It is a common misconception that individuals are legally entitled to create brands under their own names. It is a similarly common misapprehension that launching an eponymous label is often a good idea. So, what are some of the most common barriers to using your own name in connection with a commercial brand and the downfalls of such a move?
Individuals are often barred from using their birth names in connection with a business venture because their names are already in use. If someone else has already used your name (or a “confusingly” similar name) in the same market – or classes of goods and/or services, to be exact – as you, there is a chance that you will be prevented from using your own name in connection therewith. Such a principle is good law in the U.S., where trademark law governs such matters.
As we learned in the Chanel v. Chanel’s Salon case, in which the Paris-based design house was successful in forcing Indiana-based Chanel Jones to cease use of the word “Chanel” in connection with her small business, an individual does not have an unfettered right to use his/her personal name for commercial purposes. There have been a number of other cases on this issue in recent the years involving well-known trademarks, some of which were fashion related.
Another one of the key considerations in terms of launching an eponymous label involves the long-term repercussions, particularly if selling of your brand down the line is even a remote possibility. You may be prevented from using your own name in relation to your future business ventures if they are in the same field as a company you previously branded with your own name.
One of the most famous cases in this area involved designer Joseph Abboud, who launched his label in the 1980’s and in 2000, sold all of his rights in and to the “names, trademarks, trade names, services marks, logos, insignias and designations” and “all rights to use and apply for the registration of new trade names, trademarks, service marks, logos, insignias and designations containing the words ‘Joseph Abboud,’ ‘designed by Joseph Abboud,’ ‘by Joseph Abboud,’ ‘JOE’ or ‘JA,’ or anything similar to or derivative thereof, either alone or in conjunction with other words or symbols ...,” to JA Apparel, for $65.5 million. He was subsequently prevented from using his name in connection with a separate clothing line.
More recently, following the sale of her eponymous label to Liz Claiborne, Kate Spade was forced to rebrand if she wanted to create a new label – and she did just that. In November 2015, she announced that with the help of her husband Andy Spade and Elyce Arons – the three of whom cofounded Kate Spade together in 1993 – she would launch a new footwear and handbag label, Frances Valentine. Spade took it a step further though and legally changed her personal name to Frances Valentine, as well, in order to completely distinguish herself from the Kate Spade brand.
These cautionary tales are just a few of the potential pitfalls that could arise when you opt to use your personal name in business.