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Image: Golden Goose

A new collection of sneakers from Steve Madden looks familiar. On the heels of London-headquartered private equity firm Permira’s acquisition of Golden Goose from the Carlyle Group (the American multinational private equity firm that maintains sizable stakes in Supreme and American military weapon contractor United Defense, among other companies), Steve Madden is offering up a handful of shoes that are dead-ringers for the pricey sneaker styles that Golden Goose has built its brand upon, and Golden Goose very well might have a solid basis for calling foul in court.

Among Steve Madden’s latest lineup of platform wedges, New Bottega-esque sandals, and horsebit-encrusted loafers are a number of distressed-looking sneakers complete with leather-and-suede bodies, and prominently-placed star shapes on the side. While the $114.95 price tag of Madden’s Rezza shoe, for instance, is a far cry from the $450-plus price that Golden Goose’s footwear commands, the design, itself, is a whole lot like the original … so much so that it is worth pondering whether Golden Goose will initiate legal action, and if so, what that will look like. 

Launched in 2000 by husband-and-wife duo Alessandro Gallo and Francesca Rinaldo, Venice, Italy-based Golden Goose has found fans across the globe for its distressed-yet-carefully crafted footwear. Not terribly unlike Nike’s swoosh-bearing sneakers or adidas’ 3-striped offerings, the core element emblazoned upon each pair of Golden Goose’s shoes – from its low-top Superstar kicks to its canvas and leather Running sneakers – is a unique star shape, one that the brand describes in a pending application for registration with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) as “a tilted five-pointed star with the top point cut off and the tip of the lower right point cut off.” 

In addition to replicating the distressed look of Golden Goose’s Superstar trainer, the placement of the heel cap, the contrasting suede and leather body, and a medium-height rubber sole, Steve Madden’s Rezza sneaker includes a very-similarly-placed perforated star shape – making the sneaker something of an identical version to Golden’s Goose’s shoe, save for some alterations, such as stitching around the sole, the addition of a larger heel cap, and the removal of some of the stitching on the side of the shoe that Golden Goose’s sneaker bears. 

As for whether the changes that are embodied in Steve Madden’s sneaker – paired with different positions in the market and the price tags of the two brands and their products – are enough to overcome any potential trademark and/or trade dress infringement issues (the latter of which may cover the non-functional design elements of the shoe) is up for debate.

Golden Goose’s sneaker (left) & Steve Madden’s sneaker (right)

Since Madden and other similarly situated brands are in the business of taking high fashion and/or highly-priced footwear and turning it into accessible offerings, most instances of lookalike offerings in this sphere are business-as-usual, and not newsworthy developments. Nonetheless, this instance is worthy of attention, as Golden Goose has an arsenal of intellectual property protections at play in connection with its famed footwear, which very well may prompt the company to wage a legal battle.

For instance, consider the trademark registrations – and maybe even common law trade dress rights (i.e., rights that are born from a subset of trademark law that extend to the configuration, namely the design and shape, of a product itself, assuming that the configuration enjoys secondary meaning in the minds of consumers) – that Golden Goose maintains for its hot-selling sneakers.

In addition to the rights that it claims in its star logo (as evidenced by way of a pending application with the USPTO, which it is currently sparring over with Skechers, by the way), Golden Goose has a trademark registration for the star with the European Union Intellectual Property Office (“EUIPO”), as well as an EUIPO registration for the non-functional elements of the design of its Superstar sneaker, including the placement of the star on the side of a sneaker, which would be relevant since Steve Madden has operations in no small number of EU countries. 

Given the level of sales that can likely be tied to the Superstar sneaker (both in the U.S. and the EU), its adoption by no small number of mega-stars (from Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez to Emma Stone and Reese Witherspoon), and the media attention that has centered on the specific distressed-but-expensive footwear style (the Wall Street Journal documented the “Cult of Golden Goose” back in 2016, for instance), the brand can also likely claim that is the design itself has the requisite level of secondary meaning to give rise to valid trade dress protections. In other words, the design has come to act as a source-identifier in the minds of the public, thereby, giving rise to trade dress rights, which Madden has arguably infringed, as Golden Goose would argue that consumers are likely to be confused as to the source of – and/or in connection to or authorization of – the Madden sneakers.

Golden Goose’s sneaker (left) & Steve Madden’s sneaker (right)

Looking beyond its Superstar-like Rezza sneakers, which come in an array of color ways, most of which are all-but sold out (a testament to a good knockoff), Madden is seemingly doubling-down on Golden Goose by offering up another lookalike sneaker: its also-largely-sold-out Kevyn Black Multi sneaker. This high-top sneaker bears quite a bit of similarity to another Golden Goose shoe – the Italian brand’s Slide distressed leather and suede high-top sneakers. For that shoe, Golden Goose also maintains trademark rights – and registrations – namely, in connection with the curved stripe that appears on the side of the shoe, which is precisely what Madden replicated. 

Should Golden Goose – which brought in a reported $290 million in annual sales as of 2019 – opt to take legal action, it certainly would not be the first company to file suit against Madden for (allegedly) copying. The more-than-$1 billion-grossing footwear brand has been entangled in infringement-centric suits with brands, such as Balenciaga, Saint Laurent, Valentino, Cult Gaia and Stella McCartney, just to name a few.