The other day I was browsing the evening gown section of Nordstrom when I noticed something peculiar: a T-strap pump with studs on the straps and a pointy toe. Immediately, I thought “Valentino!!” because the fashion house’s latest it-shoe is the ‘Rockstud’ collection which is becoming incredibly popular and rather recognizable. The collection features shoes in various styles, from pumps to flats to sandals, adorned with studs, as shown below.
Valentino ‘Rockstud’ shoes, via Nordstrom
Instead, the studs on the pump looked more dull and the leather did not look as sumptuous as the Valentinos. And, as I came closer to the shoe, I realized why. The shoe before me was not the Valentino Rockstud pump, but rather the Sam Edelman ‘Ollie’ T-strap pump, as shown below.
Sam Edelman ‘Ollie’ Pump, via Nordstrom
Because I am always thinking with a legal mind, I immediately began to wonder about the Intellectual Property implications of what I was seeing, especially since there isn’t much copyright protection for fashion designers. It’s not uncommon for high end collections, such as Valentino, to be used as “inspiration” for labels that are more affordable. The Valentino pump sells for $945, while the Sam Edelman sells for $130.95.
This is a common practice in the fashion industry where fast fashion brands like Zara and H&M are inspired by the runways and create pieces that are more affordable for the masses. This is often called the trickle-down effect of the fashion industry where trends trickle down from high end fashion houses to designer’s affordable lines and department stores to fast fashion brands to low end clothing stores. But, its a fine line between inspiration based on trends and simply copying a design.
Sometimes these inspired by pieces can lead to lawsuits when they are more copycats rather than inspired by pieces. Steve Madden is oftentimes on the receiving end of these suits. In 2009, Steve Madden was sued by both Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen. Both suits were settled out of court with Steve Madden paying an undisclosed settlement sum.
There’s no real precedent concerning infringement of a design of a shoe that isn’t based on trademark. Last year, Gucci won its suit against Guess for trademark misappropriation for sneakers that had a design that strongly resembled the Gucci Logo. Also, recently, Louboutin’s trademark over its famous red sole was upheld in a case against YSL. While there are no specific trademarked or copyrighted aspects of the Valentino ‘Rockstud’ pump, an argument can be made that there is a trade dress infringement. A trade dress infringement suit can be brought when there is a likelihood of confusion among consumers, meaning the consumer would confuse the Sam Edelman pump for the Valentino pump.
To be successful, Valentino would have to prove that their shoe is not functional and is distinctive. It may prove difficult to prove that the pump is not functional as clothing has historically been held as functional. However, Valentino could argue that the copied elements of the shoe, the studs, the use and placement of the three front straps and the heel strap, the low heel, and the pointed toe are not the functional elements of the shoe, but rather design elements of the shoe. To prove distinctiveness could be easier to prove as the ‘Rockstud’ collection is quite popular and has been out for quite some time.
On the other hand, Sam Edelman could argue that the shoe is different in that they use different studs, and different color combinations. Sam Edelman’s shoe uses smaller, rounded studs while the Valentino shoe used bigger, sharper studs, and Valentino’s is known for having the beige color on the straps for all the Rockstud shoes, whereas the Same Edelman pumps uses beige for the straps on the beige pump and black for the straps for the black pump. Sam Edelman could also argue that the Rockstud pump is not protected under a trade dress infringement suit because the pump is functional based on copyright law’s view of clothing as useful items.
It remains to be seen if the Sam Edelman pump has been brought to the attention of Valentino and if they deem the situation worthy of any legal action. If a suit were brought, it would either be settled out of court between the parties or the court would have to determine the merits of the case, which would depend on which party brings the stronger argument based on law and precedent.