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The drama surrounding her latest business venture, SKKN by Kim Kardashian, feels familiar.
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Kim Kardashian, as you may have heard, is in the midst of bringing yet another beauty brand to market. On Tuesday, following weeks of buzzy pre-launch press — including an appearance on "The Today Show" and a controversial interview with The New York Times in which she revealed she would consider eating poop every day if it would make her look younger — SKKN by Kim officially hit the DTC shelves.
Created alongside industry giant Coty Inc., SKKN By Kim's initial offering includes nine products, ranging from $43 for a single (non-refill) cleanser to $673 for the complete collection. In a press release, the 41-year-old entrepreneur and reality TV star said her psoriasis diagnosis "became the catalyst" for her learning more about skin care. "Working with some of the top dermatologists and estheticians over the years has given me the incredible opportunity to learn from their expertise — and I knew I had to share my learnings," she said.
The brand, however, has dealt with a series of naming headaches leading up to its launch, including accusations of trademark infringement. Kardashian submitted several trademark applications for the name between March and July 2021. But according to reports in The Fashion Law and Bloomberg Law, Beauty Concepts LLC is trying to block Kardashian's trademarks from moving forward because of similarities to its own brand, SKKN+. Cyndie Lunsford, owner of the Brooklyn-based Beauty Concepts, claims her company has been using the SKKN+ name since August 2018, and that she filed for a trademark on March 28, 2021, just days before Kardashian.
In July 2021, a year before SKKN By Kim's launch, Lunsford's legal team sent a cease-and-desist letter to Kardashian. Two months later, Lori Harvey filed paperwork for her own celebrity beauty brand called SKN by LH, which launched in October 2021 with five debut products, including a cleanser, toner, serum, eye cream and moisturizer. Twitter users have been quick to point out the similarity between the two brand names.
"Assuming the existence of the similar marks was not known to the Kardashian team, running checks on the names one wants to register, and variations, could have provided important clues and allowed more lead time to address problems," says David Jacoby, an intellectual property lawyer and partner in the New York office of Culhane Meadows.
Jacoby has been involved in previous brand disputes but does not represent Kardashian or SKKN By Kim. He says that when looking to trademark a brand, typically a trademark application is filed, and the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) could point out problems with it, leading to amendments or disclaimers on part of the claims.
"The USPTO will publish the applied-for trademark for opposition," Jacoby explains. "It may negotiate with the applicant for limitations on what the mark to be issued will protect. For example, a disclaimer of a word or words within the proposed trademark could be required."
SKN by LH has yet to formalize any opposition to Kardashian's trademark attempts. To date, the matter between SKKN By Kim and SKKN+ is still under review by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
For many, the controversy surrounding Kardashian's latest business venture feels familiar. The reality star — along with other members of her entrepreneurial family — has been involved in trademark drama before. Khroma Beauty, the ill-fated makeup line from Kardashian and sisters Kourtney and Khloé, launched in 2012 but had a short shelf life. After a year in stores, the brand faced multiple lawsuits for copyright infringement. The Los Angeles-based beauty company Chroma Beauty threatened a lawsuit; meanwhile, a Florida-headquartered company called Kroma Beauty presented their own suit for copyright infringement, seeking $10 million in damages. (Ultimately, Khroma Beauty was forced to rename as Kardashian Beauty, which was also short-lived.)
Then there was the original name for Skims. Before Kardashian launched her successful shapewear line, word got out that she was planning to call it "Kimono." A social media backlash brewed, with many making accusations of cultural insensitivity and appropriation. The mayor of Kyoto, Daisaku Kadokawa, wrote an open letter to Kardashian urging her to think twice about using the term for a brand name.
"Kimono is a traditional ethnic dress fostered in our rich nature and history with our predecessors’ tireless endeavors and studies, and it is a culture that has been cherished and passed down with care in our living,” he wrote. “Also, it is a fruit of craftsmanship and truly symbolizes sense of beauty, spirits and value of Japanese.”
Kardashian went back to the drawing board.
“I am always listening, learning and growing — I so appreciate the passion and varied perspectives that people bring to me,” she tweeted at the time. “When I announced the name of my shapewear line, I did so with the best intentions in mind. My brands and products are built with inclusivity and diversity at their core and after careful thought and consideration, I will be launching my Solutionwear brand under a new name.”
