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Vera Wang

Page history last edited by fjolee@law.fordham.edu 13 years, 5 months ago

 

 

Vera Wang is a famous American fashion designer based in New York City.  Originally known for her bridal collection, Vera Wang has since launched a ready-to-wear line, fragrances, accessories, and collaborations with Waterford Crystal and Kohl’s Department Stores. 

Childhood

Vera Ellen Wang was born in New York City on June 27, 1949,[1] two years after her parents Cheng Ching and Florence Wang, fled the Communist takeover in China.[2]   Her parents were affluent, and Vera Wang enjoyed a comfortable childhood, frequently accompanying her mother to Paris for shopping and fashion shows, including that of Christian Dior, Givenchy, and Balenciaga.[3] 

When she was 7, Vera received a pair of ice skates for Christmas and started taking skating lessons.  She loved to skate, and once said that “the only thing that I loved as much as skating were clothes.”[4]  Indeed, Vera would sketch costumes she hoped to wear while skating.[5]  She became a talented figure skater and competed professionally throughout her teens.  She placed fifth with her partner James Stuart in the 1968 and 1969 U.S. National Championships.[6]  However, she did not make the Olympic team in 1968, which was a source of great disappointment for Vera.  She eventually gave up professional skating at the age of 19.

Vera then enrolled in Sarah Lawrence College, where she majored in art history and studied one year abroad at the Sorbonne in Paris.

 

Career in Fashion:  Working for Vogue

 In 1970, Vera Wang got her first working experience as a salesperson and then later as a window dresser at the Yves Saint Laurent Boutique on Madison Avenue, where she met Frances Stein, an editor at Vogue who like Vera and told her to call him if she needed a job.  After graduating college in 1971, Vera wanted to study fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology, but her father, who supported her financially, did not approve.  She then landed a job through Stein at Vogue, where she worked as an assistant to several editors, and later became a senior editor herself, becoming one of the youngest people to take an editor position at the fashion publication.  In an interview with MSNBC.com, Wang said of working at Vogue: “I think I always had an eye and Vogue made that eye even sharper.  An eye is a new way of viewing something old.  Everything’s been done in fashion.  It’s how you bring newness to the concept.  I mean, a white shirt is a white shirt, but how do you wear it?  Those are the things that editors are always searching for, particularly in a picture because you only have so long to capture the magic of fashion.”[7]

Vera Wang stayed at Vogue for 16 years, from 1971-1987, and of her experience, she wrote:  “For nearly two decades as a Vogue editor, fashion was my life.  I had the unique privilege of collaborating with some of the world’s most creative individuals.  From styling the fashion pages to working with designers, I was in a rare position to communicate with women.  I also learned to hone my eye and trust my creative instincts to an extent even I could never have imagined.  The incomparable training I received continues to guide my work today.”[8]

 

Vera’s Personal Life

            Vera Wang met her husband Arthur Becker in 1977 at a tennis match in Forest Hills, Queens.  At the time, he was working for her father as a stockbroker.  On their first date, he arrived at the restaurant only to find that her entire family was there with them – Vera was very close to her family. When Vera married Becker in 1989, she was 39 years old, and she discovered that she could not find a dress that she liked and that she felt was appropriate for her age.  Vera ended up designing her own dress at a cost of $10,000.  After her marriage to Becker, Vera was shocked and saddened to discover that she could not have kids, despite numerous attempts at fertility treatments.  Vera adopted two daughters, Cecilia, born in 1990 and adopted when Vera was 41, and Josephine, born in 1993 and adopted when Vera was 44. 

 

Post-Vogue

After her 16-year career at Vogue, Vera Wang began to work as a design director at Ralph Lauren. She was initially supposed to work for Geoffrey Beene, but on the day before she was to begin her new position, she got a call from Ralph Lauren offering her a salary four times that being offered by Geoffrey Beene.  Although Vera had tremendous respect for Beene, she felt she could not give up the salary as she no longer wanted to receive her father’s support.  She worked at Ralph Lauren from 1987 to 1989. 

 

Vera Wang the Designer

In 1990, with encouragement from her father, Vera started her own bridal design business – Vera Wang Bridal House, Ltd. and Vera Wang Made to Order Salon.  She also started her special occasion dresses line in 1993 and eveningwear in 1994.  In 1995, Vera opened Maids On Manhattan across the street from her bridal salon, specializing in bridesmaids’ dresses.

 

Gown from Vera Wang's Luxe Bridal Collection

 

While her bridal business did well, Vera attained international fame when she designed Nancy Kerrigan’s Winter Olympics costumes in 1992 and 1994. 

