Is it legal to remove the "brand label" of the items i'd be importing and replace them with my own label?
I don't think this qualifies as "knock off" because I am giving it my own (albeit unknown) brand and the manufacturers I'd be buying from are small independent outfitters in europe and latin america.
Can they sue me?
To be clear, you need to be careful that you do not misdescribe the country of origin.
That said, if you are buying from manufacturers that are in the business of wholesaling generic product it is unlikely that swapping out their labels will matter to them, but it certainly can. That is, if they are the source of the product technically you would be infringing (we call that passing off).
The easiest way to remedy this kind of situation is to simply enter into a white label agreement with them whereby they make the goods understanding that you will be placing your own brand on them as is the case with most of the stuff we buy. They may be able to label everything for you as well. Alternatively, an at a min, get it in writing that they give you permission to remove their labels. They should not have a problem with this.
You may want to discuss all your objectives and options over with a lawyer in more detail. Most of us here, including myself, offer a free phone consult.
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Contracts / Agreements Lawyer
Anyone can sue anyone for anything. Will they win is another question.
If you purchased an item from the manufacturer and relabeled it as your own, the manufacturer would not have a legitimate trademark claim against you, because you are not selling the product with their mark on it. But why not just tell the manufacturer in you are doing this and get their consent in writing? That would reduce your exposure.
Even if you are not infringing on the manufacturer's IP rights, that doesn't mean you are insulated from liability if the manufacturer's product infringes on the IP rights of a different manufacturer.
Importation of goods from another country, especially in the fashion realm is not simple. You would be best served contacting an attorney in you area to advise you on the specifics.
It is absolutely forbidden without the consent of the manufacturer/exporter. If you are buying wholesale or retail from the suppliers, your business model won't work anyway.
The above is general legal and business analysis. It is not "legal advice" but analysis, and different lawyers may analyse this matter differently, especially if there are additional facts not reflected in the question. I am not your attorney until retained by a written retainer agreement signed by both of us. I am only licensed in California. See also avvo.com terms and conditions item 9, incorporated as if it was reprinted here.
Intellectual Property Law Attorney
Q: "Is it legal to remove the "brand label" of the items i'd be importing and replace them with my own label?"
R: No. That's called "reverse passing off" under trademark law and is unlawful.
The above is general information ONLY and is not legal advice, does not form an attorney-client relationship, and should NOT be relied upon to take or refrain from taking any action. I am not your attorney. You should seek the advice of competent counsel before taking any action related to your inquiry.
Intellectual Property Law Attorney
Absolutely, they can sue. This is called "reverse passing off"; it's you trying to build a brand identity by selling their products with your label. Trademark law protects the relationship between a brand or product name and the actual product; it does not simply protect a logo or phrase in isolation from how it's used. Therefore, whether you take the trademark and put it on your goods (passing off) or take their goods and put your logo on them (reverse passing off) you are violating the rights that are protected by trademarks.
That said, trademark rights are not international and, if these companies do not currently have mark registrations in the US, they would have some difficulty pursuing you for your illegal actions. Until they filed for mark protection here, that is. At that point they would get to beat you with the money stick until all your pennies came out.
No information you obtain from this answer is legal advice, nor is it intended to be. You should consult an attorney for individualized advice regarding your situation. No attorney-client relationship is formed by my responding to your question.