Is that shirt a Gucci . . . or a Cuggl?

It takes skill to create a clever Gucci fake.

If you’re walking down Fifth Avenue in New York, you might spot vendors selling run-of-the-mill counterfeit bags and T-shirts—sometimes with the name misspelled (“Guccy” or “Cucci”)—who contribute to the $600 billion in fake products sold every year.

But then there are the more inventive imitators, the ones creating satirical products inspired by the Italian luxury house. I can appreciate a good Gnocchi sweatshirt.

Nobuaki Kurokawa is the latest knockoff artist using a clever approach to mimic the brand. Last year, Osaka-based Kurokawa filed a trademark for a new brand name, “Cuggl,” to use on clothes, which the Japan Patent Office granted.

When Cuggl T-shirts appeared for sale online this year for $18, the bottom half of the name was covered with a line of pink paint. The parts of the words that remained looked identical to the top of the Gucci logo, which often appears in all caps and a similar font.

Gucci’s lawyers noticed. The brand filed a motion to revoke this trademark, arguing that consumers would be confused by the Cuggl shirts because they are so similar to products from its own brand. The lawyers also claimed that the trademark was sought with malicious intent to “freeride” on Gucci’s “goodwill and reputation.”

[Screenshots: Japan Platform for Patent Information, Wiki Commons]

But the argument didn’t sway the Japan Patent Office, which did not find enough resemblance—whether visual, conceptual, or phonetic—that consumers would imagine they were buying a Gucci product when they picked up a Cuggl one.

So for now, Kurokawa is allowed to continue selling the shirts. This lawsuit reveals Kurokawa’s mastery of intellectual property law, at least in the context of the Japanese system. (We have reached out to Gucci for comment and will update this story if the company responds.)

“This is very clever,” says Alexandra J. Roberts, professor of law and media at Northeastern University School of Law, who specializes in fashion law. But she points out that a similar legal strategy is unlikely to work in the United States.

“There have been studies showing that people can read words when only their top half is visible,” she says. “Our brains extrapolate from what we can see and fill in the rest. When the bottom half of Cuggl is concealed, there’s a good chance that many consumers will mistake it for the famous and far more widely-known brand Gucci, and that misconception could lead to a different purchasing decision. That’s likely to be enough for trademark infringement.”

Indeed, Kurokawa has made a career out of mimicking fashion brands and taking on their lawyers. (We were unable to reach Kurokawa for comment.)

The Financial Times reports that he’s created products that appear to feature the Puma logo but have been modified into the words pug, labra(dor) and pome(ranian). He’s also made similar plays on logos from Adidas, Lacoste, Nike, Prada, and Balenciaga. He’s sold these products at affordable prices, usually between $15 and $30.

A number of global fashion powerhouses have taken Kurokawa to court; some have won their legal battles against him while others have lost.

Gucci’s lawsuit is particularly interesting because Alessandro Michele, the brand’s creative director, has frequently referred to the long history of individuals creatively ripping off the brand in his work. In 2017, he launched a resort collection with pieces emblazoned with the word Guccy, a nod to knockoff products that have misspelled the brand’s name.

In 2020, Michele launched a line of products with the word Fake splashed on them in bright yellow letters.

Gucci also partnered with Dapper Dan, the Harlem tailor who created fashion-forward outfits in the 1980s made with fabric covered in imitation designer logos, including Gucci’s. Several brands successfully sued Dapper Dan out of business in 1992. But in 2017, Gucci helped sponsor the reopening of the Harlem atelier.

Michele has a keen understanding of the distinction between bad-faith imitation and clever satire. In some ways, Michele and Kurokawa have similar approaches. Both use humor to comment on consumers’ fixation with logos as well as brands’ aggressive policing thereof.

For now, lawyers for big fashion brands aren’t distinguishing between plagiarism and parody. But that might change in the future. Consumers have seen wave after wave of knockoffs, and most can tell the difference between real products and their fake counterparts.

Roberts says that in the U.S. brands like Gucci must show that knockoffs are likely to cause confusion among consumers. But consumers are smarter than ever.

“Consumer sophistication might work against Gucci,” she says. “We can expect folks who buy Gucci products to know their price point and notice if they’re buying from an unauthorized seller at a much cheaper price.”

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