NEW YORK — In fashion, all things are cyclical, even the careers of dead designers.
This story first appeared in the January 29, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
In a highly unusual case that gives new meaning to the idea of a ghost designer, two Manhattan entrepreneurs have apparently won the trademark to the Norman Norell label — simply by asking for it — and will relaunch the Norman Norell New York collection for fall retailing.
John Gomes, a 32-year-old businessman, and Patrick Michael Hughes, who is 37 and a graduate of multiple programs at Parsons School of Design, as well as a professor at the Manhattan college, plan to present a collection of 10 evening gowns on Feb. 5 bearing the label of Norell, who died in 1972.
Gomes and Hughes said they initially came up with the idea to revive the Norell label about two years ago and planned to approach whoever owned the name in hopes of pursuing a license. However, when they discovered the trademark had been abandoned, they hired a lawyer specializing in intellectual property matters and began an 18-month process of acquiring the name for themselves — most likely for peanuts. Comparatively, labels of long-gone American fashion heroes like Halston and Anne Klein (and more recently Bill Blass) have changed hands in recent years costing in the range of $75 million or more.
“We figured we had all the chances of winning the lottery,” said Hughes, who recognized the value of the Norell rights after beginning an investigation into the designer’s career as part of his studies at Parsons.
Neither Gomes, president of the company, nor Hughes, its designer, would disclose the cost of investigating and registering the trademark, although several attorneys specializing in the field said the registration process would be relatively inexpensive — more like four figures than eight.
Although the Norell label has been dormant in ready-to-wear for nearly three decades — Gustave Tassell had continued at the house for only a few seasons after Norell’s death — the name still has significant resonance for designers, particularly in New York, where Norell was one of the first to work his way out from the back rooms of Seventh Avenue and put his name on his own label. He was an early president and played a role in the foundation of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and was also a vocal proponent of the importance and originality of American designers, when much of the world saw them as inferior to Europeans.
Norell’s name was first featured on a label when he went into partnership with Anthony Traina to form the Traina-Norell brand in 1941, and then established Norman Norell Inc. in 1960. He suffered a stroke on the eve of his retrospective exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1972 and died 10 days later.
Since then, the Norell legacy has largely been carried only by his signature fragrance, often referenced as the earliest case of a designer perfume in 1968, which was an enormous success for Revlon in the Seventies. Today, the fragrance is listed as a property of Five Star Fragrance Co. and can be found in outlets like the Burlington Coat Factory.
While the use of the trademark by parties unrelated to the designer might appear opportunistic, during an interview, Gomes and Hughes stressed their allegiance to Norell and his impact on American fashion.
“This really is a labor of love for us,” said Hughes. “There so many parallels between us and Norell.”
“And we’re going to produce everything in New York,” added Gomes. “This is an American collection.”
Their investigation into the trademark, as well as Norell’s estate and that of his beneficiary, the designer John Moore, led Gomes and Hughes to the conclusion that they could feasibly take on the name as it was an abandoned property.
Andrew Baum, a partner at Darby & Darby specializing in trademark law, said the details of this case appear to follow a legitimate course in using Norell’s name, although unusual. In other cases where a trademark has been revived by another party, like Ipana toothpaste, Pepsodent and Bugatti automobiles, the persons looking to bring back those brands were able to acquire the trademarks directly from the companies that once produced them.
“They [Gomes and Hughes] didn’t have to acquire them,” Baum said. “The basic law of trademarks is that when you’ve abandoned it, you’ve abandoned it.”
Whether or not any distant relatives of the late designer even exist to challenge the use of his name is unclear, both in published histories of Norell’s life and in the entrepreneurs’ own research. Paris Gordon, a designer who opened a signature business in 1997, said she once tried to open a business as Norell but gave up when her advisers said she’d be better off using her own name.
“It’s a brilliant idea, and I’m more than happy that somebody else has done it,” she said.
Stan Herman, the current president of the CFDA, recalled that his early predecessor was a private person who, “if he walked the halls of Seventh Avenue again today, he’d probably put himself back in the grave. I just taught a class at a design school, and I won’t say which one, but no one knew who Norman Norell was.”
While the name still means something in fashion, it’s not quite clear what value it would have to the average consumer.
To Tiffany Dubin, a vintage expert and retailer, Norell represents a moment of American fashion when quality was as close to couture as ever. It was Norell who inspired her love of vintage in the first place, leading to a lifetime of research on designer fashion and construction. The quality of his work, she noted, would be difficult to replicate today at a price point customers would be willing to pay. She recalled a line that Norell made close to the end, when he said, “I hope I’ve dressed women more simply. If I’ve accomplished that, it would be enough to do.”