Why the Adidas vs. Thom Browne lawsuit is about more than stripes

After more than a decade of legal battles, a jury in New York will decide in the coming weeks whether Thom Browne can keep his stripes.

Adidas sued the designer and the chairman of the CFDA in 2021, claiming his name tag uses a four-stripe pattern that is confusingly similar to the activewear giant’s three-stripe logo, including sportswear staples like hoodies and joggers. Thom Browne says the two companies aren’t direct competitors and that shoppers aren’t likely to mistake his $750 leggings for the much more affordable Adidas offering.

The trial began earlier this week and could end by the end of next week, according to court documents.

The details are similar to countless other lawsuits filed by designers and brands who felt their work had been ripped off. But this is about more than who has the right to put parallel lines on the shirt.

The outcome of the case could expand trademark enforcement powers across the fashion industry and beyond at a time when what it means to be a fashion brand has fundamentally changed. Today, few brands stay within the confines of their specialty, such as a luxury suit or running shoes. To grow and scale, it is increasingly necessary to introduce new categories, collaborate with other brands and operate in different price categories. Regardless of the verdict, the Adidas-Thom Browne case will set new parameters for how brands go about this process.

The conflict dates back to 2007, when Adidas demanded that the designer stop using the three stripes motif on the sports coat. The label switched to a four-stripe brand and all was well. For a while.

Thom Browne put the four stripes on everything from sweatshirts to coats to socks. The designer sold his brand, which he founded in 2001, to Zegna in 2018 in a deal that valued the brand at $500 million. In 2021, Thom Browne generated €263 million ($280 million) in revenue (Adidas reported €21 billion in revenue in 2021).

Adidas claims it was Thom Browne’s expansion into activewear that put the brand back on Adidas’ radar. In November 2020, the brand released an official line of running apparel that included shorts, compression shirts, and other athletic gear featuring the signature four stripes. Timing is a key point of contention: Thom Browne says it has been offering sportswear-inspired products since its inception.

In June 2021, Adidas filed a trademark infringement lawsuit in New York federal court, claiming that because Browne had ventured beyond suits and formal wear into “athletic-style clothing,” his stripes were once again “confusingly similar to Adidas’ three stripes”. The conflict hinges on Thom Browne’s use of stripes on its casual sports-inspired styles, causing confusion for consumers who might otherwise associate stripes with the German sports giant.

Thom Browne argued that the two brands are not direct competitors as they are in different market sectors, being a luxury brand and Adidas being a mass player. The label also claims Adidas missed a reasonable deadline to take legal action after 14 years.

But what makes the case so interesting lies between the lines of the legal text: Both Thom Browne and Adidas crossed the line that marked their respective domains in fashion in 2007, said Jeff Trexler, deputy director of the Fashion Law Institute.

It’s true that Thom Browne has leaned into activewear, including becoming the official uniform maker for Spanish soccer club FC Barcelona in 2018. As consumers at all income levels have embraced more casual fashion, many other luxury brands have made similar moves. Even Zegna, best known for its suits, is basing its growth strategy on everyday wear.

Adidas has also ventured into Thom Browne territory, partnering with luxury brands like Gucci and Khaite in recent years. At $850, a pair of Adidas X Gucci Gazelles are more expensive than Thom Browne’s tech runners.

“It’s like in international politics where you have peace if you stay in your own territory,” Trexler said. “You have one superpower with a sphere of influence and another with its own sphere of influence, and as long as they stay separate, they won’t fight.

Thom Browne and Adidas are hardly the only fashion companies competing for market share outside of their primary niche. Today, collaboration and category expansion are key growth drivers for brands large and small. In theory, a number of fashion companies may find themselves in the same position as Browne or Adidas, forced to defend their signature style because they have, so to speak, “crossed the stream” with brands that are far from direct competitors.

“The idea that a brand is limited to one elite market and that there are other brands that are colonizing other parts of the market is an old idea. It’s a dying or already dead idea,” Trexler said. “Today, no brand will say that no product line is off limits. Everywhere from sneakers to socks to belts to bedding and tableware, brands want to be lifestyle brands where they can conquer everything.”

Depending on the outcome of this week’s test, brands may have to tread more carefully when it comes to new products and partnerships.

“That’s going to mean a lot of business for lawyers for years to come,” Trexler said.



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Compiled by Joan Kennedy.

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