Thom Browne: How he beat Adidas in court

Photo credit: DepositPhotos
Photo credit: DepositPhotos

Thom Browne won his trademark lawsuit in court against Adidas. How did he do it?

A fashion company can hold a fashion show anywhere, like in a church, an old warship, an empty subway station, a stock exchange, the Great Wall of China, or the Giza pyramids. Extreme behavior makes you stand out, and then you can do anything.

But the way a few people in a federal courtroom in Manhattan whispered, “It’s like a fashion show,” was different.

This was different from the other times big courthouses had runways. The truth was this. Real people on a real jury were going to look at high-end clothes under real overhead lighting and use what they saw to make a decision that could change the future of a designer. Had Thom Browne, a 57-year-old American tailor known for his sassy, preppy style, copied Adidas’ three stripes?

On January 9, Mr. Browne went to court in the morning as a witness. He showed some of his designs and talked about how much they cost, as if “Shark Tank” had come to Savile Row. Every day, he wore the same gray outfit: a blazer on top of a cardigan on top of a white shirt and tie. Even when it was 35 degrees, he wore shorts above his knees and socks over his calf.

Two people dressed alike rolled a clothes rack in front of the jury. On the 14 hangers were clothes like a hoodie with a zipper, a pleated skirt, and a ribbed scarf.

Mr. Browne looked at a pair of gray sweatpants with a waffle knit. It had four white stripes across the left thigh in a horizontal pattern.

A few days later, in court, the jury would see two pairs of women’s drawstring sweatpants: an Adidas pair in size large for $50 and a Thom Browne pair in size 2 for $790. They were Mr. Browne’s lawyers saying that these brands don’t compete and don’t take business away from each other.

But Thom Browne’s lawyers said Thursday that they thought another argument would be more convincing to the jury: During his closing argument, attorney Robert T. Maldonado said over and over that Adidas doesn’t own stripes.

The Adidas lawsuit, which was filed in 2021, was about two Thom Browne signatures: a stack of four bars, which is usually found on one sleeve or one pant leg, and a red-white-and-blue tab, which is a locker loop based on the striped ribbons that are attached to sports medals. Adidas said that Mr. Browne’s more casual and athletic designs with these stripes were too similar to its three-stripe logo, which it has used since the 1950s.

Adidas fell out with Thom Browne

In 2006, the two businesses had already worked together. At the time, Mr. Browne had been building his brand for five years, but he only used three horizontal bars instead of four. Because Adidas told him to stop, he added a fourth stripe to the set.

Thom Browne and Adidas talked again in 2018. This was when FC Barcelona and the Cleveland Cavaliers started wearing suits made by Browne before games. Around the same time, Thom Browne started adding more sweatpants, hoodies, and other sportswear to its activewear line, just like many other high-end brands.

The jury decided that Mr. Browne’s company wasn’t guilty of trademark infringement or dilution, so they found it in its favor.

People who worked in the gallery for Thom Browne wiped their eyes. They saw themselves as David fighting Goliath in some ways. (The company, part of the public Ermenegildo Zegna Group, made about $285 million in sales in 2021, shown in court to be about the same as Adidas’s annual advertising budget. About $23 billion was made by Adidas in 2021.)

Adidas said in a statement that it was “disappointed with the verdict” and would continue to defend its intellectual property by filing any necessary appeals.

Even though these kinds of claims come up often in the fashion industry—Adidas, in particular, has brought hundreds of cases related to its three-stripe trademark—they are usually settled or thrown out before they get to a jury trial.

Read Also: Adidas loses trademark row with Thom Browne 

But in this case, there were both financial and emotional reasons to keep fighting. During the trial, it was revealed that the activewear products in question made up about 10% of Thom Browne’s sales in the U.S. Many people think that athletic wear has been one of the fastest-growing fashion categories over the last ten years. McKinsey thinks that by 2025, the global sportswear market will grow to almost $428 billion.

Thom Browne is not a brand of athletic clothes, but the designer gets inspiration from sports. Varsity jackets inspired his armbars from the 1950s, and his fashion shows in the past had themes like swimming, ice skating, and tennis. During the trial, the company said it doesn’t spend money on traditional advertising and that these elaborate fever-dream fashion shows, like the one last April with at least 500 teddy bears dressed in mini Thom Browne outfits and a rollicking Kelly Clarkson lip-syncing number, are the brand’s advertising.

In court, Mr. Browne said people shouldn’t run while wearing a pair of his $630 running shoes. But the fact that Adidas only sued over these pieces made me wonder what people will wear in 2023. Also, when does activewear stop being activewear if people wear it to work, dinner, or jury duty (almost half of the jurors wore hoodies on the last day of the trial)?