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Designer Thom Browne beats Adidas in stripes court battle

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January 13, 2023 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) — Smiling, fashion designer Thom Browne emerged from a New York courtroom on Thursday victorious over sportswear giant Adidas in a massive battle over the signature stripes.

Browne told the Associated Press that he hopes the preservation of his striped designs in luxury sportswear and accessories will inspire others whose work is challenged by major apparel producers.

“It was important to fight and tell my story,” Browne told the Associated Press after a Manhattan federal court jury sided with him. Adidas stated that the striped designs worn by Thom Browne Inc. they 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 creates something and has a bigger company behind them afterwards,” he said.

Adidas indicated in a statement that their fight may continue.

“We are disappointed with the verdict and will continue to vigilantly enforce our intellectual property, including filing any appropriate appeals,” Rich Efrus, a spokesman for Adidas, wrote in an email.

Browne, a highly creative designer known for his theatrical runway shows, started selling clothes in 2001 from a boutique in Manhattan’s West Village. Since then, he has become hugely successful, especially after a 2018 deal with luxury brand Zegna. His company is now featured in over 300 locations worldwide, including Tokyo, London, Seoul, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Milan.

Adidas sued Browne in June 2021, saying his “four-slash signature” — along with other products featuring parallel stripes on sportswear, including T-shirts, sweatpants and hoodies — infringed on its own trademark.

The two-week trial concluded when the eight-person jury returned its verdict in less than two hours. Browne’s supporters in court erupted in delight before US District Judge Jed Rakoff reprimanded them for violating courtroom decorum. Supporters later spilled out into the hall, some cheering with hugs and tears.

The dispute goes back 15 years. In 2007, Adidas complained that Browne was wearing a three-stripe design much like theirs on a jacket. Browne agreed to stop wearing it and switched to a four-stripe design. For years, Adidas didn’t discuss it – but as Browne became more prominent after the 2018 sale, he started to expand further into activewear and the sports giant took notice.

Adidas argued in its lawsuit that Browne’s stripes could confuse customers. Browne, for his part, argued that the two companies are not direct competitors and do not serve the same market. A pair of women’s compression socks on Browne’s website costs $725, for example. A pair of Adidas leggings costs well under $100 on the company’s website.

Jeff Trexler, faculty member at the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School, said the trademark landscape has become more nuanced in an ever-changing market where companies regularly expand into new categories – both in content and price. – and collaborate on special lines with others. Increasingly, he said, companies aren’t staying in the lanes they started in, whether in fashion or soda.

“It’s like ‘Ghostbusters,’ where you know if you cross the creeks, everything is going to explode,” Trexler said.

As long as Browne put the stripes “on a man’s sport coat and on his narrow luxury goods, maybe on an occasional pair of sweatpants,” Trexler said, there was no crossing of the creeks. But as he expanded further 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 courtroom that he grew up playing tennis and 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 in 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 lawyers were able to convince jurors that Browne was an underdog.

“In short, Thom Browne’s attorney got the jury to rule this case as The People vs. the Corporation, and populism won out,” he said after the verdict.

Browne said he hopes the courtroom fight will be his last.

“I just want to create collections and I never want to be in a court of law again,” he said.