 

 

Vera Wang the Brand:  Vera Expands Through Licensing Agreements

Vera Wang began to expand her business with several licensing deals.  In 1997, she teamed up with Rossimoda, an Italian shoe company, and entered her first licensing deal.  As is often the case with licensing agreements, Vera became frustrated with her lack of involvement, and renegotiated this deal several times. In 1999, Vera signed her second licensing agreement with Newmont group to design leathers and furs.  In 2000, she signed an exclusive licensing agreement with Unilever Cosmetics International to develop a fragrance. She also went on to sign licensing agreements with Coty for men’s and women’s fragrances, Couteur Design Grup and Kenmark Optical for eyewear, Waterford Wedgwood for china and crystal, and with Syratech for silver plates and glasses. When Vera’s licensing agreement with Rossimoda expired, she signed a new agreement with Stuart Weitzman.  In 2003, she partnered with Italian shoemaker Guiseppe Zanotti.  In 2002, she developed Vera Wang Princess fragrance, inspired by her daughters. 

 

In September 2007, Vera Wang also launched her exclusive lower-end line with Kohl’s Department Store, called “Simply Vera Vera Wang,” which became the subject of a trademark dispute.    

 

Vera’s Trademark Dispute

In 2006, Vera Wang announced her collaboration with Kohl’s Department Store to launch an exclusive lower-end collection called “Simply Vera Vera Wang.”  However, a dispute arose over this name, as another company, The Vera Company, around since the 1940’s, held a trademark to the name “Vera.” 

 

The Vera Company produces scarves originally designed by Vera Neumann, an artist and designer who made scarves with bright colors and bold designs from parachute silk shortly after World War II.[9]   Priced at around the $100 range, her scarves are sold in mid to high-level department stores and boutiques.  They can be found featured in several fashion magazines, and are even a collector’s item. The Smithsonian Institute also honored Vera Neumann’s work in 1972. 

 

  

Vera Neumann

 

Prior to the launch of Simply Vera Vera Wang, Vera Wang’s licensing company, VWK Licensing LLC (“VWK”), filed several “intent to use” trademark applications with the Patent and Trademark office under the names “Very Vera Vera Wang” and “Simply Vera Very Wang.”[10]  According to Vera Wang’s counsel, there were several months of amicable discussions between Vera Wang and The Vera Company towards the end of 2006.   However, on December 12, 2006, The Vera Company sent a “cease and desist” letter to Vera Wang, explaining that the use of the Very Vera and Simply Vera marks may lead to confusion and requesting that Vera Wang not use the proposed marks. [11]   In response to the letter, on January 25, 2007, Vera Wang’s company V.E.W. Ltd  (“V.E.W”) and VWK brought suit against The Vera Company seeking a declaratory judgment that the Vera Wang’s proposed use of the names “Very Vera” and “Simply Vera” do not infringe upon The Vera Company’s trademarks, and that they are entitled to use the marks; the plaintiffs were seeking an order prohibiting The Vera Company from challenging the federal trademark applications for Very Vera or Simply Vera.[12]   In response to the complaint, The Vera Company filed a motion to dismiss.    

 

After several filings by both parties, the last being on September 11, 2007, the case was set for a jury trial in December 2007.[13]  However, the two parties reached a settlement out of court two weeks prior to the jury trial.  The settlement terms are unknown, but in the end, Vera Wang was able to use the name “Simply Vera Vera Wang” for her collection at Kohl’s.  

 

Trademark in Fashion

Trademarks provide a valuable form of intellectual property protection to fashion designers and their brands.  Fashion designs are afforded no protection under copyright law; therefore, many designers use their trademarks to distinguish their products and to prevent copying.  For example, Louis Vuitton has trademarks on not only the name “Louis Vuitton,” but also its stylized and intertwined “LV” mark, which it uses on its luxury handbags and luggage.[14] In this way, trademarks serve two purposes in fashion: First, to “maintain a prestige premium for particular brands,” and second, to prevent unauthorized copying.[15]

 

Standard for Trademark Infringement

 

Trademark infringement is actionable under the Lanham Act, which states in relevant part that “[a]ny person who shall, without the consent of the registrant…use in commerce any reproduction, counterfeit, copy, or colorable imitation of a registered mark in connection with the sale…of any goods or services…in connection with which such use is likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive…shall be liable in a civil action by the registrant….”[16]

 

Thus, if two marks are so similar that they are “likely to cause confusion” between consumers, then the trademark owner may have a claim for trademark infringement.  “Likelihood to cause confusion” is dependent on several factors.  The more relevant factors in fashion include:  (1) degree of similarity between the two marks; (2) similarity of the products that the marks identify; (3) defendant's intent; and (4) strength and distinctiveness of the plaintiff's mark.[17]

 

No single factor is dispositive, and these factors are not of equal importance or relevance in every case.[18]   In determining whether there is a likelihood of confusion, courts weigh the factors within the totality of circumstances. 

