In a court case that has all sides seeing red, a judge said Wednesday that a French maker of luxury shoes worn by stars such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Scarlett Johansson and Halle Berry will likely fail in its effort to stop other shoemakers from producing high-heeled women's shoes with red soles.
U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero refused a request by Christian Louboutin to stop the sale of women's shoes with red soles by competitor Yves Saint Laurent S.A.S., another French company based in Paris. Though the ruling came at an early stage of consideration of a lawsuit Louboutin brought in April, the judge said it will probably be tossed out.
He said it was unlikely Louboutin could defend an "overly broad" trademark granted in 2008 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The judge said the office was "perhaps swayed in part by the widespread recognition the red sole had already attained" as the shoes became a favorite of well-heeled famous clients. The trademark notes that the color red is claimed as a feature of the mark, which consists of a lacquered red sole on footwear.
"Awarding one participant in the designer shoe market a monopoly on the color red would impermissibly hinder competition among other participants," Marrero wrote. He said it would be as if Picasso had sued Monet, saying he painted his water lilies with a distinctive indigo that Picasso used on his images of water.
He said Louboutin's ownership claim to a red sole would harm competition not only in high fashion shoes, but potentially in the markets for other fashion articles as well, putting makers of dresses, coats, bags, hats and gloves in fear of lawsuits.
"Louboutin's claim would cast a red cloud over the whole industry, cramping what other designers do, while allowing Louboutin to paint with a full palette," he said.
Harley Irwin Lewin, a lawyer for Louboutin, said he was disappointed with the ruling and believes it was contrary to trademark law.
"He has decided that in the fashion industry, people shouldn't own a trademark that consists of a single color regardless of its use and regardless of the fact the trademark has achieved trademark status with the public," Lewin said. "We made a point of saying it isn't on an article of fashion. It's on the bottom of a shoe."
Lewin said he believes he can appeal the ruling prior to trial but will not decide until speaking with the company.
At the appeals level, he added: "I think we win hands down."
Jyotin Hamid, a lawyer for Yves Saint Laurent, said the company was pleased with the ruling.
"No designer should be able to monopolize a color in fashion," he said. He said the company looks forward to continuing to manufacture red soled shoes, which it has been doing since the 1970s.
Marrero rejected claims by lawyers for Louboutin that the footwear designer only plans to enforce the trademark on high-heeled shoes and only in regard to specific shades of red, saying to do so would invite endless legal challenges and force judges to become "an arbiter of fashion design."
He said upholding the trademark could also set off "imperial color wars in women's high fashion footwear." He suggested Yves Saint Laurent might act on its claim that it pioneered the monochrome shoe design and asserting rights to the single color shoe concept in all shades.
Marrero added: "What about hostile color grabs in the markets for low-fashion shoes? Or for sports shoes? Or expanding beyond footwear, what about inner linings, collars, or buttons on coats, jackets, or dresses in both women's and men's apparel?"
The judge said the trademark was unlikely to survive legal challenges "because in the fashion industry color serves ornamental and aesthetic functions vital to robust competition."
Marrero acknowledged the enormous success Louboutin has achieved since the designer began in 1992 to apply glossy vivid red to the outsoles of his fancy women's shoes, beginning with red nail polish he applied to the black soles of a pair of women's shoes.
At prices up to $1,000 a pair, the shoes became a favorite of celebrities, causing the red outsole to become closely associated with the Louboutin name and leading even Yves Saint Laurent to acknowledge its success, "however begrudgingly," Marrero wrote.
By this year, Louboutin was projecting sales of about 240,000 in the U.S. alone and envious competitors and black-market shoe makers are eager to capitalize on the success, the judge said.