Ten years after the launch of his popular “parody” wares, which took on brands like Hermes, Gucci, Prada, and Céline, Brian Lichtenberg is speaking out. His t-shirts and sweatshirts – some of which read Homiés in an Hermés-esque font, Ballin in Balmain logo typography, or Féline in a format that looked a lot like Céline – wound up on everyone from Kourtney Kardashian to Miley Cyrus and Rihanna in the mid-2000’s before the trend lost its legs and fashion moved on.
In his heyday, Lichtenberg says was faced with potential legal action over only of his designs, a tee bearing the words “Lichtenboro” in a Marlboro-esque typeface. According to an interview with the Guardian, Lichtenberg says he was sent a cease and desist letter by the cigarette company and was forced to pull and destroy the garments in order to avoid costly litigation.
If it seems unreal that Mr. Lichtenberg was targeted with threats of litigation and/or an actual court battle just one – that is because it is unreal. It seems that Mr. Lichtenberg forgets that he was hauled into court by AbbVie, the maker of Vicodan. The prescription drug company filed suit against Lichtenberg, Kitson and a few other defendants in the U.S. District Court for the Central District California in 2013, citing trademark infringement, dilution, and unfair competition lawsuit in connection with a line of “designer drug” wares Lichtenberg did in collaboration with the now defunct Los Angeles-based retailer Kitson.
The parties ultimately settled that lawsuit out of court after AbbVie won the first round, when the court granted its preliminary injunction, ordering the defendants "not to make the shirts available to the public."
Nonetheless, his so-called parody wares were able the thrive for the most part. “In a lot of cases, I think some of the bigger labels are able to rise above it, Lichtenberg says. “They see it as flattery. Some of them practically encourage it.”
Lichtenberg may be right – in part, but the reason why he did not receive more threats of litigation is almost certainly not as simple as he makes it out to be. Chances are, he was not on the receiving end of more cease and desist letters for a variety of reasons, only one of which was that brands were “flattered.”
If we consider Céline ten years ago, the brand simply did not have a substantial footprint – in terms of infrastructure and geographic-specific legal or business teams – in the U.S. That is likely why he did not receive a cease and desist letter from that brand. That logic may apply to more than one of the brands that were targeted by Lichtenberg, as well.
Other tees, such as his “Brianel” take on Chanel – which did not bear a distinct font or Chanel’s double “c” logo – likely was not infringing and therefore, did not warrant a letter.
The list of reasons could go on.
As for how Lichtenberg would fare today if he were to launch more “parody” tees, it is difficult to say, as brands are quite split in terms of how they deal with so-called parodies (a legal term of art that must be proven in court).
Balenciaga and Vetements – under the watch of Demna Gvasalia – have been quite lax about others’ uses of the brands’ trademark-protected names, for instance, at least in a parody context. This may be because both Vetements and Balenciaga make such widespread use of others’ intellectual property – both legally and otherwise if you ask the Ruff Ryders – that it would be counterintuitive, even hypocritical of the brand to fiercely police others’ potential parodies (and that might appear unsavory in the eyes of consumers).
On the other hand, brands, such as Cartier and Chanel have been less friendly to potential parodists. And of course, Louis Vuitton’s routine battle against so-called parody uses of its brand name and various other trademarks certainly suggests that not all brands are as relaxed about unauthorized uses.
While case law in federal court in New York is quite favorable for potential parodists at the moment, that might be about to change, as Louis Vuitton has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the standard for determining whether the unauthorized use of another party’s trademark runs afoul of the law – or if it amount to fair use.