French shoemaker Christian Louboutin can trademark his famous red soles, a US court ruled Wednesday, reversing a ruling that would have allowed rival Yves Saint Laurent to paint its outsoles scarlet.
The case featured two of the fashion world's heaviest hitters in a battle for ownership of the glossy red outsole that Louboutin says is at the heart of the appeal of shoes, a favorite of stars like Lady Gaga and Victoria Beckham.
Last year, a New York federal judge ruled that Louboutin's red accent may be widely recognized, but that is not enough to prevent competitors from doing the same thing.
But on Wednesday the Second Circuit US Court of Appeals overturned this, saying that red soles, contrasting with the color on the upper part of the shoe, are "entitled to trademark protection."
Louboutin said it was "extremely pleased and gratified that the Appellate Court found our key arguments to be correct."
The decision was something of a setback for YSL, a fellow French luxury brand, which had celebrated in August last year when US District Judge Victor Marrero ruled that Louboutin could not claim a color as its own.
"Because in the fashion industry color serves ornamental and aesthetic functions vital to robust competition, the court finds that Louboutin is unlikely to be able to prove that its red outsole brand is entitled to trademark protection," said Marrero, who revealed himself as an ardent admirer of the sexy high-heeled slip-ons.
Wednesday's ruling does leave one bit of wiggle room for those with an urge to paint their soles — it's allowed as long as the whole shoe is red.
In fact, the YSL shoe that had originally driven Louboutin to court was red from top to bottom, which is in fact allowed, the appeals court said.
"Because Louboutin sought to enjoin YSL from using a red sole as part of a monochrome red shoe, we affirm in part the order of the District Court insofar as it declined to enjoin the use of red lacquered outsoles in all situations," the ruling said, making the distinction with "contrasting red" shoes.
In Paris, YSL's parent company PPR said it had "won the trial" thanks to the exception for shoes where the red sole is part of an entirely red design.
"Louboutin's suit tried to stop YSL from using monochrome red shows with red soles. What the judge said today is that YSL has got the perfect right to use red shoes with red soles," the company said.
Louboutin has marketed shoes with red outsoles since 1992 and he registered the look as a trademark in the United States in 2008.
The glam footwear was featured on the consumerism-worshipping television series "Sex and the City" and sells about 240,000 pairs each year in the United States alone, with revenues of about $135 million.
A pair typically costs between $700 and $1000, but can sell for far more, with the Lady Peep Geek Embroidered Pump currently listed at $1695 in the Neiman Marcus department store.
The legal dispute has required New York judges to turn fashionistas, a job that Marrero took up with relish.
In his now overturned ruling, he lightened the legalese with references to sources as diverse as pop star Jennifer Lopez and poet Walt Whitman, then waxed lyrical about the sheer appeal of Louboutins.
"When Hollywood starlets cross red carpets and high fashion models strut runways and heads turn and eyes drop to the celebrities' feet, lacquered red outsoles on high-heeled, black shoes flaunt a glamorous statement that pops out at once," he wrote.
However, in their ruling Wednesday, the appeals court panel said Marrero's decision that a single color could not be trademarked in the fashion industry "was based on an incorrect understanding of the doctrine of aesthetic functionality."
The court noted that leading designers, including YSL, "however begrudgingly," accepted that "the flash of a red sole" is the Louboutin signature.