Karen Millen, the founder of the high end UK high street brand, is seeking the right to design under her own name once more. Miller founded her brand with her husband in in 1981, and sold it, along with the Karen Millen trademark, in 2004 to Icelandic Mosaic Fashions. Mosaic Fashion, which also owned Oasis and Coast, entered administration on 2 March 2009 and the brands are now owned by a number of Icelandic banks.
Millen says the demise of Mosaic and the restructuring of Karen Millen Holdings mean the agreement not to use her own name in business can now be challenged. Judge David Cooke said in the court documents: “The terms of the agreement included a number of restrictive covenants and other obligations on the part of Ms Millen and Mr Stanford (her husband) intended to protect the business Karen Millen Holdings and its subsidiaries and the intellectual property rights that they owned…the effect and extend of those obligations is at the heart of the disputes.”
The story serves as a lesson to all emerging designers. Trademarks are perhaps the most widely used form of Intellectual Property Protection in the fashion industry. The main advantage for fashion designers is that they afford strong legal protection in preventing infringement. While some designers come up with unique names for their brand, most will use their own names. It makes sense, if you’ve been at design school, or built up a reputation for your deigns, that reputation will probably be attached to your own name and it may open doors for you that would otherwise remain firmly closed.
However, personal names, when used as a trademark, can become entwined with the goodwill associated with the brand itself rather than with you, the designer. When you think of Christian Louboutin, do you think of a small bald French man or do you think of an exquisite pair of red soled shoes? Problems can arise if and when you acquire a financial backer. If further down the line you part ways with the financial backer, you may use the right to design under your own name. John Galliano, Roland Mouret and Helmut Lang are just some of the high profile designers that have lost the right to use their own name when they parted ways with the corporate backers who had acquired the rights and Kit Willow is the latest designer to join them.
But what’s the lesson? Don’t trademark your name, or choose your financial backer more carefully? After all, even if your label isn’t called after you personally, you could still risk losing a business you’ve poured blood, sweat and tears into if you choose the wrong backer. But it’s the pain of losing your own name, one you’ve had since birth, that is just so much more personal. To walk into a shop and see that name on products that have no connection to you must be truly soul destroying.
Right now, when you are starting out, ideas of corporate backers may seem a million miles off, but a developing fashion business must think long term. The name you give your business now may last a lifetime, or for the really successful, beyond. Nobody knows what the future holds, but you must think strategically and consider where your brand, and your name, might end up.
Miller’s case is expected to reach the courts in June.