updated 10/16/2007 2:23:50 PM ET 2007-10-16T18:23:50

Understated versus bold. Contemporary versus vintage. Composed versus carefree. These are forces at odds in a trademark fight over the use of the name Vera.

At stake is millions of dollars and the branding of two fashion icons, sleek urban designer Vera Wang and Vera Neumann, whose bright, floral scarves were favored by such celebrities as Marilyn Monroe back in the 1950s and ’60s.

Attorneys for Wang are suing the company that owns the rights to Neumann’s trademarks and designs and that is relaunching the brand. They want to protect certain trademarks pending for Wang’s new line of clothing at Kohl’s department stores, called “Simply Vera Vera Wang” but commonly referred to as “Simply Vera.”

Wang’s lawyers, according to court filings, want a judge to rule the phrase does not interfere with the stylized, black “Vera” trademark held by The Vera Company. They want that mark canceled, saying it’s not been used enough, and to bar The Vera Company from objecting to Wang’s trademark applications.

The case was filed in January, well before the launch of Wang’s line at Kohl’s stores last month. It is set for a federal jury trial in New York starting Dec. 10.

The Vera Company has countersued, saying the phrase “Simply Vera” could confuse shoppers as the Neumann brand relaunches at boutiques and select department stores across the country. They don’t object, they say, when Wang’s last name is included. The company added Menomonee Falls, Wis.-based Kohl’s to the suit and estimates damages could exceed $20 million if Wang and Kohl’s use the names, according to court filings.

Image: Vera Wang
Stuart Ramson  /  AP
Vera Wang is known for her sleek, urban clothing.
Wang holds a trademark to a simple form of “Vera,” which it applied for in 2004 and has not yet used, according to records from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. An earlier attempt by Vera Wang’s lawyers to trademark “Very Vera Vera Wang” was abandoned in July, according to records.

Neumann was known professionally as “Vera” since starting her business in the 1940s. Her designs were in 1,700 stores by 1977, when sales hit $100 million. She died in 1993 at the age of 84.

“They’re trying to eliminate this Vera from history so that Vera Wang can be known as ’Vera’,” said Susan Seid, who bought the rights to Neumann’s designs in 2005 and formed The Vera Company, based in Atlanta.

Image: Vera Neumann
AP
Vera Neumann’s bright scarves were carefree, and spoke to the colorful opportunities of life in the 1950s.
Vera Wang’s company in New York has not returned messages seeking comment. A lawyer representing the company, Beth Goldman, said she would not comment on pending litigation. Kohl’s Corp. spokeswoman Vicki Shamion also declined to comment.

The terms of Wang’s deal with Kohl’s, announced in August 2006, have not been disclosed. But Wang’s lawyers wrote in court papers that Wang and Kohl’s have invested substantially in developing the names and products. Kohl’s has not said what it expects the line’s sales to be, and analysts haven’t said either. But total sales at Kohl’s last year were $15.5 billion.

If The Vera Company wins, it will ask that all uses of the Vera Wang trademarks in question be removed immediately from Kohl’s stores and relabeled, said Rob Frohwein, a lawyer representing the company.

Kohl’s President Kevin Mansell said in a recent interview the line of jewelry, clothing, shoes and home linens has attracted new shoppers and is selling out of some products. He cited handbags and apparel, including shoes, as top sellers for the retailer, which has about 900 stores nationwide.

Seid said she respects Wang but doesn’t want her using the name Vera by itself, because it would impede her efforts to rebuild Neumann’s brand. Some of the designer’s scarves and apparel are now available in more than 120 stores, including some Bloomingdale’s branches.

Her signature silk scarves retail for about $78, while cashmere wraps sell for $300. All bear a tag that reads “Vera” in a dark script with a ladybug, also one of her signatures. The company will have sales of up to $4 million this year, Seid said. But she’s projecting that could double next year with the introduction of new products and more distribution.

The two Veras were and are influential but they couldn’t be more opposite, said Pamela Klein, chair of the associate in fashion studies program at Parsons The New School For Design in New York.

Wang uses purples, tans and grays and has feminine, elegant clothing, she said, while Neumann’s bright scarves were more carefree, and spoke to the colorful opportunities of life in the 1950s.

“It’s a different way of being in the world, in a sense,” Klein said. “Imagine people sitting on a patio drinking gin and tonics and loud music and palm trees and laughing with Vera Neumann. And Vera Wang, you’re drinking martinis in a very elegant, quiet way.”

Klein said Neumann’s scarves — or “Vera scarves” — are known to women who were born before the 1960s. She added she never thinks of Vera Wang as “Vera” but always with her first and last name.

“This is an icon. This is eviscerating an icon, taking her out of the history books,” Seid said. “This is putting this company out of business, for no reason. This is all over one word.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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