Chucks and Pearls: A Fashion Statement or Trademark Infringement?

Written by Danesha Garner


In the early 1900s, Ethel Hedgemon, a student at Howard University, desired to join an organization of talented women who focused on personal growth, friendship, community service, and the betterment of society.[1] From her vision and the efforts of her eight co-founders, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated was born.[2] Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. is an international service organization founded in 1908 at Howard University and is the first Black sorority in the United States.[3] The sorority’s mission is: (1) to cultivate and encourage high scholastic and ethical standards; (2) to promote unity and friendship among college women; (3) to study and help alleviate problems concerning girls and women to improve their social stature; (4) to maintain a progressive interest in college life; and (5) to be of service to all mankind.[4] Black Greek-letter organizations gave Black people a community of solidarity and cultural pride in post-slavery America.[5]

Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. is distinct from other sororities with its colors, salmon pink and apple green; its badge consisting of a green enameled ivy leaf embellished with a rim of pearls; and its symbol represented by an ivy leaf.[6]  The ivy leaf was chosen as a symbol because an ivy leaf is an evergreen plant that thrives in all weather conditions, and it symbolizes strength and endurance.[7] This symbolism is a great way to honor the founders and their ancestors who flourished despite the oppressive environments they were forced to navigate.[8] The “skee-wee” call is a high-pitched sound that members of the sorority use to greet one another and one of the many ways of signifying that they are in the community.[9]

Incorporation and Registered Trademarks

In 1912, after attending a meeting where some members wanted to change the sorority’s colors and symbols, co-founder Nellie May Quander recognized the need to protect the organization’s foundation and principles.[10] Therefore, she and other members pursued incorporation.[11] Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. achieved another first and became the first incorporated Black Greek letter organization on January 29, 1913.[12] This was the first of many legal actions the organization took to cultivate and protect its brand.[13] The sorority registered trademarks for its name, coat of arms (sorority crest), the name “Ivy Leaf,” its signature call “skee-wee,” and the term “fashionetta.”[14] Notably, the organization received a sound mark registration for the “skee-wee” call, and is the only Greek-lettered organization with a sound mark registration.[15] As such, anyone who wishes to use these symbols, especially in media, must get permission from its Headquarters.[16]

Usage in Media

The organization is so protective of its brand that members are not allowed to wear its symbols while participating in political events and should make it clear that they are there as individuals, not as representatives of the organization.[17] Additionally, prospective vendors must obtain a license to sell products with Alpha Kappa Alpha’s trademarks by completing a form on the organization’s website.[18]  Vendors without licenses may try to skirt this policy by using online marketplaces like Etsy; however, Etsy’s terms of use include consequences for misappropriation of intellectual property.[19] One Etsy seller logged on to find her store had been deactivated for trademark infringement because she sold Alpha Kappa Alpha wreaths.[20] The seller noted that other stores were selling similar wreaths for different fraternities and sororities.[21] Stories like this are a reminder that Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. is committed to protecting its intellectual property.[22]

People unfamiliar with trademarks may not understand the consequences of using these materials without permission. They may think it is “just a symbol” or “just a name,” and the sorority overreacts about its brand. Recently, the sorority became a hot topic on social media when Alpha Kappa Alpha’s symbols appeared in an episode of HBO’s Insecure [23].  One of the main characters, who is not a member of the sorority, was shown wearing the organization’s letters.[24] Members of the sorority messaged the show’s creators and actors on social media to express their disapproval and were dismissed by Insecure’s creators [25].  There is no record on the internet of an official statement from Alpha Kappa Alpha’s Headquarters, so it is unclear if the organization views this as trademark infringement. This seems to be a complicated situation because while it appears to be trademark infringement, the sorority’s silence could indicate that HBO had permission and that the public is unaware of the agreement. To avoid accusations of trademark infringement, the entertainment industry should create fictional Greek-lettered organizations instead of using the letters of real organizations.

Some people might argue that fraternities and sororities are unworthy of respect and not taken seriously because of their reputations for being social clubs, partying, and hazing. It is also possible that sororities experience more backlash than fraternities because of sexism and society’s attitude toward outspoken women. However, the general public sentiment toward sororities and fraternities is irrelevant when discussing trademarks relating to specific sororities or fraternities. If people do not want to be associated with Greek letter organizations, then they should avoid joining them. However, these organizations ask people to respect their right to decide how their trademarks are used. No matter where one falls along the spectrum of opinions on sororities, Alpha Kappa Alpha is significant to Black culture, and the sorority has a right to protect its intellectual property. [26]

The right to decide how one’s trademark is used is easily understood by society when discussing well-known brands like Burberry, Tiffany & Co., and Christian Louboutin because ownership of these items represents class status and exclusivity. This respect should extend to Greek organizations. Society’s perception of Greek life influences brand discussion and consumption when society should treat Greek life brands like any other brand. Like Burberry, Tiffany & Co., and other luxury brands, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. is a business, and the symbols correspond with its mission statement and brand. The sorority is within its rights to ensure that the brand is represented in a positive light and that the people using Alpha Kappa Alpha’s symbols share the sorority’s values. It is an exclusive organization, and if members have guidelines for the usage of its trademarks, of course, non-members will have even stricter guidelines or be subject to litigation for unauthorized use.[27]

