Of Burch battles, white bread, and wonder about WASPs

When Chris Burch's first C. Wonder store opened its lacquered lime-green doors, just around the corner from the distinctive lacquered orange doors of the original Tory Burch store, the visual association was striking.  The obvious question, of course, was, "Wonder what Tory herself Cs?" 

Tory_Burch_C_Wonder_Doors.jpgCurious consumers didn't have to wait long to find out.  In the words of yesterday's legal salvo, a "knockoff store." And the pictorial parade doesn't stop at the door -- but we're getting ahead of ourselves.

For those who haven't been following the nascent retail legal battle of the former Mr. & Mrs. Burch, each of whom still owns a substantial stake in the Tory Burch company, the opening shot was actually fired by Mr. B last month.  The parties had apparently been involved in discussions regarding the series of similarities between the Tory Burch trade dress and the design of the new, cheaper chain and its merchandise.  This resulted in some changes to subsequent C. Wonder outlets, evidently including the elimination of those green doors, but the two sides had yet not reached a written agreement -- a situation about which potential investors became aware and expressed reservations, to Chris Burch's dismay.

Instead of continuing to negotiate, Chris filed a complaint in Delaware state court, focusing not on Tory's concerns regarding copying but on blame for the delayed sale and on a series of allegations regarding the actions of the Tory Burch board.  (It's hardly a dry and dispassionate corporate recital, however.  From the use of the term "vicious" in the first line to repeated references to the former couple's respective prior experience, the document puts the "complaint" back in "legal complaint."  In 2012, who goes to court and argues in essence that the woman whose name is on the label was really just the little woman?  According to the company website, that should be the little CEO, please.)

Yesterday, Tory filed an answer to the complaint, denying its allegations, as well as an extensively illustrated series of counterclaims.  Personally, I keep picturing the potentially pilfered pouf among other decorative elements and products -- in between reading descriptions of everything from breach of fiduciary duty and contract to unfair competition.

Tory Burch (L) and C. Wonder ottomans

In all, detailing and dissecting the claims and counterclaims would require a far longer discussion, but a core element of the case relates to what not only consumers but also potential investors in the Tory Burch company see when they see C. Wonder, and how this might affect their assessment of  the original company's value.  In today's world, isn't the existence of an alleged copycat chain run by someone with extensive insider knowledge of the original something that an investor would want to know?

As if this case weren't colorful enough, WWD today offers extensive quotes from Chancellor Leo Strine, who has apparently already called this case "a drunken WASP fest."  He's also reportedly opined -- and all this merely at a scheduling hearing -- that "there's really nothing all that new about bright clothing and all that kind of stuff," a point of view derived from his experience with "all the preppy clothier cases" he's been assigned in the past and his claim to cultural immersion in preppy styles.  (No doubt the court will become better acquainted with the signature Tory Burch style versus preppy classics as the case progresses. Very few New England homes have orange doors, for a start.)

Meanwhile, the designers of C. Wonder may not have sated their alleged hunger for borrowed trade dress.  A walk by the windows of one of the newer outlets might lead the mind of a a true WASP to wonder...bread.


UPDATE, November 8, 2012: Yesterday the Delaware Supreme Court chided the garrulous judge for his digression in another case. Sounds like he'll keep courtroom observers -- if not the parties -- in stitches.