A Romeo Gigli Revamp Has Been Quietly Underway for the Past Decade

Remember Romeo Gigli, the Italian designer who, as the New York Times put it, “almost single-handedly revived a taste for elegant, architectural clothes when he started his company in 1983”? Recall the designer who was “poised to become fashion's great game-changer: the Armani of the 1990s” and who many of today’s most renowned names routinely look to for inspiration? Well, even if you do not, someone does, and that someone has been actively amassing rights in the long-lost fashion designer’s name across the globe. 

Early this year, while the fashion industry's insiders were preparing to show their Fall/Winter 2018 collections on runways in New York, London, Milan, and Paris, a matter involving Romeo Gigli was being adjudicated on a different stage, in an administrative office in Tokyo, where the Japan Patent and Trademark Office (“JPTO”)’s Appeal Board was deciding whether to issue a trademark registration for the name.

The party seeking to register the trademark was not Mr. Gigli, though. It was a little-known company registered in Luxembourg that goes by the name Eccentric S.r.l.

The Eccentric S.r.l. moniker appears on registrations for the “Romeo Gigli” trademark for use on clothing, handbags, jewelry, and cosmetics, among other things, in countries around the world. It maintains registrations in the United States, Italy, Czech Republic, Turkey, Malaysia, and Australia, among others.

You have likely never heard of Eccentric S.r.l., but according to documents it filed with the JPTO  last year, it is “a legitimate successor of trademark rights owned by Romeo Gigli as a consequence of mandatory handover resulting from bankruptcy of company managed by Romeo Gigli irrespective of his intention.”

Eccentric S.r.l. – fighting back against the JPTO’s refusal to register the trademark due to its failure to obtain consent from the famed Italian fashion designer to use and register his name in Japan on garments and accessories – went on the argue that, “Under the [current] circumstances, it is almost impossible to obtain a written consent from him.” 

The Rise (and Fall) of Romeo Gigli

What exactly are the “circumstances” that Eccentric S.r.l. cites? Well, they follow directly from the tumultuous plight of Mr. Gigli himself, whose story is of “fortunes made then lost, a calamitous love affair, [and] worldwide fame,” as journalist Luke Leitch wrote for the Telegraph in 2012.

At the time that Mr. Leitch’s article was published, Mr. Gigli, then aged 62, was setting up shop in Venice. “Due to be open for a year,” that outpost would sell the new collection Gigli has designed exclusively for Joyce, a long-established chain of Chinese high fashion boutiques that bought Gigli's very first collection in 1985. The highly anticipated Joyce collaboration came after a number of less-than-successful attempts by Mr. Gigli to regain the footing he found early in his career. 

From the outset, in the early 1980's, the industry placed its bets on Gigli and his “romantic shawl-collar necklines, gentle shoulders, bandeau-swathing and cocoon-ish, undulating silhouettes promised to be the longed-for antidote to power suits and shoulder pads, and his penchant for fitted, skinny trousers even kick-started the great leggings contagion of the early 1990s.”

Gigli was, according to industry concurrence, headed for fashion stardom. With this masterful hand and romantic eye, he was “poised to become fashion's great game-changer: the Armani of the 1990s." With the back-of-house matters in order, thanks to the help of his partners, Italian businessman Donato Maino and Carla Sozzani, Mr. Gigli’s then-girlfriend and muse, and the sister of the late Vogue Italia editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani, his business appeared to be thriving.

That is, until “the reckoning started in 1990." Mr. Gigli’s assistant "mentioned problems – the manufacturing companies were not being paid,” wrote Leitch. In the weeks to come, Gigli began to realize the inevitable: "They were pushing me out." An even more damning realization came to light when Mr. Gigli consulted legal counsel: He had virtually no right to stop it. 

"I thought a big part of the company was mine. It was not," Gigli said, reflecting on the ill-fated partnership years later. In reality, he had signed away a controlling stake to Maino and Sozzani years prior.

Following a fierce legal battle, the parties went their separate ways. Maino and Sozzani kept the Romeo Gigli perfume and sunglasses businesses, and the Corso Como real estate in which Gigli had maintained his design studio. Gigli walked away with the intellectual property rights in his name for all other classes of goods, including garments and accessories, the short end of the stick he would soon learn, thanks to the excess of debut tied to his brand name.

The split was revealed, albeit indirectly, in 1991. As the late New York Times fashion reporter Woody Hochswender wrote at the time, “The scandal of the season was the apparent breakup of the Italian designer Romeo Gigli and his business partners. The tale as told around the tents had all the sordid flavor of a Madonna video.”

Rumors of trouble hit a fever-pitch when “some of the leading fashion editors [in Paris] received from unknown parties a single white lily, each delivered by hand and accompanied by a photocopy of an old magazine article in Italian about Ms. Sozzani's collaboration with Mr. Gigli,” Hochswender stated.

At the close of what we now know was the parties’ final show as a partnership, Mr. Gigli appeared for a bow, something he had opted out of doing in all of the years prior.

Fast forward to 2004 and a handful of corporate change-overs, Gigli severed all remaining ties with the brand he built, but he did not do so quietly. He filed a $54.2 million lawsuit against IT Holding (the owner of the brand at the time), as well as Prandina SpA (the Romeo Gigli licensee) and its CEO, Italian entrepreneur Pierluigi Mancinelli, alleging that the defendants failed to pay him over $50 million in “royalties and consultancy fees.”

In an interview in 2004, Mr. Mancinelli confirmed that he was in the midst of the lawsuit, saying, “Mr. Gigli has asked us to suspend production and distribution of the Romeo Gigli brand. He claims ownership [of the brand], but he no longer has any rights in it.”

Gigli would later tell Vogue that his eponymous company had “collapsed” in 2003 and IT Holdings “sold his name for [a mere] €1,000.” In the meantime, in addition to doing “different things,” including designing “secret collections” to avoid trademark infringement litigation for using his name (which no longer belongs to him in a commercial capacity after being sold off) and teaching in Milan, Mr. Gigli says he has been “trying to get [his brand] back.” It appears that Eccentric S.r.l. – the rightful descendent, at least according to the U.S. Patent and trademark Office’s records, of a line of corporate assignments in the Romeo Gigli name – is doing the very same thing and has been for more than a decade.

The difference between the two? Mr. Gigli, who debuted a collection for Italian label Eggs in February, has the fashion industry – which continues to reference his works some 30 years later – on his side. Writing for Vogue last year, longstanding fashion critic Suzy Menkes took on the topic of Romeo Gigli, writing, “All I can say now is that I hope for Gigli himself that his dream comes true – to recover his name. He – and fashion – deserve his renaissance.”

As for Mr. Gigli’s dream? That is, he says, “To be back.”