By LARRY NEUMEISTER and JOCELIN NOVECK
NEW YORK (AP) — Fashion designer Thom Browne is smiling The sportswear giant won a spectacular battle over its signature stripes from a New York court on Thursday.
Browne told The Associated Press that he hopes the preservation of his striped designs on luxury sportswear and accessories will inspire others 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, Thom Browne Inc. claimed that the stripe designs used by the were very similar to their own three stripes.
“And I think it’s more important and bigger than me, because I think I was fighting for every designer who created something and then had a bigger company come after them,” he said.
Adidas said in a statement that their fight could continue.
“We are disappointed by the ruling and will continue to vigilantly enforce our intellectual property rights, including filing any appropriate appeals,” Adidas spokesman Rich Efrus wrote in an email.
A highly creative designer known for her theatrical productions, Browne began selling clothing in 2001 at a boutique in Manhattan’s West Village. Since then, it has enjoyed great success, especially after its 2018 tie-up with luxury brand Zegna. His company currently exhibits in over 300 locations around the world, including Tokyo, London, Seoul, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Milan.
Adidas sued Browne in June 2021, saying his “Four Bar Signature” — along with other products featuring parallel stripes in activewear, including t-shirts, sweatpants and hoodies — infringed on its well-known trademark.
The two-week trial ended with the eight-member jury returning its verdict in less than two hours. Browne’s courtroom supporters cheered before U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff reprimanded them for disrupting courtroom decorum. Supporters then poured into the corridor, some hugging and celebrating with tears.
The dispute goes back 15 years. In 2007, Adidas complained that Browne was using a three-stripe design on the jacket that was too similar to theirs. Brown agreed to stop using it and switched to a four-lane design. Adidas hasn’t disputed this for years – but after the 2018 sale, as Browne became more popular, it began expanding into activewear and the sportswear giant took notice.
Adidas claimed in its lawsuit that Brown’s stripes could confuse customers. Brown, for his part, argued that the two companies were not direct competitors and did not serve the same market. For example, a pair of women’s compression tights costs $725 on Browne’s website. A pair of Adidas leggings is under $100 on this company’s website.
Jeff Trexler, a lecturer at Fordham Law School’s Fashion Law Institute, said the trademark landscape is more nuanced in a changing market where companies regularly expand into new categories — both content and price — and collaborate with others on specific lines. According to him, companies, whether fashion or soda, are increasingly not staying on the same path they started on.
“It’s like in the movie Ghostbusters where if you cross the streams, everything explodes,” Trexler said.
As Browne put the stripes on “a man’s sport coat and his tight luxuries, perhaps an occasional pair of sweatpants,” there was no crossing of streams. But as she moved into more activewear, the tides crossed.
Brown himself testified at the trial, noting the importance of sports in his life and how it carried over into his career.
The former competitive swimmer said he grew up playing tennis in front of the courthouse and that others in his extended 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 clients and considers them a “huge inspiration.”
Trexler noted that Browne’s attorneys convinced jurors that Browne was weak.
“In short, Tom Brown’s lawyer forced the jury to see this case as ‘The People vs The Corporation,’ and populism won,” he said after the verdict.
Browne said he hopes the courtroom fight is his last.
“I just want to design collections and I don’t want to be in a courtroom again,” she said.