NEW YORK – A smiling fashion designer Thom Browne walked out of a New York courthouse on Thursday with a victory over sportswear giant Adidas in a major battle over signature stripes.
Browne told The Associated Press that he hopes the preservation of his striped designs on luxury sportswear and accessories will inspire others whose work is challenged by larger clothing manufacturers.
“It was important to fight and tell my story,” Browne told The Associated Press after a Manhattan federal court jury sided with him. Adidas claimed that the striped designs used by Thom Browne Inc. too similar to his own three stripes.
“And I think it’s more important and bigger than me, because I think I fought for every designer who creates something and is later followed by a bigger company,” he said.
In a statement, Adidas hinted that their fight could continue.
“We are disappointed by the ruling and will continue to vigilantly enforce our intellectual property, including filing appropriate appeals,” Adidas spokesman Rich Efrus wrote in an email.
Browne, a highly creative designer known for his theatrical shows, began selling clothes in 2001 at a boutique in Manhattan’s West Village. Since then, he has become extremely successful, especially after a deal with luxury brand Zegna in 2018. His company is now represented in more than 300 locations worldwide, including Tokyo, London, Seoul, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Milan.
Adidas sued Browne in June 2021, saying his “four-stripe signature” — along with other products with parallel stripes on activewear, including T-shirts, sweatpants and hoodies — infringes on its well-known trademark.
The two-week trial ended when an eight-member jury reached its verdict in less than two hours. Browne’s supporters in the courtroom erupted in joy before being reprimanded by US District Judge Jed Rakoff for violating courtroom decorum. Fans later spilled into the hallway, some celebrating with hugs and tears.
The dispute has been going on for 15 years. In 2007, Adidas complained that Browne used a three-stripe design on the jacket that was too similar to theirs. Browne agreed to stop using it and switched to a four-stripe design. For years Adidas wasn’t opposed to it – but as Browne became more prominent after the 2018 sale, it began to expand further into activewear and the sportswear giant took notice.
Adidas claimed in its lawsuit that Browne’s stripes could confuse customers. Browne, however, argued that the two companies are not direct competitors and that they do not serve the same market. A pair of women’s compression leggings on Browne’s website costs $725, for example. A pair of Adidas leggings costs well under $100 on the company’s site.
Jeff Trexler, a faculty member at Fordham Law School’s Fashion Law Institute, said the trademark landscape has become more nuanced in a changing market where companies regularly expand into new categories — both in content and price — and collaborate on special lines with others. More and more, he said, companies are not staying on the paths they started on, whether it’s fashion or soda.
“It’s like ‘Ghostbusters,’ where you know if you cross the creeks, everything’s going to explode,” Trexler said.
As long as Browne put stripes “on a man’s sport coat and his tight luxury goods, maybe the occasional pair of sweatpants,” Trexler said, there was no crossover. But as it expanded more into activewear, the streams crossed.
Browne himself testified during the trial, noting the importance of sports in his life and how it affected his career.
The former competitive swimmer said outside the courthouse that he grew up playing tennis and that others in his large family enjoyed basketball, baseball and football.
“So it’s very authentic to who I am as a person,” he said. “It’s something that inspires me every day about what I do.”
He said he counts many professional athletes among his friends and customers and considers them a “huge inspiration.”
Trexler noted that Browne’s attorneys successfully convinced jurors that Browne was an outsider.
“In short, Thom Browne’s lawyer got the jury to see this case as People vs. Corporation and populism won,” he said after the verdict.
Browne said he hoped the courtroom altercation was his last.
“I just want to design collections and I never want to be in a courtroom again,” he said.
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