Off-White appeared to be preparing for a push further into the market by way of a range of new products. A handful of trademark applications for registration – filed on an intent to use basis – suggest that the late Virgil Abloh’s brand is looking to venture into cosmetics (from toners and serums to nail polish), homewares, which will follow from its 2019 collaboration with IKEA, and stationary, among other things. If a slew of trademark applications is any indication, those products are slated to be branded with the company’s various marks, which range from its Off-White word mark and well-known arrows motif to the more recently-revealed face graphic and the not-yet-in-use Paperwork word mark.
In addition to using “the power of art to inspire” – and include – “future generations,” as well as groups that have been traditionally underrepresented in fashion, as the New York Times put it this weekend, Mr. Abloh – who died on Sunday at age 41 from a rare form of cancer – was famous for dealing in “irony, reference, and the self-aware wink to re-contextualize the familiar and give it an aura of cultural currency.” At least part of that exercise was grounded in how he approached the idea of branding. Since some of Abloh’s many noteworthy offerings come in the form of his almost-10-year-old company’s ubiquitous logos, a look at a few of Abloh’s most striking takes on source-identifying symbols seems an appropriate way to reflect on the work of the design visionary.
The Diagonal Lines
One of the most instantly recognizable elements of the Off-White brand is its signature diagonal stripes, which have adorned the sleeves of Off-White sweatshirts and the backs of t-shirts from the outset, and have since appeared on the exterior of “it” bags and peek out of the lapel of oversized fox fur coats. At the same time, it is, of course, the graphic that you find on cross-walks and on road signs – and have found there for many decades now, long before Off-White’s inception. As TFL first noted back in 2016, as a brand builder, Abloh did something very interesting when he adopted a series of black and white diagonal lines as his brand’s logo. Instead of utilizing an immediately brand-identifying mark, which is what most brands set out to do in order to give themselves a leg-up in the distinctiveness vein, Abloh chose one that was completely unoriginal.
In doing so, he enabled his brand to immediately benefit from an already-established icon.
Writer Cameron Wolf put it well back in 2016, stating that “even if the general population doesn’t recognize those diagonal stripes as Abloh’s,” his followers do – not only when they are used on garments and apparel but also potentially, when they are used to alert drivers on the road and pedestrians on the street. While Off-White exclusively maintains trademark rights in (and registrations for) the goods/services it uses the stripes motif on (think: apparel, accessories, footwear, furniture, retail store services, etc.), it has also enjoyed extra-legal benefits from being all over the map. “Imagine hundreds of thousands of Off-White fans seeing diagonal lines all the time and automatically thinking of Abloh’s label,” Wolf stated. “That’s extremely powerful because it can make the brand seem larger than it actually is.”
The upsides of the ubiquitous logo arguably have not worn wear off once the brand reached bona fide “hottest brand” status, as it did for many quarters in recent years, according to Lyst’s quarterly ranking of fashion’s hottest brands and products. In fact, the multi-lined pattern has likely served to reinforce the brand in the minds of in-the-know consumers.
Off-White Quotation Marks & Zip Ties
The various iterations of the diagonal stripe motif – including marks that contain 15 and 19 stripes – may be some of Off-White’s earliest and most famous trademarks, but they are not the only intriguing indicators of source that have come from the mind of Mr. Abloh. In fact, unlike many fashion/luxury brands, which tend to adopt a relatively small number of (more) straightforward marks and use them for decades (or longer), Off-White company has been known to make use of a number of different trademarks that serve as both culture commentary and source-identifying elements. Under Abloh’s watch, Off-White somewhat consistently inserted new logos (and plays on existing logos) into the mix as part of a larger – and consistent – evolution of the brand and potentially, as a way to avoid the potential onset of logo or brand fatigue, particularly given Abloh’s penchant for leaving his mark across a slew of branded and co-branded products across an array of industries. To put his collaborative efforts into perspective, his partners ranged from Nike and Rimowa to Evian and Mercedes-Benz.
Another mark that immediately comes to mind is the quotation marks, which flank an eye-watering variety of words in the Off-White ecosystem. Among them are, of course, “Product Bag” and “For Walking,” for which Off-White filed trademark applications for registration in 2019 and 2020 for use on “Tops as clothing; bottoms as clothing,” and footwear, respectively. In connection with those applications, which are still pending before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) and have been subject to repeated pushback, including on descriptiveness grounds, counsel for Off-White has argued that the inclusion of the quotation marks changes “the very essence of the phrases [that appear in the quotations] by altering the way [they are] pronounced, what [they are] perceived to mean, and how [they are] understood by consumers.”
