Louboutin’s Red Sole Prevails in Trademark Battle



Christian Louboutin shoes on display in the center of Bergdorf Goodman’s shoe department. Photo: Claire Stern.

When French shoe designer Christian Louboutin filed a $1 million lawsuit in April 2011 against Yves Saint Laurent, the 50-year-old luxury fashion house, for infringing on Louboutin’s trademark for shoes with red-lacquered soles, he was told that he would lose.

“[Yves Saint Laurent] came back to me saying that if you do a lawsuit, it will cost you a lot of money, it will be very complicated for you, and you will end up losing,” said Louboutin, during an Oct. 6 talk for the New Yorker Festival at the Directors Guild Theater.

But the designer, who obtained trademark protection for his red soles in 2008 from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, emerged victorious. On Sept. 5, a Manhattan appeals court reaffirmed Louboutin’s trademark: The designer maintains the exclusive right to make shoes with red bottoms—except when the entire shoe is red.

Yves Saint Laurent initially came under fire for its “Tribute” pump, a monochromatic red shoe with a red sole priced at $795. According to a saleswoman at the Yves Saint Laurent boutique on East 57th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, the Tribute also comes in black, blue and gold, and was meant to be paired with the same color jackets in Saint Laurent’s spring 2013 collection. Saint Laurent continues to sell monochromatic red shoes with red outsoles.

Louboutin, who founded his company in 1991, introduced his fire engine red sole in 1992 after he painted nail polish on the black soles of a pair of women’s shoes to replicate his colorful design sketches, and liked the effect. Louboutin shoes have been a big hit with consumers ever since. The designer, whose shoes range in price from $495 for flats to $21,995 for a crocodile boot, sells over 600,000 pairs a year, and his company made over $250 million in revenue in 2010.

Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue both capitalized on their Louboutin selection and moved the designer to the center of their shoe departments. Bergdorf’s, which unveiled an expanded shoe department during spring 2011 New York Fashion Week last September, has showcased Louboutin on a three-tiered, luminous display at the top of the escalator for over a year. Saks’ renovated shoe salon, which opened Sept. 8, relocated Louboutin to a prime space in the atrium between the escalators and the elevators on the eighth floor.

According to Carlos Mendez, a salesman at Saks’ designer shoe salon, Louboutins are the number one seller for the retailer, and the red soles are the main selling point.

“It’s a very distinctive color that he has,” said Mendez.

Louboutin soles are one specific shade of red, but Thomas Wilentz, a 52-year-old trademark lawyer at Thomas M. Wilentz, PLLC, a boutique trademark law firm, says that any designer planning to make a shoe with a different colored upper and a sole in any shade of red should be careful.

“You might want to stay away from anything that doesn’t get to pink,” said Wilentz. “Pink would be okay on one end and maybe yellow on the other. If you were my client, I would say stay away from all shades of red to be safe.”

When asked about the case, a public relations representative at Yves Saint Laurent said the company is not sharing any additional information at this point.

Louboutin said he had no choice but to proceed with the lawsuit to protect his trademark color and his brand.

“I have to stand for my identity, I had to stand also for what I’ve been doing: creating,” Louboutin said. “Even if it’s a sort of an unfair battle because it’s David against Goliath, I have to be David.”