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Law gets fashionable as labels learn to love litigation

[PARIS] Long considered "too fluffy" for serious lawyers, fashion law has emerged in recent years as one of the most lucrative - and occasionally absurd - new battlegrounds for the legal profession.

For example, a blink-and-you-miss-it shot of a basketball with what looked like Louis Vuitton symbols on it appeared for just one second in a Hyundai commercial shown during the 2010 Superbowl in the United States.

But that was enough for the French luxury label to take Hyundai to court, claiming its trademark had been "diluted". To the amazement of many, the court agreed. One expert - lawyer and New York University lecturer Charles Colman - calls it "probably the most unfortunate legal decision of the past five years." Louis Vuitton followed up with a similar suit against the makers of Hollywood comedy "The Hangover Part 2" because a character played by Zach Galifianakis at one point carries a fake LV handbag and mispronounces their name "Lewis Vee-ton".

That case was thrown out - on the grounds that artistic expression is protected by the US constitution - but an appeal is ongoing.

Such lawsuits are the more extreme by-products of a burgeoning love affair between the fashion and legal industries.

Other high-profile cases include: The ongoing litigation by Converse against 31 competitors for allegedly ripping off its iconic sneaker; pop star Rihanna's successful action against Topman for putting her face on one of its T-shirts; and the landmark 2012 case in which Christian Louboutin won the exclusive right to make shoes with a red sole.

With the global luxury market valued at US$985 billion by Boston Consulting Group - and set to grow to US$1.18 trillion by 2020 - the only surprise is that lawyers have taken so long to take a direct interest.

"Entertainment law and sports law have become accepted terms with their own specialist courses in most law schools," says Mr Colman.

"But there are still only five courses in fashion law in the United States, even though the amount of money involved dwarfs that of entertainment.

"There's no defensible reason except that fashion is perceived as a frivolous subject," he adds.

Across the globe, that is changing as lawyers recognise the vital role they can play in protecting the fashion sector's fragile illusion of exclusivity from the reality of mass marketing.

"Haute couture is brand-building. The real money is made selling 40-euro nail varnish and 100-euro perfumes," says Annabelle Gauberti, who left one of the biggest law firms in London to set up her own practice specialising in luxury law ("droit du luxe").

"In the early 2000s, my old bosses used to tell me there's no money in fashion - stick to banking or energy," she says. "They thought fashion was too fluffy, but they were wrong. The time is ripe for the luxury industry. It is making monstrous fortunes."