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Adidas loses trademark row with Thom Browne

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Image Source: Bloomberg

Adidas has lost a legal battle in which it attempted to ban a fashion designer from using a four-stripe design.

The sportswear firm argued that the four stripes of the luxury brand Thom Browne Inc were too similar to its three stripes.

Browne maintained that purchasers were unlikely to confuse the two brands since, among other things, his had fewer stripes.

Adidas was anticipated to seek more than $7.8 million (£6.4 million) in damages, but a New York jury sided with Browne.

Browne’s designs typically feature four horizontal, parallel stripes encircling the sleeve of a garment or, as seen on the artist himself, a sock.

Adidas’ designs usually use three stripes.

Browne’s legal team portrayed him as the underdog against a huge corporation, saying that the two brands served different audiences.

Thom Browne Inc’s inventions are not dominated by sportswear, and its target market is wealthy customers; for example, a pair of women’s compression leggings cost £680, while a polo shirt costs £270.

Browne’s attorneys also claimed that stripes are a prevalent design element.

While Adidas filed a lawsuit in 2021, the two firms have been at odds for more than 15 years.

Adidas objected in 2007 when Thom Browne utilized a three-stripe design on jackets. Browne agreed to stop using it and placed a fourth stripe in its place.

Thom Browne Inc has developed rapidly since then and is now accessible in over 300 outlets worldwide, creating more athletic gear in recent years.

The brand’s fan base is diverse. It designed rapper Cardi B’s Met Gala gown in 2019, and former professional footballer and Bournemouth manager Scott Parker wore one of its cardigans and a jacket to matches.

According to a spokesman, Adidas is disappointed but will “continue to enforce our intellectual property vigilantly, including the submission of any required appeals.”

Thom Browne Inc. was pleased with the outcome, according to a spokeswoman. However, the designer told the Associated Press that he hoped the case would inspire others whose work is being scrutinized by larger organizations.

“It was critical for me to fight and speak my tale,” he said.

Not the first ‘fight’ for Adidas

Since 2008, Adidas has filed more than 90 legal proceedings and reached more than 200 settlement agreements concerning its trademark, according to court filings.

The Adidas complaint, filed in 2021, centered on two Thom Browne trademarks: a stack of four bars, often found on one sleeve or one trouser leg, and a locker loop inspired by the striped ribbons tied to sports prizes. Adidas said that Mr. Browne’s use of these stripes on his more casual and sporty designs was too similar to its three-stripe trademark, which it has used since the 1950s. (Consider the three diagonal stripes on the sides of an Adidas Samba or Superstar sneaker or the three vertical stripes on its sweatpants and jerseys.)

The two companies had already crossed paths in 2006. Mr. Browne was five years into developing his brand at the time and employed three horizontal bars rather than four. He agreed to halt when Adidas asked, adding a fourth stripe to the set.

Adidas contacted Thom Browne again in 2018 when the Browne label began clothing FC Barcelona and the Cleveland Cavaliers in suits for pregame appearances. Around the same time, Thom Browne, like many other luxury labels, began expanding its active-wear collection with extra sweatpants, hoodies, and other recreational clothes.

The jury determined that Mr. Browne’s company was not liable for trademark infringement or dilution.

Employees at Thom Browne wiped away tears in the exhibit. In various ways, they regarded themselves as David vs. Goliath. (As disclosed at trial, the company, part of the publicly owned Ermenegildo Zegna Group, made around $285 million in revenue in 2021 — effectively Adidas’ yearly advertising budget. Adidas’ revenue in 2021 is expected to be around $23 billion.)

Adidas stated that it was “disappointed with the ruling” and “will continue to pursue our intellectual property, including any relevant appeals fiercely.”

While such claims are widespread in the fashion industry — Adidas, in particular, has pursued hundreds of matters concerning its three-stripe trademark — they are typically settled or rejected before reaching a jury trial.

However, the decision to battle was as much financial as it was emotional; the active-wear products in question accounted for about 10% of Thom Browne’s sales in the United States, according to information revealed during the trial. Furthermore, athletic gear has been identified as one of the fastest-growing fashion areas in recent decades. According to McKinsey, the global sportswear market will be valued at $428 billion by 2025.

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On the witness stand, Mr. Browne advised people not to actually wear a pair of his $630 running shoes while running. But Adidas singling out these pieces to sue over raised an interesting question about getting dressed in 2023. If people are wearing active wear in their everyday lives, to go to work or to dinner or to serve on a jury (nearly half of the jurors wore hoodies on the trial’s final day), when does it stop being active wear?

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