 

Similarity Between Marks

            The degree of similarity between marks is an important and interesting factor in terms of fashion trademarks because designers often use their own names as their trademarks.  This becomes an issue especially if a designer has a common name, and the infringer shares the same name.  This was the issue in Vera Wang’s case – Vera Wang, the alleged infringer, was using her own name, which she shared with the rightful trademark owner.  While it may seem that an individual should be able to use their own name, the basic principles of trademark law are not affected by the fact that the name is the alleged infringer’s own name.[19]  In other words, a court still analyzes the same factors in determining likelihood of confusion.

 

In Vera Wang’s case, all of the trademarks she registered for the Kohl’s collection included the name Vera Wang with it.  However, The Vera Company alleged that Vera Wang had acquiesced in the line being known in its short from as Very Vera or Simply Vera, and in fact desired that the line be referred to as such.  Vera Wang’s response denied this claim, and claimed that Vera Wang’s counsel informed The Vera Company’s counsel that the products bearing the marks would only be sold at Kohl’s, and would always include the “Vera Wang” portion of the marks because “[Vera Wang] and Kohl’s gain immense value from using and promoting the full Vera Wang name and mark.”[20]  Indeed, a recent televised commercial for Vera Wang’s line at Kohl’s consistently referred to the label by its full name. 

 

Notably, a registration for the trademark “Very Vera,” which was not filed by Vera Wang, was denied by the Patent and Trademark Office on the grounds that the mark, when used in conjunction with the identified goods, resembles The Vera Company’s mark of “Vera” to an extent “likely to cause confusion, to cause mistake, or to deceive.”[21]

 

Similarity of Products

This factor is important in determining whether the trademark owner suffered direct injuries due to the infringement.  If the products are “competitive,” direct injury results from diversion of sales from the trademark owner to the infringer.  However, even if the products are not competitive, but are “related,” the trademark owner may have a claim against the infringer.  While there is no easy way to determine if goods are “related,” the basic idea is that two products are related if a consumer may confuse their origin. 

 

In terms of fashion, most items that are related to apparel and even toiletries will be deemed “related.”[22]  This makes sense since today, big designers like Vera Wang make everything from fragrances to crystal.  In Vera Wang’s case, The Vera Company was known mainly for making scarves, while Vera Wang’s line for Kohl’s focuses consists of clothing.  However, courts have given consideration when it comes to apparel of the possibility that that a trademark owner may expand their business to compete directly with the infringer’s product. Indeed, The Vera Company claimed to want to expand its business from scarves to other products.

 

One concern of trademark owners is the difference in quality of goods by the infringer – the trademark owner does not want consumer confusion over the owner’s product with an inferior or potentially inferior product, thereby tarnishing its name.[23]  This could have been an issue in Vera Wang’s case, where the rightful owner of the mark “Vera,” The Vera Company, may not have been able to argue that high designer Vera Wang’s goods were of a poorer quality than hers.  However, this is questionable since the “Simply Vera Vera Wang” line was exclusively made for a lower priced department store.  In addition, scarves made by The Vera Company are not themselves of a poor quality – she is a popular designer in her own right, and her scarves are sold in mid to high-level department stores. 

 

Intent

            An intent on the part of the infringer to create consumer confusion raises a presumption that consumer confusion resulted.  This factor is especially important in the context of the fashion industry, because copyists may try to come up with a similar mark in order to deceive the public.  

 

Utility of Trademark in Fashion

As fashion designs are currently not copyrightable, trademarks often serve as the only viable form of intellectual property protection available to designers.   Trademarks serve an important role in fashion by protecting a designer’s brand.  However, while trademarks can prevent deliberate copying or use of a protected mark, it cannot prevent the copying of the design itself.  One tactic used increasingly by designers is to place a trademarked logo on the outside of a garment or accessory, such that the logo is part of the design.  Where such tactics are employed, trademark can provide significant protection against copying.[24] 

 

Today:  Vera on the Current Global Financial Crisis

            Vera Wang, like many other designers, has been forced to respond to the financial crisis.[25]  Retailers are pressuring designers to make their collections more commercial, and Vera Wang has responded by cutting costs and lowering the prices on her clothing lines.  For Fashion Week, Vera held what she called a more “intimate” show at her new SoHo boutique instead of the usual runway fashion show – this cost Wang about $150,000, less than half the usual cost of one of her shows.  In addition, the price tags on Vera’s Lavender line are being reduced – dresses are averaging $290, down from $435 in previous years.  She says that she is “focusing on what people need” but encourages consumers to “[H]ave some fun.  Go shopping, even if it’s just a little, and be happy.”[26]

 



[1]Biography.com, Vera Wang Biography, http://www.biography.com/search/article.do?id=95423 98 (last visited February 21, 2009).

