Two years ago, Josh Berman spent a semester studying abroad in London. While riding the London subway one day, he saw someone wearing a T-shirt that read, "Franklin & Marshall," which he recognized as the name of a small college in eastern Pennsylvania.
"I assumed the guy wearing it was another student studying abroad, like me," he recalls. "Over the next few weeks, I saw several more people with Franklin & Marshall shirts, leaving me utterly perplexed as to how such a small college -- especially one that I frankly thought of as rather boring and unfashionable -- could have such a large presence in London."
What Berman eventually learned -- and what countless Americans living or traveling in Europe have also learned over the past decade after seeing T-shirts just like the ones Berman saw -- is that Franklin & Marshall is the epitome of casual chic in Europe, but it has nothing to do with the college. Except it actually does. Sort of.
Here's the deal: During some international travels around 1999, two Italian designers named Giuseppe Albarelli and Andrea Pensiero found a Franklin & Marshall College sweatshirt at a vintage shop. To you and me, it probably wouldn't have looked like anything special. But to a pair of European designers with a certain affection for all things American, it somehow captured the timeless essence of "university style," or "varsity fashion." The lettering, the school logo, even the gray flannel of the sweatshirt itself -- it all evoked a sense of ivy-covered dorms, corduroy-jacketed professors smoking pipes and football games on chilly autumn afternoons.
Now, the more cynical among you might say that an American college sweatshirt could just as easily evoke visions of all-night keggers, fraternity hazing and recruiting violations. And the more history-conscious among you might point out that it's a little odd for anyone from Europe (which has dozens of universities that are several times older than our entire country) to be enraptured with the heritage of American college life.
But no matter. Albarelli and Pensiero were so smitten with the Franklin & Marshall sweatshirt that they decided to use it as the basis of a new clothing company -- a company that would capture the varsity style. A company that would be an extension of everything that old sweatshirt stood for.
A company called, of course, Franklin & Marshall.
• • •
Back on our side of the pond, nobody at Franklin & Marshall College was aware that the school had become the namesake for an Italian clothing brand. But F&M officials started to realize something was up in 2001, when people started calling the school and asking if the country music star Tim McGraw was an F&M grad. "No," school staffers answered, "why would you think that?"
It turned out that McGraw had done a promotional photo shoot while wearing a Franklin & Marshall wrestling T-shirt. Nothing wrong with that -- he can wear anything he wants, right? Just one problem: The school had never produced or licensed that shirt design.
Around this same time, F&M alumni began excitedly contacting the school and reporting that they'd seen lots of F&M clothing while traveling in Europe. Had the school established a European campus annex, or set up some sort of exchange program, or struck an overseas licensing deal?
No, no and no.
School officials finally figured out what was going on, and you can probably guess what happened next: a call to the school's legal counsel, a stern cease-and-desist letter, and then some nasty legal wrangling culminating in a lawsuit demanding punitive and compensatory damages.
Except that guess would be wrong, because that's not what happened. Instead, in a surprisingly enlightened move, the school chose to view the situation in terms of positive possibilities.
"This was a unique situation, because they weren't just getting started -- they had already become established," says Cass Cliatt, the school's vice president for communications. "So we said, 'This could be an opportunity for us. How can we make the most of it?'"
So in 2003 the two Franklin & Marshalls -- the school and the clothing brand -- worked out a deal. The specifics of that deal are private, but here are some general terms:
• The school gets to review every apparel design and ad campaign produced by the clothing company. "We want to ensure that the nature of what they're doing is in keeping with what we think is appropriate for the college," says Cliatt.
• The clothing company's hang tags include information about the school.
• The clothing company has presumably paid a licensing fee for the use of the school's name, although nobody will talk about that.
• The clothing company has donated $130,000 to the school's scholarship fund. "That wasn't really part of our agreement," says Cliatt. "It was part of our relationship."
That relationship is apparently a very good one. Officials from the school have visited the clothing company's facilities, and vice versa. The clothiers have done photo shoots on the school campus and have been granted access to the school's old yearbooks and other archival materials. In a way, it is an exchange program.
The only thing missing from this story is that the Italian F&M clothing isn't sold on the American F&M campus (or anywhere else in America, for that matter). They tried selling it at the school, but the price points were too high for the average student's budget, and the European sizing system led to confusion.
• • •
Franklin & Marshall's 2012 commencement ceremony was this past Saturday, May 12. Many of the new graduates will no doubt celebrate their degrees by heading off for a European vacation, where they're sure to see lots of people wearing their college's name.
If the F&M grads want to buy their own F&M clothing while they're in Europe, it's easy to find, both in department stores and in the company's own shops. The clothing style is recognizable enough -- a little bit Gap, a little bit Old Navy, a little bit Abercrombie. It's not clear if the brand's European customers realize that F&M College is a real educational institution in America (the information about the school on the hang tags could easily be interpreted as a fictitious backstory), but school officials are happy with the arrangement anyway. "We're fortunate to have this relationship that essentially promotes Franklin & Marshall around the world," says Cliatt, the communications VP. "It helps to elevate our profile."
It's an odd situation, and few people are in a better position to appreciate its complexities than Ryan Jones. He was attending F&M back when the school first became aware of the clothing brand's existence, and these days he's an attorney. "I find the whole thing completely fascinating because where else do you ever hear of a trademark case not being pursued in our lawsuit-crazy society?" he says. "This story is such a refreshing look at how synergy can actually benefit both parties.
"And," he adds, "I think it's so great to see a clothing label displaying my alma mater's name." Even if the name isn't really referring to his alma mater. Except it is. Sort of.
Paul Lukas attended college at SUNY-Binghamton, which to his knowledge does not have a European doppelgänger. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch website, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.