Designers Wang, Neumann in trademark fight over 'Vera' name
MILWAUKEE - Understated versus bold. Contemporary versus vintage. Composed versus carefree. These are forces at odds in a trademark fight over the use of the name "Vera."
At stake are millions of dollars and the branding of two fashion icons, modern urban designer Vera Wang and the late Vera Neumann, whose bright, floral scarves were favored by such celebrities as Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s and '60s.
Wang is suing The Vera Company, which owns the rights to Neumann's trademarks and designs and is relaunching the Vera Neumann brand.
The lawsuit seeks to protect pending trademarks for Wang's new line of clothing at Kohl's department stores, called "Simply Vera Vera Wang" but commonly referred to as "Simply Vera."
Wang's lawyers want a judge to rule the phrase does not interfere with the stylized, black "Vera" trademark held by The Vera Company. They want that mark canceled, saying it has not been used enough, and they want to bar The Vera Company from objecting to Wang's trademark applications.
The case was filed in January, well before the launch of Wang's line at Kohl's stores last month. It is set for a federal jury trial in New York starting Dec. 10.
The Vera Company has countersued, saying the phrase "Simply Vera" could confuse shoppers as the Neumann brand relaunches at boutiques and department stores across the country. They don't object, they say, when Wang's last name is included.
The Vera Company added Kohl's to the suit and estimates damages could exceed $20 million if Wang and Kohl's use the names, according to court filings. Kohl's Corp. is based in Menomonee Falls, Wis.
Wang holds a trademark to a simple form of "Vera," which her company applied for in 2004 and has not yet used, according to records from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. An earlier attempt by Wang's lawyers to trademark "Very Vera Vera Wang" was abandoned in July, according to records.
Neumann was known professionally as "Vera" since she started her business in the 1940s. Her designs were in 1,700 stores by 1977, when sales hit $100 million. She died in 1993 at the age of 84.
"They're trying to eliminate this Vera from history so that Vera Wang can be known as 'Vera,' " said Susan Seid, who bought the rights to Neumann's designs in 2005 and formed The Vera Company, based in Atlanta.
Wang's company in New York has not returned messages seeking comment. A lawyer representing the company, Beth Goldman, said she would not comment on pending litigation. Kohl's spokeswoman Vicki Shamion also declined to comment.
The terms of Wang's deal with Kohl's, announced in August 2006, have not been disclosed. But Wang's lawyers wrote in court papers that Wang and Kohl's have invested substantially in developing the names and products. Kohl's has not said what it expects the line's sales to be, and analysts haven't said either. But total sales at Kohl's last year were $15.5 billion.
If The Vera Company wins, it will ask that all uses of the Vera Wang trademarks in question be removed immediately from Kohl's stores and relabeled, said Rob Frohwein, a lawyer representing the company.
Kohl's President Kevin Mansell said in a recent interview that the line of jewelry, clothing, shoes and home linens has attracted new shoppers and is selling out of some products. He cited handbags and apparel, including shoes, as top sellers for the retailer, which has about 900 stores nationwide.
Seid said she respects Wang but doesn't want her using the name "Vera" by itself, because it would impede her efforts to rebuild Neumann's brand. Some of Neumann's scarves and apparel are now available in more than 120 stores, including some Bloomingdale's branches.
Her signature silk scarves retail for about $78, while cashmere wraps sell for $300. All bear a tag that reads "Vera" in a dark script with a ladybug, also one of her signatures. The Vera Company will have sales of up to $4 million this year, Seid said. That could double next year with the introduction of new products and more distribution, she said.
The two Veras were and are influential, but they couldn't be more opposite, said Pamela Klein, chairwoman of the associate in fashion studies program at Parsons the New School for Design in New York.
Wang uses purples, tans and grays and has feminine, elegant clothing, she said, while Neumann's bright scarves were more carefree, and spoke to the colorful opportunities of life in the 1950s.
"Imagine people sitting on a patio drinking gin and tonics and loud music and palm trees and laughing with Vera Neumann," Klein said. "And Vera Wang, you're drinking martinis in a very elegant, quiet way."
Klein said Neumann's "Vera scarves" are known to women who were born before the 1960s. She added she never thinks of Vera Wang as "Vera" but always with her first and last name.
"This is an icon. This is eviscerating an icon, taking her out of the history books," Seid said. "This is putting this company out of business, for no reason. This is all over one word."Check out some 'original' Vera vintage ladybug signature scarves - like this pink orange and purple geometric 60's print one from Morning Glorious Collectibles (pictured).
Or Vera signature linens - like this super cute red linen kitchen towel printed with adorable kittens from Posh Pig Vintage.
And also, be sure to read fuzzylizzie.com's blog post on the Vera vs. Vera issue here.