[2] Anne M. Todd, Vera Wang 11 (2007).

[3] Id. at 13.

[4] Answers.com, Vera Wang Biography, http://www.answers.com/topic/vera-wang (last visited February 21, 2009).

[5] Anne M. Todd, Vera Wang 15 (2007).

[6] Biography.com, Vera Wang Biography, http://www.biography.com/search/article.do?id=95423 98 (last visited February 21, 2009).

 

[7] Anne M. Todd, Vera Wang 26 (2007).

[8] Id, at 27.

[9] The Vera Company, http://www.theveracompany.com/history.php (last visited March 2, 2009).

[10] Defendant’s Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion to Dismiss Complaint, V.E.W., Ltd. v. The Vera Company, 2007 WL 1370469 (S.D.N.Y. March 26, 2007).

[11] Id.  The Vera Company claims that the complaint was very conciliatory and contained no threat of litigation. 

[12] Id.  The Vera Company claims that the complaint was very conciliatory and contained no threat of litigation. 

[13] Jincey Lumpkin, Vera Wang Settles Trademark Dispute with Vera over “Simply Vera”, http://fashionlawyerblog.com/?p=265 (last visited February 21, 2009). 

[14] Louis Vuitton Malletier S.A. v. Haute Diggity Dog, LLC,  464 F.Supp.2d 495 (E.D. Va. 2006).

[15] Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman, The Piracy Paradox:  Innovation and Intellectual Property in Fashion Design, 92 Va. L. Rev. 1687, 1700 (2006).

[16] Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C.A. §1114. 

[17] Pizzeria Uno Corp. v. Temple, 747 F.2d 1522, 1527 (4th Cir.1984).

[18] Petro Stopping Centers v. James River Petroleum, Inc., 130 F.3d 88, 91 (4th Cir.1997). 

[19] Jean F. Rydstrom, Annotation, Right of Owner of Trademark for Apparel or Toiletries to Protection Under Lanham Act (15 U.S.C.A. § 1114(1) Against Infringement by Another’s Use of Similar Mark for Different Items of Apparel or Toiltetries, 38 A.L.R. Fed. 374 (Originally published in 1978). 

[20] Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss Complaint, V.E.W., Ltd. v. The Vera Company,  2007 WL 1645890 (S.D.N.Y. April 10, 2007).

[21] Plaintiff’s Reply to Defendant’s Amended Counterclaims, V.E.W., Ltd. v. The Vera Company,  2007, WL 2272675 (S.D.N.Y. June 18, 2007).  The PTO also stated, “The dominant feature of the applicant’s mark, VERA, is identical to the cited registered marks, VERA.  The marks are highly similar in sound, appearance and commercial impression.  The addition of the word VERA in applicant’s mark and of the stylization in the cited registered marks are insufficient to obviate the likelihood of confusion.  The marks are all used in connection with various types of clothing, therefore, the goods are highly related and move in the same channels of trade.  Due to the close relation between both the marks and the goods, consumers are likely to be confused as to the source of the goods.”  Id.

[22] See, e.g., Scarves by Vera Inc. v. Todo Imports, Ltd., 544 F.2d 1167 (1976) (Trademark on scarves and apparel was entitled to protection against use of same mark on cosmetics and fragrances)

[23] See Lebow Bros., Inc. v. Lebole Eurconf S.p.A, 503 F. Supp. 209, 212 (1980 E.D. PA) (holding that quality, style, and customer sophistication are considered in determining that buyers of clothing under the two marks are not likely to be confused). 

[24] Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman, The Piracy Paradox:  Innovation and Intellectual Property in Fashion Design, 92 Va. L. Rev. 1687, 1701 (2006).

[25] Teri Agins, Designers Get a Taste of Sticker Shock:  Vera Wang is Taking to Heart Retailers’ Demands for Lower Prices, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 21-22, 2009, at W4. 

[26] Style.com, Style File Blog, http://www.style.com/stylefile/2009/02/vera-wang-go-shopping-be-happy/ (last visited March 8, 2009). 

 

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