When fashion law overlaps with family law, it can become quite complicated. Last week, Tory Burch’s ex-husband, Christopher Burch, filed a lawsuit against his former wife in an ongoing battle over their respective businesses. As a cofounder of Tory Burch, LLC, Christopher Burch is seeking a declaration from the Delaware courts that the defendants cannot stop him from pursuing other business ventures. The defendants include Tory Burch herself, Tory Burch, LLC, and individual board members of Tory Burch and Isla Coral, a subsidiary of the Mexican private equity firm that took a stake in Tory Burch in 2009.
Tory Burch and Christopher Burch
After their divorce in 2006, Christopher Burch went on to launch his own concept line, C. Wonder. Tory Burch threatened to sue him for trade dress infringement. In legal terms, trade dress is used to describe a certain distinctiveness, whether by physical appearance or packaging, in which there is sufficient similarity between two businesses that consumers may get confused. While the suit never materialized, Christopher Burch is claiming that his ex-wife and her team at Tory Burch have interfered in multiple ways with his ability to operate his new business.
C. Wonder Store
According to the court documents, Christopher Burch is claiming that his ex-wife and her team have manipulated third-party bidders by requiring a pre-condition to any transaction with Christopher Burch and his new company C. Wonder that they reach an agreement with Tory Burch. Allegations of interference also included the defendants contacting suppliers and factories throughout China to inform them of confusion between the C. Wonder and Tory Burch brands.
Tory Burch Store
Christopher Burch remains confident that his new concept C. Wonder does not infringe on Tory Burch’s trade dress, arguing that the functional and commonplace style elements such as green carpets and brass buttons are neither owned by Tory Burch, LLC nor recognized by the consumer public as distinctively identifying Tory Burch, LLC. He further contends that C. Wonder does not aim to be a competitor of Tory Burch, something he has tried to assure his ex-wife by making changes to his retail format and emphasizing a lower price point that aims to target a different consumer.
Christopher Burch also goes on to claim that his business experience in fashion and personal financial investment was pivotal to the launch and success of Tory Burch, LLC, making his ex-wife’s interference with his current business even more unfair.
However the Burches decide to resolve their differences, one thing is clear- if you’re going to start a fashion business with your spouse, make sure you account for the possibility of a dissolution of the marriage in a contract. An exit strategy will always make things easier. What do you think? Do the two concepts seem similar to you? Does Tory Burch have a valid trade dress claim against Christopher Burch’s new business venture?