, and more than astonished, that a large, international company would try to bully a small, home-grown company like Montana Knits,” Ortenberg said in a phone interview last week.
Ortenberg, who is acting independently of Liz Claiborne Inc., the company from which he and his wife retired in 1989, said contributions to the Doolings’ legal defense would be handled through the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation, which focuses on issues related to Montana-based natural resources and their use thereof.
“Liz and I are adoptive Montanans since 1984,” he said, noting that the couple spends about one-third of the year in the state, where they own two ranches.
As reported, the dispute between Montana Knits and Claude Montana arose in August 1995, two years after the Montana cashmere knit manufacturer made application to trademark the name Montana Knits.
At that time, attorneys for Claude Montana filed a notice of opposition with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, citing the designer’s ownership of trademarks in the U.S. for several variations on his name, including “Montana,” “Claude Montana” and the diffusion line “State of Claude Montana.”
The case has since drawn national attention and the ire of Montana governor Marc Racicot, who is seeking clarification from federal trademark officials on Claude Montana’s claim on the state’s name.
Ann and Tom Dooling, the owners of Montana Knits, have recently retained Dorsey & Whitney, a law firm that agreed to take the case “next to pro-bono,” Ann Dooling said.
The knitwear company, with three full-time employees and annual revenues of about $36,000, produces knit apparel and accessories on a 100-acre farm the Doolings share with 800 goats. The Doolings said they had paid for their own defense until now.
Rob Sterup, an attorney representing the Doolings in Billings, Mont., said he is preparing for possible discovery measures and will submit arguments to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board in Washington, possibly by the middle of May. Sterup said it was “too early to say” if the case would go to trial.
The designer’s New York attorneys, who are with the law firm Kuhn & Muller, did not return calls Friday and have declined comment in the past.
There are at least 50 other manufacturers and retailers of apparel in the state that use Montana in their names, according to the state’s Department of Commerce. The state’s attorney general has estimated the cost of taking a trademark dispute to court would range from $150,000 to $200,000.
However, Dooling said, “If it exceeds $5,000, I’d be surprised.” She said the attorneys agreed to charge the Doolings only for the basic legal expenses, adding, “They’re doing this because the case affects so many people in Montana.”