“It wasn’t something we were willing to let absorb us”: Aboriginal brand Clothing The Gap to rebrand after trademark stoush

Clothing The Gap OG tees. Photographer: C-Pash.

Aboriginal streetwear brand Clothing The Gap is set to rebrand following a two-year trademark dispute with international clothing giant Gap.

Now, the Melbourne business will be renamed Clothing The Gaps, after a copyright tribunal found “deceptive similarity” with Gap.

Founded by Gunditjmari woman Laura Thompson, and Sarah Sheridan, who is non-Indigenous, Clothing The Gap was born out of Aboriginal health promotion business Spark Health.

It was always intended to give First Nations people a voice and an online space to occupy, while also educating non-Indigenous folks and inspiring conversation.

It was when the co-founders went to trademark their name that they received a letter of opposition from Gap.

“It was really overwhelming,” Sheridan tells SmartCompany.

At the time, the business had only four employees and the co-founders had only just started paying themselves.

Finding themselves under scrutiny from an international conglomerate was “pretty daunting,” she adds.

They didn’t have the resources to fight it at the time.

The founders had six months to stop using its brand name. But, before they had a chance to do much about it, they found themselves facing their second trademark dispute, this time from WAM Clothing, which owns the licensing rights to the Aboriginal flag.

WAM gave them just three days to stop the sale of anything bearing the Aboriginal Flag, and kicked off Clothing The Gap’s Free the Flag campaign.

“That was absolutely our number one priority, because it was something we could do on behalf of the whole population,” Sheridan explains.

However, it was this campaign that led Peter Francis, partner at FAL Law, to reach out to the fledgling business, offering pro bono assistance. The co-founders took the opportunity to source his expertise on the Gap issue, too.

The law firm has since worked “tirelessly” on both cases, Sheridan says. But, ultimately, in the case against Gap, there was only so much they could do.

The words ‘clothing’ and ‘the’ were deemed too generic to be copyrighted. However, in the use of the word ‘gap’, a trademark tribunal found there was “contextual confusion” and “deceptive similarity”.

“We were a bit shattered,” Sheridan admits.

Instead of going to appeal through the federal circuit, the team opted to approach Gap to negotiate.

“We are obviously fighters at our core,” she explains.

But, the appeals process could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and absorb a lot of the founders’ time and energy.

Instead, the co-founders chose to focus all of that on the impact they set out to make.

This is just a word, and just a name, she concedes.

“There are far more pressing and far more important life or death issues in community that need and deserve those resources and that air time and that energy,”

“It wasn’t something we were willing to let absorb us and distract us.”

 

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For Sheridan, landing on Clothing The Gaps — a new new name that changes just one letter — is a win.

It maintains the brand identity as much as possible, she notes. And, when it comes to the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, there is, in fact, more than one gap.

“It speaks to the holistic nature of the work,” she notes.

It’s also close enough to the original name that anyone searching for Clothing The Gap online or on social media platforms will find themselves in the right place.

But the end of the dispute also marks the beginning of a new chapter for this small business.

Over the past 12 months or so, it’s been growing rapidly, building a strong brand and an army of advocates and social media followers.

Yet, even as it hit milestone after milestone, it hasn’t had “brand certainty”, Sheridan notes.

It opened its first physical store in Brunswick in December, but hasn’t yet been able to cover it in its branding and signage. That’s been frustrating.

“People are still asking us if we’re a pop-up,” she says.

“Now we’re going to paint the whole building top to bottom.”

Clothing The Gaps now has until the end of June to sell all of its ‘OG’ merch, bearing the original branding, and it’s running an Instagram campaign encouraging followers to ‘join the OGs’ and secure a product that’s never going to be on the market again.

Already, stocks of those tees are running low, Sheridan says, and the messages of support are flowing in.

Community engagement is the very heart of this brand. And, if there’s one thing Sheridan has always been sure of, it’s the backing of its followers.

“We trusted that our supporters were so loyal that if we did have to do a complete rebrand they would follow us,” she says.

“They’ve really backed us.”

 

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