NEW YORK, United States — Copying may be rampant in the fashion industry, but it is rare to see two emerging labels in conflict. Last week, however, designer Maryam Nassir Zadeh made headlines by accusing accessories label Mansur Gavriel of directly copying her mule sandal.
Nassir Zadeh, who owns a well-respected store on the Lower East Side, as well as a showroom and a namesake line of clothing and shoes, took to both Instagram and traditional media to voice her concerns. “In September 2015, Mansur Gavriel launched their first shoe collection featuring seemingly exact replicas of Maryam’s hallmark mule and slide designs in colours identical to Maryam’s Spring 2015 collection that was released one year ago,” Nassir Zadeh’s representative said in a statement released on Wednesday. She cited similarities in shoe design, but also in colour (in particular, a deep coral) and material (suede).
Nassir Zadeh declined to disclose whether she planned to take legal action against Mansur Gavriel, which is also based on New York’s Lower East Side, but issued a fresh statement today, saying: “Since I was notified of Mansur Gavriel design’s likeness to my shoes, I did research into Maryam Nassir Zadeh store records. I found proof of purchase receipts [from my store] from Rachel Mansur dating March, April and May 2015, of the exact styles and colours in question, as well an earlier purchase of Maryam Nassir Zadeh sandals from Floriana Gavriel in July 2014. For me, this is clear proof that they had my designs as a reference to develop their shoe line by emulating my shapes, materials and colours.” Screenshots of the receipts in question were shared with The Business of Fashion.
Mansur and Gavriel have not responded to requests for comment on the subject — until now — issuing a statement to BoF.
"Recently it has come to our attention that fellow New York City brand Maryam Nassir Zadeh is claiming similarities between her designs and our newly launched Spring/Summer 2016 shoe collection. This deeply saddens us as any similarity is completely coincidental. Our line has been developed and designed over a period of 18 months, drawing inspiration from classic shoe silhouettes and the iconic colours and materials of our handbag collection.
Mansur Gavriel was founded in 2012 with a dedication to providing clean, classic handbag designs crafted in the highest quality Italian leathers. It is our design philosophy and concept to concentrate on a few classical shapes in a wide array of colours and materials. That same philosophy guided us in designing our shoe collection which consists of 4 styles, 5 heel heights, 2 fabrications and 16 colours, resulting in 320 SKUs. The colours selected for this collection all tie back to the interior and exterior colours of our core handbag collection, which has been on the market since June 2013.
We respect Maryam Nassir Zadeh as a designer and retailer, and are customers of her store. However, we believe that neither she nor we can claim ownership of a mule or slide or block heel or colour, for that matter. We are well aware of rampant imitation of young designers in the marketplace and have personally experienced this many times. However, we are also well aware we do not own the silhouette of the bucket bag or the tote."
For Nassir Zadeh, taking successful legal action against Mansur Gavriel will be a challenge, according to intellectual property experts. “There is a great deal of similarity between the shoes,” observes professor Susan Scafidi, founder of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University. “That being said, this is not a design that US law is likely to protect.”
In the United States, novelties like fabric prints, and occasionally jewellery, can be protected under copyright law. However, “anything that is functional is typically not the subject matter of copyright,” Scafidi explains. There is a “remote” chance that a patent law could apply. (Many athletic shoe brands, for instance, are patented because they are a useful invention: making the wearer jump higher, or run faster.) “But because of the minimalism of the shoe, there isn’t much to protect her,” Scafidi adds.
As for whether the coral colour first used by Nassir Zadeh’s label is enough to prove trademark infringement, Scafidi says: “The colour has to have secondary meaning” as in the case of Christian Louboutin’s red soles. “In that circumstance, it’s not just about using the colour red, it’s about using the colour red in a trademark fashion, in the same way on every shoe in every style. The likelihood of an entire shoe in this one colour becoming a trademark is very limited.”
Indeed, “trademark is always a problem for new designers. Consumers have to be able identify the thing that you’re trademarking with you,” explains David Jacoby, an intellectual property lawyer and partner at the New York-based business law firm Culhane Meadows, PLLC. “It does seem suspicious, especially since used they used the same model. However, there isn’t anything that looks particularly distinctive or identifiable.”
Even if Nassir Zadeh is confident that she has a case, the costs of pursuing legal action may not outweigh the benefits. “Christian Louboutin has the resources,” Jacoby says. The designer may have better luck in Europe, however, where Jacoby says she might qualify for unregistered copyright protection.
It seems that Nassir Zadeh’s social media campaign might actually be the most effective means of defense. “In the absence of a solid legal right, designers engage in a series of self-help remedies. One those remedies is social shaming, attempting to embarrass the other designer,” Scafidi says. “It’s effective and certainly less expensive. Maryam has gotten sympathy from this.”
Yet Mansur Gavriel’s strong retail relationships — due, in part, to the blockbuster success of their handbags — suggest that many stores will choose to believe their side of the story, or ignore the accusations altogether. “It may discourage stores from buying the Mansur Gavriel shoes,” Jacoby says. “But there will be retailers that don't care, that are often selling stuff with a remarkable resemblance to other items on on the market.”