Ralph Lauren upset over U.S. Polo Association horse logo (again), court agrees

February 15, 2013

polo rulingNew York Fashion Week ended on February 14. Given how the Internet loves to take jabs at anything that takes itself as seriously as the fashion industry does, you have by now probably already seen rundowns of the most bizarre runway get-ups and all most eye roll-inducing looks.

One not-so-secret about the fashion industry, though, is that no one is really going to buy what Lanvin and Givenchy are sending down the runway. Most people can’t afford or have no interest in a $4,000 Calvin Klein camelhair coat. What they do have an interest in, however, are his much more affordable underwear, accessories and fragrances.

That is that way it is for many designers; a crepe-de-chine kimono-style evening gown might get an approving nod from Samurai Suzy and a mention in Women’s Wear Daily, and those things do matter in the rarified atmosphere of haute couture. However, accessories, makeup, fragrances and other affordable, branded items are the real bread and butter. Runways are for fashion as an art and as a concept; department stores are for the bottom line.

So, that is why a recent ruling out of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is noteworthy. On Monday, the court held that just because U.S. Polo Association has the right to use a horseman logo on apparel does not mean it can use a similar mark on its fragrances.

The lawsuit was brought by Ralph Lauren, who’s made a good living cladding East Coast WASPs in just about everything you can slap a polo pony on.

The court’s decision is the latest installment in a litigious relationship that stretches back until at least 1984, when Ralph Lauren, a luxury label, sued U.S. Polo Association, a far more “everyday” brand, for the first time.

As I read the decision, the court did not allow U.S. Polo Association to use its polo pony logo on fragrances because the packaging and marketing of a bottle of fragrance doesn’t allow for the changes U.S. Polo Association has had to include on apparel so as to not generate confusion. On a T-shirt, for example, the U.S. Polo Association can do what previous courts have required, such as including the acronym “U.S.P.A.” On a much smaller bottle of cologne, however, it apparently can’t or won’t.

As I see it, this is a pretty big win for luxury brands. Accessories, cosmetics and things that people actually buy have limited real estate for artistic cues, and in today’s profuse, over-cluttered market, designers have to clamor to make an impression. Gucci can do that with its crossed G trademark and Versace with its Medusa Head logo, but what they can’t do is afford to have another company freeloading off the instant association consumers have with these images.