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(Bloomberg) -- Edgardo Osorio’s prized sandals sit on a glass shelf inside his Madison Avenue boutique under zebra-striped arches and golden chandeliers. The shoes have skinny heels, frills, and a tassel dangling from a dainty ankle strap that weaves up the leg. These days, they’re available in all kinds of colors and materials, but their signature suede style comes in a bold lipstick red.
Osorio, the co-founder and creative director of fashion label Aquazzura, calls the sandal one of his most iconic creations. Coveted by celebrities and fashion bloggers alike, these $785 suede numbers became a true “It” shoe since gaining traction in 2015. They helped catapult the designer and his label to international prominence. So when he discovered that the clothing brand run by the daughter of now-President Donald Trump was making a similar item for only $65, he called in the lawyers.
Fed up with alleged duplicate shoe designs, Aquazzura fired off multiple lawsuits over his Wild Thing sandal. Arguably similar styles hit store shelves under labels including Mollini, Missguided, and Jessica Buurman. Aquazzura didn’t challenge the smaller brands, but instead went after what he claimed to be the larger copycats: Steve Madden, Marc Fisher, and Ivanka Trump.
“One of the most disturbing things in the fashion industry is when someone blatantly steals your copyright designs and doesn’t care,” his label posted on its Instagram account in March 2016. “You should know better. Shame on you @ivankatrump! Imitation is NOT the most sincere form of flattery.” Aquazzura sent a cease-and-desist letter to Trump about the shoe, asking her company to stop selling its sandal.
“Based on Aquazzura’s prior dealings with your client’s company, and on the obvious and purposeful copying of our client’s shoe, we anticipate that you will challenge Aquazzura’s rights in its design, maintaining that the designs lack secondary meaning, and that your client is therefore free to knock them off with impunity,” the letter said, citing some of the elements of infringement. To avoid a court battle, Aquazzura demanded Trump’s company remove all pictures of the sandal in question from its website and social media, stop advertising the shoe, destroy all existing pairs, disclose its manufacturer, hand over profits from sales of the offending shoe, and “agree in writing under oath not to offer for sale any knock-off” again. Aquazzura gave Trump a week to comply, or else face legal action.
Trump did not comply, so two months later, Aquazzura sued her along with Marc Fisher. In a complaint filed in June 2016 in Manhattan federal court, the company accused Trump of infringement, unfair competition, and deceptive trade practices. “Seeking the same success Aquazzurra experienced but without having to put in the hard creative work, defendants resorted to knocking off plaintiff’s popular designs,” the complaint stated. Trump has denied any wromngdoing. Darren Saunders, attorney for the defendants, said Wednesday that the two sides are in settlement talks. Lawyers for Aquazzura declioned to comment.
Intellectual property spats are common in the fashion industry, but most quarrels are resolved before parties get near a courtroom. Such lawsuits are immensely expensive, complex and can drag on for years. When a mega-company goes after a mom-and-pop, matters are often settled with a nasty letter. But when two equally matched companies with deep pockets and a history of bad blood find themselves on opposite sides, the attorneys fees can add up, and a trial just might happen.
“I’ve seen people go all the way when they can’t even afford it—to teach someone a lesson,” said trademark lawyer Sonia Lakhany.
Colombia-born Osorio and his company arrived on the Italian shoe scene in 2011 when he was just 25, after stints at storied fashion houses Roberto Cavalli and Ferragamo. Based in Florence, his brand broke out of a pack of upstart labels with a few hot styles: cutout booties, pointy lace-up flats, and those sandals. Osorio’s shoes are now sold by more than 300 retailers around the world. Aquazzura’s own flagships are in big cities, including the global fashion centers of London, Paris, and New York.
Five years isn’t a long time in the sexy shoe department, but star power helped Aquazzura quickly convince shoppers to don its pricey pairs. Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Watson, and Rihanna have all been spotted in Osorio’s kicks, while Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid sported Aquazzura booties. The label also partnered with model Poppy Delevingne to create a celebrity-infused capsule collection, a one-off set of designer clothing. It did the same with New York socialite Olivia Palermo.
