White shirt, cardigan, blazer-bermuda, tie and high socks: they seem to come down from the podium. Thom Browne and several members of his team arrive, dressed to the nines, in this uniform that the 57-year-old American designer has imposed since the launch of his brand in 2003. All in gray, of course, his favorite color. “James, my father, a lawyer, only wore gray”, he told us in 2020.
This January 3, 2023, the creator and his assembly do not go to a parade, however, but in the precincts of a New York court. Adidas is suing the label for using a four-stripe pattern on clothing. Amount of claims: 8 million dollars (7.4 million euros).
“This type of case, in the United States, is often resolved by a prior financial agreement. But there, Adidas has found a fashion brand that has the means to pay the very high cost of such a lawsuit. emphasizes Marie-Gabrielle Plasseraud, intellectual property lawyer and professor of cultural law at Sciences Po Paris. Even if the two adversaries do not play in the same category: when, in 2021, the American brand (owned by the Zegna group, listed on Wall Street) achieved 285 million dollars in turnover, the German equipment manufacturer was close to 23 billion dollars…
Partnership with FC Barcelona
The affair began in July 2018, when Thom Browne announced that he had entered into a partnership with FC Barcelona: the club’s footballers will now be dressed in “TB” outside of matches. Adidas’ legal teams are choking on discovering certain photos of the sportsmen – including their ambassador Lionel Messi – wearing Thom Browne socks or jackets marked with four horizontal stripes. By what right do we allow ourselves to use such a motif in a sporting context, when they have made the three stripes a recognizable signature for so long?
In Playing the Game: The History of Adidas (Prestel, 2018, untranslated), an authorized sum-book on the history of the equipment manufacturer, we learn that Adidas had shaped its advertising slogan from “three stripes mark” since 1950. After an attempt at conciliation which ended in failure, Adidas finally attacked Thom Browne on June 21, 2021, accusing him of“imitate its three-stripe mark in a manner likely to create consumer confusion”.
For the sportswear giant, “this kind of procedure aimed at defending the distinctiveness of their bands is frequent”, recalls Marie-Gabrielle Plasseraud. In recent years, Adidas has targeted Marc Jacobs, Sandro, Juicy Couture or Tesla. In the United States alone, between 1995 and 2008, she has “launched over 325 infringement cases, over 35 dedicated lawsuits and obtained over 45 settlement agreements”, calculated in 2008 an Oregon judge in the account of a similar case.
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