Not everything ironic is eligible for trademark registration: The case of Off-White

Within fashion, quotation marks are immediately associated with Virgil Abloh and his Off-White brand, which uses them as a graphic-decorative element, creating clothing items with a sense of irony towards the rules of fashion itself. The use of quotation marks, however, is not the exclusive property of the brand on a commercial level and will never be, as it “merely describes a feature and purpose of goods,” according to the USPTO. Can Virgil challenge this claim and obtain trademark ownership of universally known symbols such as quotation marks?


Jan Buza

Details of the case

Founded by American fashion designer and entrepreneur Virgil Abloh, since 2013, the Milan-based label has opened showrooms in 15 locations around the world and retained a star-studded line-up of customers. Off-White combines elements of high fashion and streetwear to create unique designs that cater for the young millennial generation. As pointed out by multiple media outlets such as The Fashion Law and Vox, one of the guiding principles behind Off-White designs is the use of quotation marks. Some of Off-White's best-selling items include a black dress with the words "Little Black Dress" written on it, and a shoelace on a $700 pair of sneakers with the word "Shoelaces" written on it, all in quotes. The use of quotation marks as an indication of irony became one of the main recognizable design elements of Off-White's brand.

The USPTO, however, seems to not share this sentiment, as the label has received pushback on its most recent "For Walking" trademark application from the Trademark Office, with the examining attorney explaining that "the applied-for mark merely describes a feature and characteristic of the applicant's goods."

For walking

In its most recent appeal, Off-White claims that an examining attorney for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) failed to consider the impact of the inclusion of quotation marks when she refused to register one of Off-White’s trademarks, the brand argues in a new filing. In response to the refusals issued by the USPTO, Off-White argues that the examining attorney got it wrong in determining that Off-White’s “FOR WALKING” mark fails to function as a trademark for “footwear”, specifically because it is more likely to be perceived by consumers as “conveying information” about Off-White’s goods than acting as an indicator of their source.

Other Off-White trademark applications

Earlier this year, Off-White successfully secured a trademark for its red zip tie design. Off-White first began using zip-ties as a signature element of its products in 2016 and submitted a trademark application in the same year in July. The application was initially denied in 2018. The trademark was deemed ineligible for registration because zip ties are often used for utility purposes, and “functional matter cannot be protected as a trademark.” In its most recent trademark application, Off-White clarified the specific form and positioning of its zip tie, which the USPTO finally accepted on March 29.


It remains to be seen whether Off-White™ will continue its fight to obtain the trademark or abandon the application attempts. A registered trademark for the label’s most recognizable asset would, without a doubt, add to Off-White’s growing list of tools in pursuing legal action against imitators, protecting the uniqueness of the brand itself. Learn more about the benefits of trademark registration for fashion retailers.

Jan Buza
Jan Buza

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