As the fashion industry remains vigilant of Louboutin’s attempts to enforce its trademark rights, many questions have surfaced about the future impact of the law on the footwear industry. What direction will shoe designers take to ensure that their products will exude a stylish look that will elicit a strong connection with the consumer? How will shoe designers secure a signature product? These are only a few questions that I discussed in a recent interview with Monisha Raja, designer and owner of Love Is Mighty, a growing footwear company in NYC known for its stylish and colorful shoes – all of which are handmade by artisans in India. Many of the questions touched on the future of the competitive footwear industry and issues concerning the business dynamics of the fashion industry in relation to law.
Monisha Raja, an experienced designer with over two decades of industry experience, explains that her line reveals an “evolution” in terms of her creative pursuits as she has transitioned from a clothing designer to a shoe designer. Despite the transition in her career, Raja knows which products will sell well. Knowing how important “flats” are in a contemporary woman’s wardrobe, for example, Love Is Mighty presently carries three distinct styles in its collection: Rani, Uma, and Vajra (all three can be view online at her website: www.loveismighty.com). The shoes, which are made of recycled plastic, are handcrafted to ensure a truly unique product. No two shoes are the same. Overseeing the artisanal work and production of her footwear collection, Monisha asserts, is not only important to her as a businesswoman and designer but also ensures that her line will continuously offer a signature product to her consumers. Raja asserts that her consumer would be described as a woman (irrespective of age) who is conscious of the environment and who “values compassionate living.” Raja views her loyal consumers as women who identify themselves as women who care about fashion as much as they care about their role as an informed consumer who “genuinely values the preservation of culture and artisanal craftsmanship.” Raja understands that her market is fully aware of the difference between labels that are associated with the mass market and Love Is Mighty, which consumers would identify as a niche market. For Raja, her niche market is vegan-friendly products that appeal to environmentally-conscious consumers. These consumers are drawn to her brand’s growing presence in the world of vegan-friendly fashion that offer an alternative to leather-based goods. They are also drawn to the detailing and embellishment found in her beautiful shoes illustrating the technical caliber and talent of the artisans with whom she works closely.
When asked if she had any concerns about competitors introducing “similar” products on the market given the popularity of vegan-friendly apparel, Raja offered a compelling account highlighting her uncompromising plan to exercise “control” which she sees as critical to ensuring success in this industry. As growing independent labels and designers introduce more quality and environmentally sound fashion products, the scope of legal protection in the industry according to Raja may become increasingly complex. She believes that there is a natural (commercial) force in this business and others are quick to capitalize on it. Although some protection afforded to emerging brands is important, Raja feels that, in general, contemporary legal developments could be “a hinderance for the designer causing him/her to be overly cautious.” Protecting the very source of the artisanal work that makes Love Is Mighty so strong is attained by her loyal business relationships with her suppliers. Despite her efforts to allay concerns over potential design infringement, Raja knows that there is a growing demand in the vegan market. Furthermore, many fashion-conscious consumers, as she points out, are also seeking goods that boast fair-trade certification for its materials or labor. She offers both. But more importantly, the strong relationship she has built with artisans in India has fortified her brand since founding the label in 2010. And the limited availability affirms her commitment to reassuring clients that she can continue her production in India because the scale of production is manageable even as her business continues to grow.
Raja is proud of her signature product known as the Heera, which is available online through her website. With the growing popularity of the Heera (shown above), a beautiful low-heeled pump made of recycled plastic underscoring Raja’s eye for detailing, Raja admitted to recently declining an investment deal proposed by a large shoe manufacturing company that offered to expand her business operations in China. In Raja’s opinion, this would have undoubtedly been the anti-thesis of her company’s principles. It is the treasured (and rare) handwork encompassing stitching and the beading found on her products that, collectively, enhance the “story” behind the label. Raja, who attributes much of her design inspiration to Issey Miyake and Dries Van Noten, shares that in the years following her education at Parsons School of Design much of their work influenced her sensitivity and approach to design. But, more importantly, Raja explains that despite the proposed legislation intended to protect designs on the horizon, there needs to be some flexibility built into the legal framework. Fashion, for example, looks back to historical periods and seeks a renewed sense of inspiration based on the legacy left by so many notable designers. While enamored with Miyake’s designs and clothing during her employment term under the Japanese designer, it was her appreciation for the development of his textiles, for example, that contributed to her career by enriching her creative exposure to the industry. When asked how a designer can be inspired by another designer’s work yet remain able to keep his or her work distinct and simultaneously imbedding some reference in the product to that particular designer, Raja explained that as she transitioned to a shoe designer she tried to capture the overall “feel” of Miyake’s work. But, as Raja affirmatively made clear, no one product in her collection really makes an express reference to Miyake for that matter. In fashion, such references can be subtle yet equally appreciated by the creator (the designer) as well as the consumer.
Understanding that much of the proposed design legislation may establish boundaries as to the sui generis protection for apparel, Monisha Raja strongly feels that while there may be clear instances of glaring infringement involving misappropriation of a logo or a trademarked label, legal protection must remain flexible. The framework cannot be too rigid as to stifle creativity. Fashion is a multi-faceted industry that turns to design in a very different manner than other creative enterprises and Raja feels that the law must work in tandem with these characteristics if it strives to take a step in the right direction by better serving the industry.
Layne Randolph, Esq. and Juan J. Rivera would like to thank Monisha Raja for her participation; we wish her much continued success with her growing company.