Trademarking Style: Fashion’s Appropriation and Trademark Problem

Peanut butter goes with jelly, Bert goes with Ernie and fashion goes with controversy. No stranger to the matter, the industry has a hot topic up for debate- the trademark. In a consumer market where buyers associate brands with specific styles and quality, owners try to protect their products through trademark registration. Their hopes are always to reduce the chances of others stealing or borrowing from them, diluting their company image. Such efforts impact brand value, impacting the bottom line So, it is understandable when businesses try to safeguard their efforts.

Case Study: Cult Gaia Trademark reports how Cult Gaia’s attempt to file for a trademark for its Ark bag led to a string of controversies that are currently testing the legal system. Jasmin Larian, founder of Cult Gaia, and her organization moved to register the bag as a trademark when it became clear that it was being imitated. The US Patent and Trademark Office turned her down, citing the design Cult Gaia sought to register “is a classic shape and style of carrying bag for personal use.”

At the heart of the controversy is Steve Madden, a company that is no stranger to this sort of issues. Cult Gaia had threatened to file a lawsuit against Steve Madden for blatantly stealing the Ark bag’s design. Steve Madden responded by suing Cult Gaia, the brand whose design it stole. The row prompted many observers to wonder what the causes of the long-standing appropriation and trademark problems in the fashion industry are and if these issues can be fixed.

Fashion Forward

A Harvard Law Review article excerpt suggests that the slow and reactive nature of the legal system is the main culprit. The fashion industry is evolving faster than the law can adapt to it. Susan Ford cites the US Trademark Act only provides “limited protection for brand names, logos, symbols, designs…” The fact that fashion designers only have limited protection for their intellectual property rights further encourages the production of knock-off products.

Given this problem, the ideal solution for the trademark crisis facing the fashion industry would be a complete change in the legal system in the United States. The law should be regularly updated to provide a comprehensive framework to establish who owns what and what rights would the property owner have to the property.

Valerie Steele, a Director and Chief Curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the pace with which fashion is being produced contributes to the appropriation problems the industry is facing.

A WWD article quoted Steele as saying “The fact that people tend to be producing more fashion faster makes it, perhaps, more likely that people are going to be not thinking very clearly about what they’re doing if they’re scrambling to finish the collection.” So, is fast fashion to blame for these problems? The speed in which brands must get to market is causing them to take shortcuts. If there is no time for innovation and creativity then they must “borrow?”

In the end, fashion brands must do their research before they introduce any product to the market.  But, with shrinking margins and an fickle consumer market how does one allocate such resources?


Christine Duff

Author: Christine Duff

Storytelling is my passion in life, whether through words across a page, a styled outfit that speaks volumes, or directing a photoshoot that expresses it visually. I live my life driven by my love of people, art, and the pursuit of happiness.