Trademark Infringement

In 2003, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and five other Black Greek letter organizations filed a lawsuit against Converse for trademark and trade dress infringement.[28] Trade dress is a component of trademark law and generally refers to the appearance of a product that identifies it to consumers.[29] Converse attempted to manufacture the Greekpak Weapon basketball shoe with Alpha Kappa Alpha’s founding year and the colors salmon pink and apple green.[30] The sorority alleged that the shoe color and founding year were unregistered trademarks and trade dress because they were unique to the organization and had significant meaning to members and the general public.[31] They argued that the sorority uses the trade dress worldwide to manufacture, sell, and license products, so the public associates the colors and marks with the organization.[32]

Alpha Kappa Alpha argued that Converse’s unauthorized use of the marks diluted the distinctive quality of the mark and had to be prohibited to caution other companies from infringing upon the sorority’s marks and trade dress instead of seeking permission.[33] Converse might have been trying to capitalize on the sorority’s reputation by using Alpha Kappa Alpha’s colors and founding year. Converse should be prohibited from manufacturing the shoe because it might have confused the public by implying that the shoes were authorized merchandise because the colors with the founding year are unique. Ultimately, the court ruled that Alpha Kappa Alpha fulfilled the requirements to move forward with their lawsuit against Converse for dilution of unregistered trademarks and trade dress. [34]

Instead of continuing litigation, the sorority and its co-plaintiffs partnered with Converse to sell products with its trademarks in exchange for a percentage of the revenue from the products.[35] While that partnership has ended, that would not be the last time the sneaker company was associated with the sorority.[36] In 2020, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and Converse made headlines again after one of the most famous sorority members, Kamala Harris, became the Vice President of the United States.[37] Vice President Harris wore Converse sneakers during her campaign, and women and girls around the country wore Converse sneakers and pearls (another signature piece worn by the sorority’s members to represent the original twenty members) as a tribute to her.[38]


Alpha Kappa Alpha’s trademarks are more than a fashion statement. They represent the organization’s image, brand, and mission. Alpha Kappa Alpha chooses members and authorized users of the trademarks because they align with the organization’s brand. Some may think the sorority is overly strict, but it must be diligent to protect its intellectual property. Trademarks are important no matter which company owns them, and you should always ask for permission.

[1] History, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., (last visited Nov. 20, 2023) [].

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] About, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., (last visited Jan. 14, 2024) [].

[5] Lisha Scott, The History of Black Sororities and Fraternities, WCNC Charlotte  (Feb. 4, 2021, 6:03 PM), [].

[6] About, supra note 4.

[7] Erica Williams, To (Not) be on One Accord: The Ivy Leaf, Footwear and Mobility in Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, Wash. Univ. St. Louis: Center for the Humanities (May 11, 2020), [].

[8] Id.

[9] Greek Life Glossary, Delta State University, (last visited Nov. 20, 2023) [].

[10] Founders, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., (last visited Nov. 20, 2023) [].

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] ALPHA KAPPA ALPHA SORORITY, INC., Registration No. 3,153,908; FASHIONETTA, Registration No. 3,675,136; IVY LEAF, Registration No. 3,148,729; SKEE WEE, Registration No. 5,184,351; AKA, Registration No. 3,495,918; The mark consists of the sound of a human voice saying “skee wee;’ Registration No. 5,116,853.

[14] Id.

[15] Email from Dorothy Buckhanan Wilson to (2017), (last visited Nov. 20, 2023) [].

[16] Media Relations, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., (last visited Nov. 20, 2023) [].

[17]  Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated Political Activity Guidelines, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., (last visited Nov. 20, 2023) [].

[18]  Vendor Information, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., (last visited Nov., 2023) [].

[19] Intellectual Property Policy, Etsy, (last visited Nov. 20, 2023) [].

[20] ElegantDesignsbyRER, Comment to Copyright Infringement, Etsy (Jan. 13, 2021, 12:47 AM), [].

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Rivea Ruff, Insecure Faces Backlash Over Portrayal of Tiffany as an AKA, Essence (Oct. 26, 2021), [].

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] History, supra note 1.

[27] Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. v. Converse Inc., 175 F. App’x 672 (5th Cir. 2006).

[28] Id. at 674.

[29] Id. at 679-80.

[30] Id. at 674.

[31] Id. at 677-78.

[32] Id. at 678.

[33] Id. at 681.

[34] Id. at 680-81.

[35] Converse Settles Lawsuit With Black Fraternities, Sororities, My Plainview (Feb. 8, 2007), [].

[36] Jacqueline Laurean Yates, Inauguration 2021: Women are Wearing Pearls and Converse Sneakers to Honor Kamala Harris, ABC News (Jan. 20, 2021) [].

[37] Id.

[38] International History, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., (last visited Nov. 20, 2023) []; Converse Settles Lawsuit, supra note 35.