Logo wars: the biker gang vs the fashion pack

David Usborne
Thursday 28 October 2010 00:00

In a trademark challenge that would be run-of-the-mill but for the threatening roar of motorcycle engines in the background, the Hells Angels are suing Alexander McQueen, the luxury fashion house, and the Saks department store company for allegedly purloining their skull-and-wings logo for profit.

A lawsuit was filed by the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club – a "non-profit mutual benefit corporation" – in a Los Angeles court this week, demanding that all items like dresses, jewellery and handbags bearing the offending motifs or designs be withdrawn from the market. It also seeks penalties.

Emblazoned on the jackets of Angels since about 1948, the so-called "Death Head" has been furiously defended by the group in repeated lawsuits, including in recent years against the Disney organisation and an Australian children's clothing maker.

"The impact of these marks is virtually incomparable, and as a result they have great commercial value," the suit argues, alleging that the defendants – they also include the online shoe retailer Zappos – seek "to exploit that value for their own gain".

Among items that have caused offence is a dress currently available from Alexander McQueen for £860. There was no comment from the London-based company, whose founder committed suicide in February. It is owned by the French luxury-goods brand PPR. Gucci, which is hardly unfamiliar with legal battles to defend its trademark, is part of the same group.

The fight will serve as a reminder to the fashion world that attempts to appropriate a rough and edgy aesthetic from groups like the Hells Angels does not come without peril – legal if not actually physical. The lawsuit targets goods that bear logos or designs confusingly similar to the Death Head such as a "Hells Angel Pashmina", a "Hells Knuckle Duster" and the "Hells Angels Jacquard Box Dress".

"From more than half a century of continuous and conspicuous usage, both the Hells Angels word mark and the Death Head design mark are famous," the lawsuit says. The name and logo "are widely known and recognised by the public as indicating the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club".

Lawyers suggested that anyone wearing any of the items cited in the lawsuit would be considered imposters trying to insinuate themselves inside the world's most famous motorcycling fraternity. This, however, might seem like a somewhat unlikely proposition for most would-be purchasers of goods from the likes of Alexander McQueen and Saks, who have never mounted a Harley or Honda in their lives and would rather not try.

There isn't much that the Hells Angels won't do to keep their logo safe, it seems. Last year, they went to court in Canada to regain possession of Death Head-emblazoned articles seized by police in a huge drugs raid in downtown Toronto.

The action against Disney was prompted by a film called Wild Hogs even while it was still in development. The challenge had the desired effect. A comedy portraying a group of middle-aged friends taking to the road on motorcycles and starring John Travolta in his leathers, the film came out with nary a Death Head in sight.

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