Luxury menswear designer Thom Browne has earned his stripes in a recent US trade mark case against Adidas, with the court ruling that the brand has not crossed the line into trade mark infringement by the use of a four stripe design.
Adidas have been using their famous three-stripe motif since the 1950’s and it is one of their most valuable assets, with hundreds of millions of dollars being invested per year into advertising and marketing their products containing the mark.
Thom Browne is a luxury menswear designer. He founded his brand in 2001 and has since made his name selling high end business wear. One of his most important designs is called the “Grosgrain Signature”, which is a pattern of stripes in red, white and blue. Back in 2005, Browne had started to use another pattern, a “three-bar signature”, which contained three white stripes, but two years later Adidas complained, and Browne subsequently amended the design to four stripes rather than three.
Browne started to branch out with a new collection of sportswear and even secured deals with sports teams such as FC Barcelona. Some of the activewear products featured the four-bar signature. Adidas drew the line at Browne’s foray into sportswear and objected to the use of the four-bar signature twice in 2018. The parties attempted to negotiate a settlement, but no settlement was reached after three years of negotiation.
Adidas initiated a claim in June 2021, reportedly seeking almost $8 million in damages and profits from Thom Browne on the basis that consumers “are likely to assume that Thom Browne’s goods originate from the same source, or that they are affiliated, connected or associated with Adidas” when no such relationship exists.
Lawyers for Thom Browne argued that the two brands serve very different customers. Thom Browne’s designs are for the high end customer who is happy to pay £100 for a pair of socks, whereas Adidas is an established mainstream brand. They also argued that Adidas had taken too long to bring a claim after Browne started using stripes in 2007, and that, in any event, stripes are a common design element for clothing and Adidas “does not own stripes”. Unfortunately for Adidas, the 8 person jury agreed.
While this battle has gone in Thom Browne’s favour, there are proceedings ongoing in the UK where Thom Browne is attempting to cancel 19 trade marks belonging to Adidas and it appears from the court file that Adidas is counterclaiming for infringement. Thom Browne’s initiation of this claim was likely made in anticipation of Adidas starting proceedings in the UK. The US case was in front of a jury, whereas the UK case will be determined by a judge, and it may very well have a different outcome.
Adidas is very well known for protecting its rights in the classic three stripes. This case is a reminder for brands with iconic designs to continue to enforce their intellectual property, but be wary of over-reaching.