Now that the initial shock has worn off and everyone has taken a collective breath, we can discuss the potential trademark implications for the brand formerly known as Maison Martin Margiela. Despite the subtly of the name change, the truncation to Maison Margiela was the shot heard round the fashion community (once everyone figured it out, that is). Aside from serving as an interesting source of conversation regarding the state of the notoriously under-the-radar house and its even more elusive founder, this rebranding effort by the house of Margiela raises the question of how such a change legally affects the commercial use of a brand’s existing trademarks.
Maison Margiela currently holds the exclusive trademark rights to their ultra-understated logo, featuring the name “Maison Martin Margiela” and a listing of numbers between zero and twenty-three (pictured above). Since the unveiling of the name change on the house's Artisinal collection invitations everything from the brand’s Instagram page to its aforementioned logo reflects the removal of the founding designer’s name. If this situation gives you a mild feeling of déjà vu, then you are not alone. You may recall that back in 2012, Yves Saint Laurent announced that the name of its ready-to-wear collection would be changed to “Saint Laurent Paris.” The thorough rebranding of Yves Saint Laurent occurred simultaneously with the ousting of Stefano Pilati and the subsequent instatement of creative director, Hedi Slimane in March 2012.
Speculation about the reason for Saint Laurent’s name change centered around the larger branding overhaul spearheaded by Slimane, and the fashion house wasted no time changing up its name and logo, and securing legal rights for its new marks. In 2012, Saint Laurent filed multiple federal trademark applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for “Saint Laurent” and “Saint Laurent Paris.” Despite the Paris-based design house's intention to rebrand with a new name and revised trademarks, the brand still asserts rights for most marks bearing their former name, as well. The continued protection of Saint Laurent trademarks since the late 1960’s illustrates the company’s interest in policing any marks that are or have been prominently associated with the Saint Laurent brand. It also corresponds with its continued use of the house's full name on a range of goods, including but not limited to cosmetics.
But back to Margiela. Considering the Belgian-born house's notoriously low profile and the unsurprising lack of publicity surrounding the removal of the founding designer’s name, it seems unlikely that the brand intended for the change to be controversial. Further evidence of this proposal: the general look of the logo remains relatively unchanged. The fact that the house has not undergone a full-scale transformation of their name and logo makes me wonder whether they will follow in Saint Laurent’s legal footsteps and apply for entirely new trademarks with the USPTO at all, or whether its legal team will opt to amend their existing trademarks come renewal time, instead. (This will largely depend on whether the house continues to use the MMM name or logo in commerce. If it doesn't, they will have to amend the marks or abandon them in lieu of new ones. That's just how federal trademark registration works).
Currently Margiela’s only active trademarks exhibit its former name, however, if the USPTO allows the fashion house to amend its trademark, there are certain factors trademark examiners will take into consideration. A trademark examiner will have to determine whether the modification of Margiela’s existing mark “materially alters” the character of the existing mark. For the legally curious: Material alteration is the standard test used for evaluating potential changes to any trademark. To be meet this standard, the changes to the existing mark have to create the same general impression of the original mark. The deletion of generic names are generally not considered material alterations unless the name was so integrated into the mark that its removal would essentially affect the commercial impression of the mark.
Going forward Margiela certainly has a lot to consider with regard to the legal treatment of their new and old logos. Many of these questions will center on the array of products the fashion house intends to make going forward during this time of transformative process. Will it alter the branding on its existing fragrances, for instance, which are created and marketed in association with L’Oreal and which bear the MMM name and original logo? If so, then the house will, like Saint Laurent, work to maintain the registration on their existing marks. Will it fully abandon all use of the former “Maison Martin Margiela” mark? Despite Margiela’s attempts to rebrand under the radar it will be interesting to see the affects of this change on Margiela as a brand, but also their loyal clientele.
Taylor Moore is currently a second year student at Howard University School of Law in Washington, DC. During law school, she has worked as a research assistant to professors and attorneys in the field of intellectual property.