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 the 1980s? He was the designer who was “poised to become fashion's great game-changer: the Armani of the 1990s” and the one who many of today’s most renowned names routinely look to for inspiration. Well, even if you do not remember Romeo Gigli, someone does, and that someone has been actively amassing rights in the long-lost fashion designer’s name across the globe.
Early last year, as fashion industry insiders were preparing for the Fall/Winter 2018 runway shows, a spotlight was on Romeo Gigli, the famed Italian design house of years-gone-by. However, the action involving Gigli was underway on a much different stage, in an administrative office in Tokyo, as a party was seeking to register the “Romeo Gigli” name as a trademark for use on garments and accessories in Japan.
That party was not the 69-year old Mr. Gigli. Instead, it was a little-known Luxembourg-registered company, called Eccentric S.r.l., whose name appears on registrations for the “Romeo Gigli” trademark in countries around the world, including in the United States, Italy, Czech Republic, Turkey, Malaysia, and Australia, among others.
In all likelihood you have never heard of Eccentric S.r.l. The company does not have a website, a big-name CEO, a public-facing presence in fashion, an Instagram account, or anything like that. What it says it does have, however, is the right to the Romeo Gigli name. According to documents Eccentric filed with the JPTO in 2017, it is “a legitimate successor of trademark rights owned by Romeo Gigli as a consequence of mandatory handover resulting from bankruptcy of the company managed by Romeo Gigli irrespective of his intention.”
The JPTO was not convinced.
Following a loss before the JPTO – which refused to grant Eccentric a registration for the “Romeo Gigli” mark due to Eccentric’s failure to obtain consent from the famed Italian fashion designer to use and register his name in Japan – Eccentric took its case before the JPTO’s Appeal Board, arguing 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 is referring to? 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 characterized it in an article for the Telegraph in 2012.
At the time that Mr. Leitch’s article was published, Mr. Gigli, then 62 years old, 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 well-established chain of Chinese high fashion boutiques, which had purchased Gigli's very first collection in 1985. The highly anticipated Joyce collaboration – which debuted for Fall 2012 and played on some of Gigli’s most signature pieces – followed from a number of less-than-successful attempts by Mr. Gigli to regain the footing he found early in his career. This time around, it felt like things might just stick.
Beginning some 30 years prior, in the early 1980's, the fashion industry had 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.”
With positive press to boot and adoration across the globe, Gigli launched his first fragrance, a scent called Romeo, followed by a bridge collection, G Gigli, in order to cater to consumers that could not quite afford his runway wares.
Mr. Gigli was, according to industry concurrence, headed for fashion stardom. With his masterful hand (helped by his training as an architect, surely) and his 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: his partners were "pushing [him] out." An even more damning realization came to light when Mr. Gigli consulted legal counsel about the impending takeover by Maino and Sozzani: 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 in exchange for financing and business development. Gigli asserted that his ex-friends and ex-partners had defrauded him.
Following a fierce legal battle that played was playing out behind the scenes, 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. While this seemed like a coup, as it would allow Gigli to start anew with exclusive rights in his own name, it was actually the short end of the stick he would soon learn. As it turns out, there was an excess of debut tied to the Romeo Gigli brand name and now Mr. Gigli in his personal capacity.
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 steadfastly opted out of doing in all of the years prior.
“They Sold My Name For €1,000”
By 2004, following a handful of complicated corporate change-overs, Gigli severed all remaining ties with the brand he built, but he did not do so quietly. Instead of slinking away quietly, Gigli 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 had failed to pay him more than $50 million in “royalties and consultancy fees” in connection with the Romeo Gigli brand and its name.
In an interview in 2004, Mr. Mancinelli, confirming that he was, in fact, in the midst of the lawsuit, revealed, “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.”
The fight resulted in a loss for Gigli, who would later tell Vogue that his eponymous company had “collapsed” and IT Holdings “sold his name for [a mere] €1,000.”
It is against this background that, Eccentric S.r.l. has come into the fold. According to the U.S. Patent and trademark Office’s records (and Eccentric’s own assertions before the JPTO), Eccentric is the rightful descendant of the Romeo Gigli trademark in light of a line of corporate assignments of the Romeo Gigli name. With that in mind, Eccentric has been working to amass rights all over the world for more than a decade in furtherance of a revamp of the once-famed brand, which is precisely why it landed before the appeal board in Japan last year. If the brand’s Instagram account, which was launched in April 2018 and has become rife with ad campaigns and eye-catching, meme-inspired imagery, is any indication, a relaunch is very much underway … albeit without Mr. Gigli.
Romeo Gigli, himself, 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, he says he has been “trying to get [his brand] back.”
The fashion industry certainly would welcome him. As Suzy Menkes wrote last year for Vogue, in taking on the topic of Romeo Gigli, just as he was set to debut a collection for Italian label Eggs, “All I can say now is that I hope for Gigli that his dream comes true. He – and fashion – deserve his renaissance.”