Fusing food and fashion: bon appétit à la mode

In the fashion and food industries, successful collaborations underscore the importance of protecting brands and innovation, write Remfry & Sagar lawyers Radha Khera and Bisman Kaur

Fashion and food are driven by trends, seasonality, and occasion

“I feel the same way about clothes as I do about food – I want everything.” 

Actor and producer Mindy Kaling’s declaration illustrates the profound connection between attire and sustenance, both serving as forms of self-expression. Fashion and food have long been regarded as mediums for conveying identity, each reflecting a narrative and providing an outlet for artistic expression. From ancient civilizations to modern times, their intermingling has been a consistent thread in human history, shaping cultures and societies. Clothing has been used to signify status, wealth and societal roles, mirroring the distinctions present in food consumption. From the opulent attire of royalty to the more modest garments of commoners, clothing has conveyed messages of identity and belonging. Similarly, food choices have often been dictated by economic factors, with the diets of the affluent differing from those of the less privileged. 

Art is a related element. The integration of food into artistic expression dates back to ancient times, with ingredients like berries and animal fat used in cave paintings. It is also the subject of many a still life painting – famously Caravaggio’s basket of fruits. Today, culinary skills too are celebrated as a form of artistry, blending seamlessly with the fashion industry to create a rich tapestry of creativity and innovation. Remember Lady Gaga’s meat dress at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards? Or when Swedish, Michelin-starred chef Bjorn Frantzen recreated designs by Diane Von Furstenburg, Ralph Lauren, Valentino and Chloe with salad, macarons, seafood and wine corks?  

Collaborative love affair

Fashion and food are driven by trends, seasonality and occasion. Collaborations between fashion and food brands capitalise on this synergy to create unique products and experiences that resonate with consumers. From limited-edition collections inspired by culinary delights to immersive dining experiences, these collaborations elevate food to the realm of couture, offering consumers novel ways to engage with both industries. Although fashion’s relationship with food travels far back in time, the New York Times in 2023 reported that food motifs are “the new florals” in fashion. From Elsa Schiaparelli’s lobster dinner dress in 1937 to the models in the ‘Snow Xue Gao’ show walking the runway eating Cheetos, and from Agatha Ruiz de la Prada’s ‘Sausage Hat’ to the McDonald’s-themed Moschino show, fashion designers across the globe routinely embrace food as their inspiration.  

Fashion brands have also diversified by stepping into the zone of hospitality. Giorgio Armani, for instance, boasts more than 20 restaurants globally, with a debut in 1998 in Paris. Christian Dior also has culinary experiences to offer its consumers, from a summer restaurant pop-up in Selfridges London to collaborating with Chef Anne-Sophie Pic (the most decorated Michelin-starred female chef in the world, currently holding 11 Michelin stars across her restaurants) to launch the first Monsieur Dior Restaurant in Japan. Other notable examples include Prada Café, Fendi’s café and Bulgari’s bar and hotel. 

Cross-collaborations are another mode of capitalising on natural synergies to access a new demographic of potential customers that each partner brings – a mutually appealing business prospect. Examples include the 2017 Louis Vuitton x Supreme collaboration that included a limited-edition collection of co-branded chocolate bars, packaged in Louis Vuitton’s signature monogram print. Designer Vera Wang partnered with the famous French bakery Ladurée to launch a collection of desserts. In India, a recent example is Starbucks India’s collaboration with designer Manish Malhotra to curate a limited-edition lifestyle drinkware range, bringing the worlds of coffee and fashion together. 

Eat your food and wear it too 

Embracing sustainable practices has birthed another sort of collaboration between fashion and food. Innovations including clothing made from food materials have been patented, such as Orange Fiber’s fabric made from orange peels and Qmilch’s milk protein-based fabric. Other notable examples include Stella McCartney’s partnership with Bolt Threads to create Mylo, a material derived from mushrooms, and Nike’s collaboration with the Pineapple Project, featuring shoes made from pineapple leather. Today, fibres and fabrics can be made from a choice of edible materials. Pineapple is one example; flax and hemp seeds are others. An Indian initiative seeks to make vegan leather from waste flowers. The new material is known as ‘Fleather’ and is considered a sustainable alternative to animal leather. 

Where’s the law? 

Successful collaborations underscore the importance of protecting brands and innovation in the fashion and food industry, ensuring creators receive recognition and compensation for their work. Well-defined contracts securing the legal rights (including IP rights) of both parties are a must. Additionally, these contracts need careful consideration since it is unlikely that brand holders will want to grant licenses for long periods to avoid diluting hard-earned branding through long-term use by a third party. To navigate unexpected challenges, watertight agreements are a pre-requisite to delineate the rights and responsibilities of collaborating parties.  

The Moschino/McDonald’s example is a good illustration. Moschino’s Fall 2014 collection featured global fast-food giant McDonald’s golden arches bent into the shape of a heart, a signature motif of the Italian fashion brand. The collection included jackets, skirts and a robe in reds and yellows; a handbag shaped like Happy Meal packaging; and a cell phone case that looked like a carton of French fries with the golden arches-inspired heart on it. Many items immediately sold out. While critics commented on the design, IP lawyers were quick to highlight potential trademark and copyright violations as well as dilution concerns. 

A trademark acts as an identifier of the source of goods and services, differentiating it from others in the marketplace. McDonald’s golden arches are a well-known symbol globally and the existence of similar marks, regardless of their use in a different industry, would ultimately lessen (dilute) the ability of the golden arches to exclusively identify McDonald's restaurants – a critical concern for one of the most valuable restaurant brands in the world. 

