A strange scene unfolded in a Manhattan courtroom in early January. Jury members examined pieces of luxury clothing by American designer Thom Browne worth more than $1,000 a pop that had been wheeled out on a rack for their consideration.
At the center of attention were four stripes featured on the left sleeves of jackets and tops and on the left legs of fancy sweatpants. Were these marks an infringement of the three stripes featured on the products of sportswear giant Adidas? That was the question.
Adidas had previously fought similar battles against brands including Marc Jacobs, Skechers and Tesla. The outcome of the case with Thom Browne, which is a subsidiary of the fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna, could expand smaller companies’ power to enforce trademarks.
On Jan. 12, Browne scored a major victory, one in which he saw himself as the independent David battling a German multinational Goliath. The eight-person jury found that Thom Browne was not guilty of infringing upon the three stripes Adidas uses in its logo. He can keep using four bars in his designs.
Browne said the trademark battle was not for him alone.
“It was so clear to me to fight for myself, but also to fight for other independent designers and younger designers when they create something unique — that they have the protection of knowing that there won’t be some big company that will come and try to take it away from them,” he told NPR’s A Martínez.
Dan and Corina Lecca/Thom Browne
Adidas had reached out to Browne in 2006 when his company was still a fledgling one. At the time, he was using three horizontal bars rather than the four that have now become synonymous with his brand. Adidas asked him to stop; he agreed the next year to add a fourth stripe.
It wasn’t the end of the story. Adidas came calling back 15 years later, after Thom Browne had expanded into activewear and began dressing the Cleveland Cavaliers and FC Barcelona in suits prior to their games.
“There was a reason for me to make my point and to not give up something that became so important, emotionally even, to my collection,” Browne said. “There wasn’t any confusion between my bars and their three vertical stripes.”
Adidas filed its lawsuit in 2021 focusing on the use of four stripes, as well as Thom Browne’s red, white and blue-stripe grosgrain ribbon loop inspired by locker tabs at the backs of tops and shoes, a nod to his childhood in a family of seven kids who all played sports.
Adidas, which had sought $8 million in damages, said in a statement that it was “disappointed with the verdict.” The company vowed to “continue to vigilantly enforce our intellectual property, including filing any appropriate appeals.”
Dan and Corina Lecca/Thom Browne
Browne described the experience of the trial as “most interesting and stressful” for him. “I never want to live through it again, but it was important to live through it because I knew we needed to fight and make our case for what was right,” he added.
To make his point, Browne showed up to court wearing one of his signature shorts suits, with a shrunken jacket and tie, knit cardigan, leather brogues and sport socks stopping just below the knee.
“It’s not something I do just for a living,” he explained. “People outside the courtroom needed to see me representing myself exactly the way that I am in the most real way. … And so walking into the courtroom, I was just being myself.”
A Martínez conducted the interview for the audio version of this story, produced by David West and edited by Olivia Hampton and Jojo Macaluso.