In June of 2020, Forbes reported that Seed Beauty, which manufactured products for Kylie Cosmetics and the now-shuttered KKW Beauty, had filed a lawsuit in California against Coty Inc., claiming that Kylie Cosmetics knowingly shared trade secrets with Coty, which owns several other beauty brands. That ordeal could partly explain why Kardashian was ready to shed the KKW Beauty name (in addition to her pending divorce from Kanye West, as some fans have speculated).
Andrea Sager, a small business attorney in Houston who does not represent Kardashian or SKKN By Kim, says the media mogul is "very strategic" about brand awareness. And highly visible legal scuffles are one way to get people talking about your brand.
"They say no press is bad press," Sager says. "I think that is her exact take on this as she has been in constant trademark battles."
Sager predicts Kardashian will face an uphill battle in successfully trademarking SKKN By Kim. "They will pay to fight it out and whoever has more money will be the end winner," she says. "And if she ends up keeping the brand, she will most likely be paying them for a license to use the name itself."
How might a business owner avoid running into a fate like Kardashian? Get to digging. Like, really digging, advises Sager.
"For entrepreneurs and founders coming up with new names for brands, they need to be performing thorough trade research, typically handled with a trademark attorney," she says.
Doing your own research online with Google or social media is often insufficient. It might not surface all the possible areas of overlap. If you are infringing on someone's trademark, you may be liable to change your name and even hand over past profits.
So, how does Kardashian keep rising above her brand naming challenges? Money, a large legal team, and press blitzes certainly help. Keisha Wagner-Gaymon, founder of PeachFuzz Laser Studio in Brooklyn, would like to see some accountability if it turns out that the SKKN+ trademark is being infringed upon.
"Many Black businesses do not trademark their brands because of the difficulty navigating this legal terrain and the financial cost associated [with legal action]," says Wagner-Gaymon, who also notes that, in contrast, Kardashian has unlimited resources. "Affordable websites that provide legal services are a start, but not enough. The rules should apply to all, not some, regardless of bank account."
Kardashian isn't the only celebrity with a skincare line dealing with a name scandal. Clothing company Rhode is suing Hailey Bieber over her new skin-care brand, Rhode, which just launched earlier this month. (Rhode is also Bieber's middle name.) On Instagram, the owners expressed hesitation about filing the lawsuit but "had to in order to protect our business."
With the number of celebrity beauty brands flooding the market, a truly original idea — let alone an original name — seems more elusive than ever. And savvy shoppers can usually tell the difference between a product that offers real value, versus something that's merely an extension of the celebrity's own personal brand.
"Today's consumers are smart," says Wagner-Gaymon. "Beauty and skincare is the new wave and everyone wants to be a part of it. Many of these celebrity brands fail. Marketing is not enough. Don't just throw products out there and expect it to do well because it has your name on it."
Representatives from SKKN and Coty did not respond to Fashionista’s multiple requests for comment.
Update, June 29 8:55 a.m.: Kardashian's legal team has responded to the SKKN lawsuit calling it a "shakedown effort," reports TMZ. Attorney Michael Rhodes, who represents Kardashian, provided the following statement to TMZ:
"This lawsuit is not what it seems. SKKN by KIM is a new brand that follows in the footsteps of Ms. Kardashian's successful KKW line of products. Building on independent research and development, her company filed a trademark application for SKKN by KIM to protect the new branded products. This prompted the current shakedown effort.
We applaud Ms. Lunsford for being a small business owner and following her dreams. But that doesn't give her the right to wrongfully claim that we've done something wrong. In its letter, Beauty Concepts claimed to own rights to a logo made up of SKKN+, and had just filed for trademark protection for that logo. The business was a one-person shop offering facials from a single Brooklyn location. The salon had no signage and was by appointment only. To our knowledge, Beauty Concepts sold no products under the SKKN+ name.
Beauty Concepts asked that we drop the SKKN name. Of course, we said no. Beauty Concepts then challenged Ms. Kardashian's trademark applications at the USPTO. Unsurprisingly, the USPTO rejected Beauty Concepts' own SKKN+ mark saying that 'skkn' just means 'skin.' Undaunted, Beauty Concepts then tried to make its business seem more than it was – it leased a new storefront, changed its website, etc."