Renowned Shoe Designer Christian Louboutin Wins Battle of Soles

ABOVE: The signature of Christian Louboutin shoes is its trademarked red lacquer outsole. (Photo: Arroser)

Luxury French shoe designer Christian Louboutin has been handed a potentially decisive win by the European Court of Justice, which validated the company’s trademark of shoes sporting a specific shade of red-lacquered outsoles.

The June 12 decision is the culmination of a case brought by Louboutin in 2012 against Netherlands-based retail chain Van Haren, which introduced a model of shoes that also had red soles

Van Haren is the leading shoe retailer in the Netherlands, selling nearly 7 million pairs in 2017. The company specializes in footwear with a low to moderate price point. A pair of pumps offered by the company averages under $40, compared to Louboutin pumps that often retail for $700 or more.

Common product shapes, like shoes, cannot be trademarked under European Union law, and Van Haren had argued this made Louboutin’s trademark invalid. But the court ruled it was the distinctive color of the shoe, not specifically the shape, that was the definitive element that validated the regional trademark granted to Louboutin in 2010.

Christian Louboutin, as seen in a 2011 documentary for W magazine. Film still by Claudio Conti.

Christian Louboutin, as seen in a 2011 documentary for W magazine. (Film still: Claudio Conti)

The court held that only shoes featuring a color distinctly different from the red soles fall under trademark, however. Van Haren had not produced the shoes in dispute since 2013, when the Brussels Court of Appeal ruled agains it on the matter.

“The red color applied on the sole of a woman’s high heel shoe is a position mark, as Maison Christian Louboutin has maintained for many years,” said a company statement released after the decision. “(The company) warmly welcomes this judgement.”

Tuesday’s decision will not be the final word on the case, however, as the District Court of The Hague must now determine the legitimacy of the trademark.

In 2011, Louboutin challenged design house Yves Saint Laurent, for which he designed shoes prior to starting his own company, over four models of monochromatic red shoes released that year: Tribtoo, Palais, Woodstock and Tribute.

Christian Louboutin was denied an injunction against Yves Saint Laurent to sell these models, and the court ruled in 2012 that Louboutin’s trademark did not extend to monochromatic shoes.

Louboutin won a lawsuit against shoe retailer Van Haren which protects the company's signature red outsoles. Photo by Shiela Thompson.

Christian Louboutin won a trademark-infringement lawsuit against shoe retailer Van Haren. The trademark protects the company’s signature red outsoles. (Photo: Shiela Thompson)

“Color doesn’t start as something unique, it becomes unique,” said Christian Louboutin attorney Harley Lewin following the 2012 ruling. “More and more, I think you’ll see this coming because of the need to differentiate your product from others on the shelf. It will have influence on a far broader sense than just the fashion industry.”

Louboutin co-founded his Paris-based design house in 1991 with current chief executive officer Bruno Chamberland, director Henri Seydoux and Faheema Moosa. The company quickly gained a reputation as a favorite brand of celebrities, including actresses Catherine DeneuveCate BlanchettSarah Jessica Parker and Kate Hudson; actress and musician Marion Cotillard; and Princess Caroline of Monaco, who was Louboutin’s first customer.

He said in a 2012 CNN interview that the idea for red soles came one day when he was comparing a sketch he was preparing with a physical shoe prototype that featured a black sole. He said the sketch seemed much more engaging and realized it was the noncolor of the sole that was the difference. He grabbed an assistant’s red lacquer nail polish and painted the outsole.

“It really popped out and was exactly my drawing,” remembered Louboutin. “It was as simple as that, it was a matter of color. I thought, well, every year I was going to have a (different) colored sole. But after the first season with the red sole, it immediately became a signature.”

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