Specifically, the quotation marks “add a layer of meaning to the phrase,” the brand’s counsel has asserted in the past, claiming that “the overall effect of the quotation marks in [Off-White’s] trademarks is to transform the words used and create a unique, source-identifying commercial impression in the minds of consumers.” Ultimately, the marks are “elevated beyond being descriptive” – of shoes or product packaging – “due to the unique commercial impression created by [Off-White’s] distinct use of quotation marks,” which Off-White has claimed is different from “mere use of the word or phrase without the quotation marks.”
The USPTO has agreed, to some extent, issuing a notice of allowance for the “Product Bag” mark back in December 2020. The trademark office is now waiting for Off-White to file a statement of use to show that it is using the mark in commerce.
And not to be overlooked is the equally noteworthy red zip tie mark, which Off-White has used across footwear and other accessories since 2016, according to the application for registration that it filed for the mark – which consists of “a zip tie with a substantially rectangular end, all in the color red as used [in a specific position] on footwear” – in 2018. The zip tie is undoubtedly widely recognized by relevant consumers as being attached to products coming from Off-White, an association that has been helped along by years of use and widespread adoption off zip tie-affixed wares (namely, sneakers) by no shortage of mega-stars. Yet, the application has faced recurring pushback from the USPTO, an examining attorney for which has argued that, among other things, the zip tie does not function as a trademark because it is an unprotectable decorative feature of the Off-White’s products that drives consumers to purchase those products.
Counsel for Off-White has made an array of interesting arguments in favor of the mark’s registration, asserting that the red zip tie is such a significant indicator of source in the minds of consumers that “when consumers see [the red zip tie] affixed to [Off-White’s] goods, they immediately understand the product to have originated with [Off-White].” Need proof of that? It is demonstrated by the fact that “many consumers who purchase [Off-White products] choose to leave [the zip tie] affixed to the outside of the product, even though it could be easily removed.”
Beyond that, Off-White has taken issue with the USPTO examiner’s claim that the zip tie does not function as a trademark because it is an unprotectable decorative feature of the Off-White’s products that drives consumers to purchase those products. Disagreeing with the examiner’s assertion that “if consumers are purchasing a product because of the presence of [Off-White’s] mark [on that product], that makes it a decorative feature,” Off-White likens the zip tie to the logo-centric products of luxury goods brands, sales of which are driven, in large part, by the presence of the logos.
Trademarks for a New Demo
Finally, in what I think is a compelling and convincing argument, counsel for Off-White has argued that the zip tie is not really any different from “any other trademark that appears affixed to fashion products,” which often attract consumers to the product while also identifying the source of it. This is especially true for high-end fashion products “for which the communication to others that the product is produced by a certain source is much of the attraction of purchasing, owning, and wearing the product in the first place,” Off-White asserts.
In other words, consumers very well may buy a bag or belt or pair of shoes because of the trademark(s) that appear on those goods (and in fact, as I have argued at length in the past, they probably do buy them for that very reason). That does not, however, necessarily mean that the logos or brand names or patterns, etc. do not act as indicators of source of the goods; after all, a mark can be both decorative and source-indicating at the same time. In fact, counsel for Off-White has argued that when consumers are attracted to – and ultimately purchase – a product because of the trademark(s) that appear on it, this is almost certainly because of the “specific source-identifying properties of” those marks.
Ultimately, Off-White’s approach to trademarks falls neatly in line with what big brands have done for decades with their own marks, namely, word marks, logos, and monograms. Instead of selling luxury products, themselves, most established brands are more realistically trading on intellectual property rights, namely, trademarks and the significance of those marks to the consuming public (i.e., the goodwill that exists in those marks). This is more-or-less what Off-White is doing, as well. However, instead of relying exclusively on conventional word marks and logos (it does use and have registrations for those), Abloh took the notion of what has traditionally acted as a source-indicator and flipped it on its head in order to cater successfully to a new generation of consumers.
Chances are, the USPTO (and other trademark offices) will eventually recognize that. And even if it does not, Abloh’s approach to branding is, nonetheless, a case study in what brands should aspire to, even if few are as creative or forward-thinking as Abloh was.