It is important to note that dilution is not explicitly defined under the Indian Trade Marks Act, 1999. However, section 29(4) sets out that a registered trademark can be infringed by unauthorised use of a similar or identical mark in relation to dissimilar goods or services if the registered trademark has a reputation in India, and the third party use without due cause takes unfair advantage of, or is detrimental to the distinctive character or repute of the registered trademark. 

In Caterpillar v. Mehtab Ahmed and Ors, the Delhi High Court held that if any subsequent user adopted a similar or identical mark for the same goods, it would lead to a reduction in the value of the mark of prior use and also result in dilution of the mark. The court held that an act of trademark dilution is a commercial invasion because a trademark is like property and an unauthorised party cannot trespass on it. The court also identified another kind of dilution called tarnishing, which is sullying, degrading or impairing a trademark’s distinctive quality.

In the Moschino example, other experts argued that the fashion brand’s actions were legal as they fell within the fair use exception of parody. However, the parody exception does not apply when it serves a trademark function, which is how Moschino’s spin on the McDonald’s logo played out. 

But Moschino had not received McDonald’s permission to rework its logo. In a deal reached after the runway show, Moschino obtained legal permission to use certain graphics in exchange for a donation to Ronald McDonald House Charities. Both parties benefitted. Moschino achieved impressive sales of its McDonald’s-inspired collection, and McDonald’s received wide press coverage and brand elevation without incurring any marketing costs. McDonald’s products went on to feature in Moschino’s social media advertising campaign which included tweets such as ‘Do you ever look at yourself in the mirror and think, this outfit is missing a #Bigmac?’. 

After this success, McDonald’s sought out more collaborations with fashion brands. In 2023, it announced a collaboration with Crocs – featuring clogs resembling some of McDonald’s iconic characters like Birdie, Hamburglar and Grimace. It also set limits to creative adaption by fashion brands. In a collaboration with young Finnish streetwear brand Vain, McDonald’s swiftly asked to remove a photo of fries in a black McDonald’s carton that was posted to Vain’s Instagram. There is another rule that collaborators with McDonald’s are expected to abide by – the golden arches must remain golden. 

Another interesting battle between food and fashion was one fought by Louis Vuitton in South Korea against a fried chicken restaurant owner. In 2016, a restaurant owner named his restaurant in Seoul ‘LOUIS VUITON DAK’ – a play on the word ‘tongdak’, which means whole chicken in Korean. Also, a logo very similar to that of Louis Vuitton was printed on napkins and fried chicken take-out cartons. 

Louis Vuitton filed a lawsuit alleging violation of its trademark rights and obtained an injunction. In response, the owner modified the restaurant name to ‘chaLouisvui tondak’ to comply with the court’s order. Louis Vuitton complained again which led the court to fine the restaurant owner for non-compliance and pay the fashion house around $12,750 a day for the 29 days that the amended name was displayed. 

There is a notable difference between McDonald’s and Louis Vuitton. For Louis Vuitton, the brand value of the offending party was no match for the world-renowned fashion brand’s repute. Hence, the forced association was of no benefit to Louis Vuitton. Rather, Louis Vuitton’s carefully cultivated luxury brand image was in danger of being degraded or tarnished. Thus, a collaboration between food and fashion (or for that matter any industry) succeeds only if benefits are assured for both parties.   

Can fashion learn from food? 

Today, the fashion back-office and supply chain are in the spotlight for delivering new and improved customer experiences as well as meeting expectations around sustainability and product provenance. In 2022, Fashion Revolution – a prominent global fashion activism movement – published a fashion transparency index stating: “Without transparency, achieving a sustainable, accountable and fair fashion industry will be impossible.”  

Might fashion brands take a cue from the food industry? For many years, the food sector has complied with stringent regulations to trace data in each step of the value chain – from farm to fork. To embark on a similar path, fashion brands should consider these three keys:  

  1. Data: Access to data is needed from every step of the production supply chain – from finished product supplier to raw material supplier. However, most brands do not exercise direct control over production, and this can disrupt the ease of data access across multiple layers of sub-suppliers. 
  2. Collaboration: Using a common collaboration platform (cloud-based enterprise application platform) can facilitate the process of data sharing and help collect all the needed data.
  3. Technology: Smart, modern technology can help manage data and fill potential missing gaps by leveraging historical information to validate and complete current data. 

Technology can also enable the use of ‘product passports’ and ‘digital IDs’ – vital in the context of France’s recent sustainability law that requires large retailers to provide consumers with detailed information about the environmental qualities and origins of products they purchase. In fact, the French law is the tip of a regulatory iceberg, with the European Union, the US and the UK all poised to pass fashion sustainability and extended producer responsibility laws. 

By providing greater transparency, fashion brands can tell a better and more relevant brand story. Succinctly said, brand protection through formal legal statutes is key to building brand value for fashion and food companies alike. Equally, one must watch the market carefully for violations and act quickly to stem harm to a brand and even, as the Moschino example bears out, unlock further brand value. Finally, in today’s climate, if two brands can collaborate to enhance sustainable experiences for shoppers, that should be an out-and-out winning combination.

Radha Khera is an intellectual property, fashion and luxury law attorney with more than a decade of legal experience. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in law from the University of Delhi and then pursued a master’s degree at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, where she studied intellectual property and entertainment law including legal issues in the television industry. She joined Indian law firm Remfry & Sagar in 2012 and has worked extensively with the firm’s intellectual property practice. She can be reached at [email protected]

Bisman Kaur is of counsel at Remfry & Sagar. A trademark attorney, she has more than two decades of experience in advising clients on how to optimise protection and unlock brand value. Bisman takes a keen interest in fashion and is also a part of the firm’s fashion and luxury law practice. Editor of the firm’s newsletter, she leads media outreach, communications and publishing activities, ensuring clients and associates remain updated on IP developments. Bisman can be reached at [email protected].

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