Seeing All Red Over Soles: Louboutin vs. YSL

Yes, I’m going to talk about Louboutins. But no, ladies, it’s not about the latest styles or colors. I’m going to talk about the one color that’s been there since the beginning of the brand; the red lacquer on the outsoles of each and every Louboutin shoe. Or, as technically named; Pantone No. 18-1663 TP, ‘Chinese Red’’.

As some of you might’ve already known, Yves St. Laurent’s Cruise 2011 collections featured colorful shoes with similarly-hued soles. There were purple-soled purple shoes, green-soled green shoes, and red-soled red shoes. It’s the latter that Louboutin saw too similar to their creations. And since Louboutin holds the trademark of red-lacquered shoe soles (detailed above), as awarded by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office in 2008, they decided to file a trademark infringement suit in New York around April this year over Tribute, Taboo, Palais, and Woodstock models in YSL’s Cruise 2011 collections. The brand was seeking USD 1 million in damages or, umm… about 250 pairs worth of their shoes.

Let me blow my trumpet a bit. I had owned a pair of Louboutins long before the flagship boutique opened its doors in Jakarta. Instead of the platform style popularized later by movie Sex and the City 2, mine is pointy-toed stilettos in white-grey python leather. Its unique, diagonal, slashed-out side cuts makes the pair almost looks like d’Orsay pumps. Adding the red soles peeking beneath, it’s sexy as hell.

The name Christian Louboutin is not something new for true shoe lovers. I learned about the brand almost a decade ago and, looking at its downright sensual flair, had a feeling that it might advance sooner than the likes of Cesare Paciotti, Giuseppe Zanotti, Brian Atwood or Sigerson Morrison, to join the upper ranks of Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo.

Yet now, let’s put aside our love for shoes, or Louboutins in particular, and think in a broader business perspective. Can a brand validly trademark a color?

I’m no lawyer, yet during my years as a brand manager, when a part of the job was dealing and understanding trademark and copyrights issues to certain degree, I never heard of a color being trademarked. I contacted a couple of intellectual property rights lawyers recently to discuss the issue, and they agreed that while it’s viable to patent a certain design, it would be almost impossible to trademark any color, especially, as in this case, a color that had already been identified and made available by Pantone anyway.

I went back to my fashion library and found references of shoes with red soles as far back as 16th century England. Queen Mary I, the older half-sister of Queen Elizabeth I, was recorded in 1554 of ordering 38 pairs of velvet shoes, lined with satin, and soled in scarlet color. King Louis XIV of France was known in 18th century to dance in red-heeled shoes. And red soles have popped in and out of fashion ever since, including the iconic sparkly, all-over-red pumps Dorothy wore in legendary musical movie Wizard of Oz in 1939. Perhaps only Christian Louboutin who ever consciously, prominently used that color to sole his shoes since starting business in 1991, but it really doesn’t make him the first adopter and hence, very unlikely to claim a trademark.

Did YSL deliberately want to rock Louboutin’s boat? Fashion is indeed a cutthroat, multibillion dollar business where anything is possible, yet I seriously doubt that possibility. Since its foundation in 1962 as a fashion house, where its beatnik look was worshipped during the ‘70s, YSL has grown into a full luxury house that includes accessories and cosmetics (I personally swear by their world-class Touche Eclat and mascaras). Founder Yves St. Laurent himself continued to design its haute-couture line until 2002 after the Gucci Group takeover in 1999. Currently under the creative hand of Stefano Pilati, YSL is a much-revered brand on its own merit that would not gain much by purposely eroding Louboutin’s market share for shoes, especially if it meant dealing with pesky, time-consuming, legal matters.

So, what, then? After a bit of silent soul-searching I came to realize that, as in many cases in fashion, perhaps vanity is the real answer here.

Of all the reasons a woman can love shoes, Louboutins’ red sole has been mentioned, openly or sheepishly, as one of the most attractive factors of the shoes. Without ever needing to tackily mention or point at, all a wearer has to do is sit pretty, cross her legs, and flick her feet for the red sole to suddenly come to full view. In that very instance, a status would be gained or reconfirmed. That’s something that cannot be 100% guaranteed by either Manolos or Choos while, as any fashionista would know and should admit, peer recognition is often the chosen drug in this industry. I think Christian Louboutin understands this perfectly well, hence filed for the trademark and now is panicking that another brand might steal its thunder.

And if that’s the case, isn’t that just sad? As if, Louboutin openly admits that its unique selling point for the past 2 decades hinges solely on the red sole, instead of something stronger and more lasting, like the overall design. Surely there are newbie and wannabe fashionistas who’ve been snapping Louboutins thanks to J. Lo’s song or SATC 2, yet I believe true fashionistas and shoe lovers will always return, just as we never left Manolos and Choos or even Roger Vivier’s, for the actual shoes on display. I sure as hell didn’t buy my Louboutins for the red sole. If Louboutin wants to survive for another 20 years in this increasingly-competitive shoes category, they should bet on something more solid than simply a scarlet sole.

Of course, you may agree or disagree— I’d even welcome any Louboutin diehard angrily throwing their Louboutins at me, provided that they’re in size 36 ½, merci ;)

Back to the legal suit, last August New York court rejected Louboutin’s plea to stop YSL from selling their red-soled shoes and indicated that it might even review the validity of trademark Louboutin acquired in 2008. Louboutin responded by stating that it would appeal all the way to Supreme Court, if need be.

While the lawyers on both sides will be kept busy for the next months, let us take off our shoes, sit back, and ponder for a moment– does Louboutin have a real, legal standing? What do YOU think?

References:

  1. Shoes. Lucy Pratt & Linda Woolley. V&A Publishing, 1999.
  2. I Want Those Shoes. Paola Jacobbi. Sperling & Kupfer Editori, 2004.
  3. Article: http://www.economist.com/node/21526357?fsrc=scn/tw/te/mt/layoffmyredsoledshoes
  4. Article:http://www.ipbrief.net/2011/09/08/seeing-red-christian-louboutin-v-yves-saint-laurent/