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Battle brews between Revlon and upstart Urban Decay

April 17, 1997

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ In the modern world of cosmetics, battle lines have been drawn over a collection of shades with names like ``Rust,″ ``Bruise,″ ``Roach″ and ``Plague.″

Fledgling makeup company Urban Decay and industry giant Revlon are headed for a courtroom to decide who owns the rights to the modern shades. Similar tones now are sold by both companies under different names.

Urban Decay was founded in late 1995 by Sandy Lerner, now its chief executive, and David Soward, now its president. Their products include eye shadow and lipstick in such grunge favorites as ``Frostbite″ and ``Pallor.″

The line gained popularity when it started showing up on such celebrities as Madonna, Dennis Rodman and Drew Barrymore.

Revlon’s ``Street Wear″ line debuted in August 1996, and Urban Decay plans to argue in court that Revlon’s products are a direct knock-off of its offerings.

Ms. Lerner was anything but flattered by the similarity.

``It’s becoming accepted that everybody knocks everybody off in the industry,″ she said. ``It may be accepted, but I don’t think it’s respected.″

Urban Decay nail polish, retailing for about $11, is sold in trendy stores and boutiques in California and New York, including Nordstrom, Rolo, Urban Outfitters and Villians.

Revlon’s Street Wear nail polish, selling for $4, is found at Walgreen and similar mass-market stores.

According to industry experts, nail enamels are a $350 million-a-year market, and Ms. Lerner is looking to protect Urban Decay’s piece of that pie.

Ms. Lerner and her attorney argue that Street Wear’s name, polygon black cap, silver and black lettering and minimal packaging come too close for comfort. Urban Decay’s young, hip customers may be confused and misinterpret Street Wear as being affiliated with the smaller company, Lerner said.

``The thing that separates me from all the other nerds out there is my keen sense of style,″ Ms. Lerner said.

After the release of Revlon’s Street Wear, Ms. Lerner defended that sense of style with a tersely worded letter to Revlon President Kathy Dwyer earlier this year.

The letter begins: ``Dear Ms. Dwyer, Does pink make you puke? I doubt it.″ The harsh missive calls Revlon to task for having ``ripped off″ Urban Decay’s idea and making ``disparaging remarks in the press about Urban Decay in an attempt to gain a competitive edge.″

Revlon’s remarks had appeared in a December issue of Women’s Wear Daily, in an article titled: ``Revlon Plans Street Expansion.″ Revlon implies superior research and development capabilities, as well as better quality control standards than the smaller company _ and that’s trade libel, Urban Decay warned.

The New York-based cosmetics giant countered by filing a complaint in U.S. District Court in New York. It asked the court to rule that the name ``Street Wear,″ the color names and packaging do not violate Urban Decay’s trademark rights.

``It was like shooting flies with a Howitzer,″ said Ms. Lerner. ``There could have been some discourse.″

There wasn’t.

Urban Decay, based south of San Francisco in Mountain View, subsequently filed a counterclaim for damages equal to triple Street Wear’s sales, which totaled about $4.5 million through February.

Revlon officials did not respond to requests for an interview regarding the pending litigation. But the company issued a statement, accusing Urban Decay of ``using shock tactics as part of its marketing and public relations strategy.″

The statement also calls the letters from Ms. Lerner and Urban Decay’s attorney ``threatening″ and the trademark infringement claims unfounded.

The resolution to the nail war dispute could end amiably. Revlon could back off, or it could even buy the smaller company. Ms. Lerner said she’s willing to listen.

``I don’t want to be in the makeup business my whole life,″ Ms. Lerner said. ``But I think we’re so far out on the edge that it would take quite a bit of corporate soul-searching.″

``I think some people take fashion way too seriously,″ said Ms. Lerner. ``I do not.″

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