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Image: Sherri Hill

Prom is firmly off the table for high schoolers across the country, which is not merely a disappointment for home-bound students, but it represents a sizable setback for the $110 million-plus U.S. prom dress market. While the annual dances have been pulled from school calendars indefinitely in light of the spread of COVID-19, that does not mean that dress-makers have not been churning out sequin and lace-adorned dresses just as they do each year leading up to prom season. It also does not mean that copycat-centric lawsuits are not underway between rival dress-makers. 

One of the biggest players in the prom dress market, for instance, Sherri Hill has named Amarra USA in what could ultimate be  a multi-million dollar suit, accusing its rival dress-maker of “intentionally, willfully, maliciously, and in bad faith, utilizing [its] valuable intellectual property without permission in a scheme to design, manufacture, and sell knock-off dresses.”

The Austin, Texas-based brand – which is a mainstay in the pageant world, and also routinely, one of the most buzzed-about brands on social media during the bi-annual New York Fashion Weeks in large part thanks to its casting of famous faces like Kendall Jenner and Hailey Baldwin – claims that its rival dress-maker of “intentionally, willfully, maliciously, and in bad faith, utilizing [its] valuable intellectual property without permission in a scheme to design, manufacture, and sell knock-off dresses.”

According to the complaint that counsel for Austin, Texas-based Sherri Hill filed in a federal court in Texas last week, Amarra is not just “unfairly competing” with Sherri Hill – a “direct competitior” that stocks its $300-plus to $900-plus special-occasion dresses in over 1,000 stores in over 52 countries and has attracted fans like “Selena Gomez, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Ariana Grande, and Kendall Jenner” – by way of its copycat dresses. It is running afoul of federal copyright law since Amarra’s dresses infringe a number of Sherri Hill’s copyright-protected “two-dimensional artworks,” from a 2D sketch to an array of “dress designs.” 

Because copyright law rarely protects the entirety of a garment (since garments are useful articles, and thus, protection only extends to the creative, non-functional elements of those useful articles), the “dress design” protections at hand cover “the original selection, coordination, and arrangement of the constituent elements in a leaf and vine lace pattern [as] applied to [a dress].” This is precisely what Sherri Hill claims that Amarra copied for its own “substantially—indeed, strikingly— similar” dresses.  

Per Sherri Hill, Amarra’s allegedly infringing dresses “are comprised of virtually the same interweaving vine stems, single- and multi-bladed leaves, and other stylized botanical artwork” as its copyright-protected patterns, and are “selected, coordinated, and arranged in virtually the same patterns and layouts as those rendered in [Hill’s] corresponding ‘dress designs’ (e.g., with clusters toward the top of the garment cascading down to looser and longer vine stems flowing toward the bottom of the garment, among many other similarities).” 

“Such excessive copying renders [Amarra’s] dresses unauthorized reproductions and/or derivative works that infringe on Sherri Hill’s copyrights,” the brand argues. 

Still yet, Sherri Hill claims that in addition to copying its designs, “bad actor” Amarra is “brazenly and unlawfully” using the trademark-protected Sherri Hill name “to market and sell [its] infringing dresses,” including “as part of its sales pitch for selling those infringing knock-offs.” 

For instance, “Amarra has represented and continues to represent to prospective and authorized retailers and prospective consumers that Amarra’s infringing dresses are ‘cheaper versions’ and/or ‘knock-offs’ of Sherri Hill’s dresses,” the brand asserts. “In making these and potentially other representations, Amarra specifically uses the [Sherri Hill trademark] without authorization and in a manner likely to cause confusion and capitalize on Sherri Hill’s goodwill.” (Cue Amarra’s nominative fair use arguments?). 

With all of the foregoing in mind, Sherri Hill claims that Amarra is on the hook for copyright infringement, trademark infringement, and false designation of origin, and the brand is seeking injunctive relief and an array of monetary damages, including “an award of actual damages suffered by Sherri Hill as a result of the infringements, and any profits of [Amarra] that are attributable to the infringement. 

A rep for Amarra was not immediately available for comment. 

*The case is Sherri Hill, Inc. v. Amarra USA LLC, 1:20-cv-00350 (W.D. Tex.).