I have been a sneakerhead for more than half of my life, and I distinctly remember the exact day that the coveted Nike x Off White collaboration, designed by Off White’s visionary creator Virgil Abloh, was released in limited quantities to the general public.
Off White, a luxury streetwear style brand, is well known for its diverse and occasionally controversial designs. However, what really set Off-White’s pieces apart from other brands was the famous zip tie that comes with every purchase, ranging from clothes to sneakers. Particularly, there are two fascinating intellectual property-related topics regarding Off-White’s collaboration with Nike. The first topic is regarding the red zip tie that is placed on its sneakers, and the second topic is about how the price of these sneakers almost doubled in price after Virgil Abloh’s unfortunate death.
Red Zip Tie
Off-White initially placed the zip ties on their products in 2016 and submitted its first application for trademark protection two years later. It was argued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) that the red zip tie couldn’t be trademarked for a variety of reasons, although predominantly because there might be a confusion with already-registered marks (Stephen Garner, Off-White Awarded Trademark Registration for Signature Red Zip Tie on Shoes (March 2022), online: Yahoo News <https://news.yahoo.com/off-white-wins-red-zip-184731743.html> [Stephen]) and the fact that they viewed the zip ties as functional, not distinctive (Ian Servantes, Off-White secures zip tie trademark after four-year battle (March 2022), online: Input <https://www.inverse.com/input/style/off-white-zip-tie-trademark-registration>). Just like in Canada, functional design elements in the U.S. are also denied trademark registration; the reason why certain elements of sneakers are often hard to protect (Ibid). Off-White on the other hand, argued that the red zip tie was comparable to the use of any other kinds of logos in indicating the source of origin for a product (Ibid).
Finally, after four years of battling with the USPTO and being denied trademark registration after multiple attempts, Off-White’s application had finally been accepted (Stephen). In the brand’s initial application, they wanted to trademark the red zip tie on nearly all of its products, including handbags, wallets, backpacks, clothing, and footwear. However, in 2020, Off-White decided to focus solely on gaining trademark registration for the red zip tie on its sneakers. The description of the mark stated that it was a “three-dimensional configuration of a zip tie with a substantially rectangular end, all in the color red as used on footwear” (Ibid). Off-White was finally successful in this application and now have trademark protection for its red zip tie on its sneakers. However, the brand’s attempt to register the zip tie in other colours and on other types of apparel have not yet been successful (Ibid).
The Rise of Sneaker Prices
On November 28, 2021, acclaimed designed Virgil Abloh passed away at 41 years old after a two-year battle with a rare type of cancer (Vanessa Friedman, Virgil Abloh, Path-Blazing Designer, Is Dead at 41 ( November 2021), online: The New York Times <https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/28/style/virgil-abloh-dead.html>). Four years prior, Virgil and Off-White had collaborated with Nike to produce ten iconic Nike sneaker silhouettes, displaying Virgil’s unique designs on each and every pair. These ten pairs of shoes were then nicknamed “The Ten” and were released later that year. The retail prices for the pairs averaged at around $250 before tax. However, due to its limited release and desirability, resale prices for “The Ten” were up to ten times the retail price on the initial release day. The resale price of these sneakers remained relatively stable for a couple years, growing about a couple hundred dollars per year. However, Virgil Abloh’s passing in 2021 is what caused the price of the sneakers to skyrocket.
Hours before the announcement of Virgil Abloh’s death, the Off-White x Air Jordan 1 “Chicago,” which was considered the “crown jewel” of his designs, sold for about $5000 USD a pair (Ian Servantes, Nike’s Off-White sneakers reselling for insane prices after Virgil Abloh’s death (November 2021), online: Input <https://www.inverse.com/input/style/nike-off-white-sneakers-shoes-resale-price-reselling-virgil-abloh-death>). After the announcement, prices of popular sneaker resale websites nearly doubled within the day, with prices ranging from $8500 USD to $10,000 USD (Ibid). This trend was seen across the board for each and every pair of sneakers in “The Ten” and prices have remained at high prices since.
However, the most sought out sneakers in Off-White and Nike’s collaboration is actually not a pair that is a part of “The Ten.” Only 200 pairs of these shoes were released worldwide in the summer of 2021 and was dubbed the “LV x Nike AF1,” Virgil Abloh’s iconic collaboration with Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1 (Jake Silbert, Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1 Auction Shatters Records (February 2022), online: High Snobiety <https://www.highsnobiety.com/p/louis-vuitton-nike-air-force-1-virgil-abloh-price/>). One pair alone was auctioned off at $352,000 USD. By the auction’s end, the 200 pairs totalled over $23.5 million dollars, with all the proceeds going to Virgil Abloh’s Fashion Scholarship Fund for Black Students charity (Ibid).
Many people, if not most, are obviously shocked when they find out the prices of these sneakers, however, just like how the price of art can reach millions and millions of dollars during and after the death of an artist, the same applies to sneakers. They are both forms of art, simply on different canvases.