Predictably, the glossies and fashion blogs fawned over the chic heels, sandals, and boots. “We’ve never met a pair of Aquazzura shoes we didn’t want to buy,” a WhoWhatWear fashion editor wrote. Harper’s Bazaar gushed over the fringe sandals, declaring them “fiercely fashion forward.” Vogue even lauded an Aquazzura wallpaper collection as “the most beautiful thing you’ll see this spring.”
Aquazzura’s celebrity following meshed with Osorio’s over-the-top extravagance. Last year, he decided to hold his 30th birthday party in Florence’s Palazzo Corsini, a two-day bash complete with a surrealist ball. Guests arrived in full costume to dine under towering gold candelabras. Osorio sported a massive headpiece with two curved angel wings pointed skyward, like a mythical deity turned haute couture. In the world of high fashion, he had arrived.
There won’t be any ritziness if Aquazzura’s fight with Trump ends up at a lower Manhattan courthouse. U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest set trial for next March, triggering a production line of legal filings, evidence demands, and depositions of witnesses from both sides in preparation for their day in court. Come next spring, if a settlement hasn’t been reached, the trial may begin exactly two years after Aquazzura’s angry Instagram post.
Ivanka Trump wants nothing to do with the case, let alone a trial. She tried to duck a deposition by arguing she shouldn't be forced to testify because she isn’t involved in the design or sale of her company’s allegedly offending shoe.
“Trump was not aware of the Aquazzura style ‘Wild Thing’ shoe at the time she signed off on the season line that contained the Ivanka Trump style ‘Hettie’ shoe,” Saunders, her lawyer, argued in a letter to the judge. “The burden of a deposition of Ms. Trump would far outweigh any likely benefit to Aquazzura.” Saunders added that her role as a “high ranking government official” should preclude her from having to submit to a deposition. (Trump was appointed to be an assistant to her father in the White House).
On June 23, Forrest rejected Trump’s argument. “She is alleged to have personal involvement in the events at issue in this lawsuit,” the judge ruled. “She cannot avoid a deposition in this matter.”
“It’s so connected to our brand, this is who we are”
Ivanka Trump’s fashion brand has had a rocky history when it comes to copycat allegations. Less than a year after she began selling footwear, her company was called out by New York designer label Derek Lam for allegedly copying a sandal style. A cease-and-desist letter was sent, and while Trump’s representatives denied the allegations, her brand pulled the shoes from online shops and store shelves. Then in 2012, California clothing brand Mystique sued Trump’s trademark holding company over a different pair of sandals. She rejected the claims. Seven months later, the parties reached a settlement. In 2016, the Trump label was the target of two patent infringement lawsuits, which were both dismissed.
As for Aquazzura’s Wild Thing sandal, that case largely comes down to something called trade dress. Aquazzura is trying to show that its style is so distinct and well-known that consumers equate the design with the label. “Any time you have trade dress involved in fashion, you’re saying ‘We’re the Louboutin red’ or ‘We’re the Burberry flat,’” said Lakhany, the trademark attorney. “They’re saying ‘it’s so connected to our brand, this is who we are.’” In this case, the key design component is the red fringe. Lakhany expressed doubt as to whether that was enough to hang a lawsuit on: “I don’t know if the red fringe design can hold up to Louboutin red and Burberry plaid.”
In addition to Wild Thing, the Aquazzura complaint stated that Trump’s company had copied a pointy-toed black pump, the Forever Marilyn shoe, and a strappy low-heeled sandal, the Belgravia. At the same time last year, Aquazzura sued Steve Madden for infringement on three different shoe designs. (Madden disputed the allegations. That fight settled “in principle” in April according to court records, but the judge subsequently reopened the matter a month later at Aquazzura’s request. (Spokespeople for Madden and lawyers for Aquazzura declined to comment.)
Meanwhile, life goes on for Trump and Osorio as trial nears. Her sandals continue to be sold on Amazon.com and Bluefly.com, and Aquazzura is opening new stores, including a boutique in Costa Mesa, Calif. Osorio has remained quiet about his battle with the first daughter since the saga began. That is, until April when he took the stage at a conference in Muscat, Oman. Appearing at a swanky resort and spa, Osorio and the moderator chatted about his rising popularity and glitzy stores. In an aside, he addressed the Trump spat with both a sly dig and a humble brag.
“The funny thing is that, whether it’s her or anyone else, when it’s good, everyone wants to copy it and make money off it,” he said.
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