Thom Browne: How did he beat Adidas in court?

Thom Browne
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How did Thom Browne beat Adidas?

There is no restriction to where a fashion company will hold a fashion show: a church, a decommissioned warship, an abandoned subway station, a stock exchange, the Great Wall of China, and the Giza pyramids. Extremity leads to being seen, and nothing is off-limits.

But there was something different about the way a few people in a Manhattan federal courtroom this week whispered to each other, “It’s like a fashion show.”

This was different from the other times when runways appeared in big courthouses. This was for real. A real jury, under real overhead lighting, was going to look at high-end clothes and use what they saw to make a decision that could change a designer’s future. Had Thom Browne, an American tailor who is 57 years old and known for his cheeky, preppy style, copied Adidas’s three stripes?

On January 9, Mr. Browne took the witness stand in the morning. He held up some of his designs and talked about them and how much they cost, as if “Shark Tank” had come to Savile Row. He wore the same gray outfit daily: a blazer over a cardigan over a white shirt and tie. Even on a 35-degree day, he wore shorts above the knee and socks over the calf.

Two workers dressed the same rolled a rack of clothes in front of the jury. The 14 hangers on the rack showed things like a zip-up hoodie, a pleated skirt, and a ribbed scarf.

Mr. Browne looked at a pair of gray waffle-knit sweatpants. It had four white stripes going horizontally around the left thigh.

A few days later, in court, the jury would be shown two pairs of women’s drawstring sweatpants: a $50 pair by Adidas in large size and a $790 pair by Thom Browne in size 2. They were Mr. Browne’s lawyers saying that these brands are not competitors and that one does not take business away from the other.

But Thom Browne’s lawyers said on Thursday that they thought another argument would be more convincing to the jury: During his closing argument, Robert T. Maldonado, a lawyer, said over and over that Adidas does not 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 inspired by 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 trademark, which it has used since the 1950s.

Thom Browne once worked with Adidas

In 2006, the two companies had already done business together. At the time, Mr. Browne had been building his brand for five years, but instead of four horizontal bars, he was only using three. So when Adidas told him to stop, he added a fourth stripe to the set.

Adidas didn’t talk to Thom Browne again until 2018. This was when the Browne label started making suits for FC Barcelona and the Cleveland Cavaliers to wear before games. Around the same time, Thom Browne, like many other high-end brands, started to add more sweatpants, hoodies, and other sportswear to its activewear line.

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

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

Adidas said in a statement that it was “disappointed with the verdict” and would continue to protect 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 pursued hundreds of cases related to its three-stripe trademark—they are usually settled or thrown out before they get to a jury trial.

But in this case, the decision to keep fighting was both financial and emotional. According to information that came out during the trial, the activewear products at issue 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 past ten years. McKinsey thinks the global sportswear market will grow to almost $428 billion by 2025.

Thom Browne is not a brand that makes clothes for sports, but the designer gets ideas from sports. Varsity jackets inspired his armbars from the 1950s, and his past fashion shows had themes like swimming, ice skating, and tennis. During the trial, the company said that 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.

Read Also: Adidas loses stripes row in trademark battle 

Thom Browne told people in court that they shouldn’t run while wearing a pair of his $630 running shoes. But the fact that Adidas only sued over these pieces made me think about how people will dress in 2023. When does activewear stop being activewear if people wear it to go to work, dinner, or serve on a jury (almost half of the jurors wore hoodies on the last day of the trial)?