Sophie Heawood: Can a colour be brought to heel?

Red isn't a word, a design, or a fragrance composed of secret ingredients

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Trademark rulings can be lots of fun for normal people. Take my mother (no go on, take her). Imagine her delight when they ruled that Apple's ideas had been ripped off by Samsung, who would now have to pay squillions in compensation. "Turns out I HAVE got an iPhone after all!" she said, stroking her little Samsung mobile with glee. While the phones looked vaguely different on the outside, enough of the clever stuff inside was the same.

But the Louboutin vs Yves St Laurent case that has just been ruled on in New York would seem to be the opposite of that. While each of these luxury Parisian brands undoubtedly makes excellent shoes, Louboutin has appealed against an earlier ruling and won a case arguing that red soles belong to its soles, and thus other companies can't put red soles on their shoes. (Unless the rest of the shoe is red. In which case, it's not so much a red sole as a red shoe. Got that? Yeah. It's a bit nuts.) YSL is annoyed and says that it has been making slinky ladies shoes with red soles since the 1970s, and now it can't. Louboutin is well chuffed and says that everybody knows a red sole is a Louboutin sole and now it's enshrined in law.

And yet it does seem a bit odd that you can now trademark a colour. Red isn't a word, a design, or a fragrance composed of secret ingredients. It's just a colour, underneath a shoe. Then again – probably thanks to all those soles being flashed in Sex and the City so gratuitously – it means everything.

This is the problem with getting popular. You make fabulous shoes that also have red soles. The red soles come to represent the fabulous shoe. Other brands then want to make shoes with red soles so people will think they're as good as yours, and then the trouble begins. Signifier loses its relationship with signified. The red sole becomes a dangling synecdoche.

Which comes first, the sole or the shoe? And who can see underneath your foot apart from paparazzi photographers lying in the gutter and foot fetishists anyway? Though, if you can afford to live in footwear that costs more than a second-hand car, chances are your lifestyle IS funded by paparazzi or foot fetishists. (The latter group always being rich, toe-sucking being the sexual preserve of people who own yachts.)

How does this help us muggles, you may ask. Well, imagine the fun you can now have with a red sticker and any old pair of slinky black evening shoes. Spend 15 quid on a pair of strappy stilettoes in the Matalan sale, get down to your local stationers for a big red sticker, and shove it on your shoes. Or maybe just get a really strong marker pen. Mr Louboutin himself started off by painting the red on with nail varnish. It's easily done.

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