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A Rose By Any Other Name

Imagine your humble blogger standing on a soapbox, shaking her forefinger at a crowd of aspiring creative types and offering one simple but important bit of advice.  Now imagine the members of the crowd with their own fingers stuck firmly in their ears.


This seems to be what happens, figuratively speaking, whenever the issue of whether a designer should use his or her own name on the label arises.  It's a BAD IDEA -- at least from a trademark perspective.

Let me explain.  Every new business needs a name.  And if that name is going to appear on goods or be associated with services, it ought to be trademarked to protect it from misuse by others.  A trademark is an important corporate asset, indeed, maybe the most important corporate asset for many businesses.  If the new business grows and attracts a majority investor, the investor will naturally want control over the corporate assets, including the trademark.  So far, so good.

But what happens if the original creator of the business -- like the designer with his or her name on the label -- ultimately leaves the business?  The investor keeps the trademark, and the designer walks off nameless into the night.

OK, I'm dramatizing here -- the designer can still use his or her name personally, and without a "formerly known as" in front of it.  There's no need to throw out the monogrammed towels in the guest bathroom or to try and convince Mom to pick another name for her darling child.  As a trademark, however, the name is lost to its former owner.  Moreover, the original designer has no control over the designs now sold under his or her name.

Not convinced?  Ask Jil Sander, Helmut Lang, Elizabeth Emanuel, Cynthia Steffe, Paul Frank (born Paul Frank Sunich), Roland Mouret...or go back in history and learn a lesson from Halston (born Roy Halston Frowick) or the immortal Coco Chanel.

One of the most recent twists on the name game is directed at Joseph Abboud, who left his eponymous company in 2005.  Shortly after his noncompetition agreement expired last month, JA Apparel, which owns the "JOSEPH ABBOUD" trademark, published a full-page ad in DNR, warning:

 Click for full ad

About as subtle as a sharkskin suit, but apparently effective.  The designer's planned new line will be called "Jaz."  Why only one "z"?  According to DNR, Abboud "claimed to favor the snappy, abbreviated version -- and it was infinitely easier to trademark."  

Of course, some splits are more final than others.  Jimmy Choo pays to license his name back from its owners for his couture collection, and Kate Spade recently announced that she will remain on the board of her Liz Claiborne-owned label even as she leaves her previous role. 

Still, why do so many fashion designers, in particular, risk having their names amputated?  Surely the pleasure of seeing the letters printed on a few inches of ribbon isn't that compelling.  Perhaps it's tradition, perhaps ego, perhaps the belief that personality can be a powerful sales tool.  One thing is certain, however:  it's not because their lawyers recommended it. 

I'm done -- you can take your fingers out of your ears now.