Remember your favourite bamboo bag from last summer?
Well, the unique antique purse that you once sought after is now being reproduced by several companies. The Ark bag, by Cult Gaia, has seen many recreations by Red Dress Boutique, Perennial Chic, and Amazon, which are depicted below in order. None of these very similar bags have sparked legal disputes, until Steve Madden started selling their own version of the bag. Jasmin Larian, Cult Gaia founder, claims that Steve Madden’s version is a direct copy.
In February, Cult Gaia threatened to sue Steve Madden. In response, Steve Madden sued Cult Gaia, claiming that the company was treating the bag as original and attempting to exercise exclusive rights on a design which originates from Japanese culture.
The NY Times discussed how the iterative nature of fashion means that designers are often drawing on vintage creations and drawing from past designs and traditions to make new garments. When these new looks become very popular and they are associated with one brand, this leaves room for designers to trademark their creations.
Cult Gaia attempted this, but the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) refused to trademark the design, as it was an appropriation of a bag from Japanese culture. The company still has time to present its case to protect the shape of their bag. Although trademarks are typically submitted to protect words or symbols related to a brand, the shape of an item can also serve as a trademark. This is an interesting concept to explore, as the shape of the bamboo bag is one that could have been protected, had there not have been such an explicit borrowing of another culture.
Allowing Cult Gaia to trademark this shape may send a message to companies that historical designs that have been embedded in cultures are available for trademarks and the rights go to the company that does it first, and that does it best. While we appreciate innovation in the fashion industry and the iterative nature of the design process, it seems problematic that one individual can have exclusive rights over a design that has existed for decades in Japanese society because they made it popular in another country.
We look forward to seeing how Larian will defend her company’s position beyond the idea that the bamboo bag is widely associated with her brand. Perhaps, if there were innovative attachments or latches on the bag, this decision could work in their favour. This legal dispute could result in an even more innovative design or just a lesson that not all shapes, names, and logos can be exclusively owned by one brand.
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