IP Information & News

The rise of fashion tie-ups — how to protect your brand when licensing

Alison Cole

By Alison Cole

Senior Trade Mark Attorney

Brands, particularly in the fashion sector, have always sought tie-up opportunities. These usually take the form of ‘basic’ celebrity lines in cheaper stores, such as Stella McCartney’s sell-out range for H&M in 2005, Beyonce’s ill-advised venture with Top Shop and Ivy Park, or movie merchandise from the Fantastic Beast that is the Harry Potter Empire.

In today’s age, new business models and marketing tools are required if brands are to survive. Creativity is the key to grab the public’s attention and drive traffic to both physical and online stores. With the unstoppable pervasiveness of social media and the advent of Instagram shopping, we’re set to see plenty more innovative tie-ups, as brands increasingly compete to make bold statements.

Brand licensing

Such partnerships have traditionally been quite straightforward from a brand licensing point of view. The trade mark owner would register their mark to cover all possible goods to be endorsed, before licensing one or more retail outlets to use the branding for specific projects. Generally, these related to the release of the film or seasonally relevant occasions such as the summer holidays or Christmas. There would be no doubt as to who the ultimate brand owner was and all goodwill would likely accrue to them.

The rise of athleisure

Recently, there has been a shift in emphasis. Athleisure and streetwear labels are now sought after in partnerships and today’s hottest projects are much more equitable affairs. Driven by luxury brands’ desire to tap into non-seasonal pop-ups and limited edition ‘drops’ (the domain of the athleisure scene), pairings are now instigated by designer labels, but given kudos by edgier names. Think Louis Vuitton x Supreme, Jimmy Choo x Off White, Fendi x Fila and Alexander Wang x Uniqlo, to name but a few.


Fila-x-Fendi.jpg#asset:1908

Street x luxury

According to global fashion search platform Lyst, Italian label Off-White is the “hottest brand on the planet” right now. Its move up the rankings can be attributed to being the first brand to jointly encompass both street and luxury wear. This level of fame was skilfully orchestrated by founder Virgil Abloh (now creative director at Louis Vuitton) through collaborations with stars of street and luxury wear in equal measure (Nike, Kanye West and Moncler) to put the brand front-and-centre with Millennials and Generations X and Z alike.

After all, Generation X witnessed the birth of leisurewear through Ralph Lauren, who has been described by Highsnobiety.com as the creator of the “greatest streetwear brand of all time”. Since the 1970s, if you pictured the man himself, it would probably be in jeans, trainers and a smart jacket — epitomising the convergence of the two styles. Fast forward 40 years and Ralph Lauren has become the luxury brand, with the most eagerly anticipated collaboration in the fashion world being between Ralph and London skate brand Palace.

Other successful partnerships have been sealed by a mutual desire to increase and promote sustainability. Look no further than Eileen Fisher x Public School (where the newcomers were allegedly attracted by the older brand’s leadership in circular design and zero-waste processes) and the long-running Stella McCartney x Adidas collaboration.


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David x Goliath

These contrasts between high and low fashion, new and old school, street and luxe are clearly very successful marketing tools. Gone is the dominance of Goliath over David and the imposition of one brand over another. The deals being struck recognise the value of both brands in a tricky retail market. Those involved have successfully penetrated the fashion media white noise to develop brand awareness and visibility. The win/win scenarios propel fringe brands into the limelight and expose both brands to new audiences and revenue streams, but the rights of both parties need to be adequately recognised and protected.

If the partnerships result in a new brand being created, even if it’s a simple combination of two names, the parties would be well advised to jointly own the trade mark registration. Joint-ownership of a brand needs careful consideration and advice.

If, however, the partnership is only likely to be short-lived, it might be sufficient for cross-licences to be put in place to ensure that both parties consent to the use being made by the other.

These steps are important to ensure that each separate brand retains its distinctiveness and valuable goodwill. Provided that the joint ventures are correctly set up and maintained, there’s no reason to see any brand dilution, only brand enrichment.

If you're entering into a partnership with another brand, it's wise to seek some IP advice. Feel free to get in touch with me at ajc@udl.co.uk.

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