Style

Sweatpants on Trial: How Thom Browne Beat Adidas in Court

There is no limit to where a fashion brand will hold a fashion show, it seems: a church, a decommissioned warship, an abandoned subway station, a stock exchange, the Great Wall of China, the Giza pyramids. Extremity begets exposure, and very little is sacred.

Yet there was something different about the way a handful of spectators whispered, “It’s like a fashion show,” to one another in a Manhattan federal courtroom earlier this week.

This was unlike the other times runways have materialized in grand courthouse buildings. This was real: a real jury beneath real overhead lighting was going to examine pieces of luxury clothing, then use that examination to help make a decision that could alter a designer’s future. Had Thom Browne, a 57-year-old American best known for his cheeky, preppy style of tailoring, infringed on the Adidas copyright of three stripes?

On the morning of Jan. 9, Mr. Browne took the witness stand, holding up some of his designs, describing them and their prices, as if “Shark Tank” had come to Savile Row. He wore his uniform of grays: a blazer over a cardigan over a white shirt and tie — a swath of leg exposed, even on a 35-degree day, between his above-the-knee shorts and over-the-calf socks.

Two similarly outfitted employees helped wheel a rack of clothing into the jury’s line of sight, on which 14 hangers displayed things like a zip-up hoodie, a pleated skirt, a ribbed scarf.

Mr. Browne was handed a pair of his gray waffle-knit sweatpants to assess. It had four horizontal white stripes wrapped around the left thigh.

“Around $1,000,” he estimated. A juror jerked up her head.

Mr. Browne continued. “This jacket,” he said, “would be $2,400.”

The judge made a joke: “Of course, now you’ll have to sell it as used.” People laughed.

A few days later, in court, two pairs of women’s drawstring sweatpants would be draped over the edge of the jury box for their consideration: a $50 pair by Adidas, size large, and a $790 pair by Thom Browne, size 2. They represented an argument made by Mr. Browne’s lawyers: These brands are not competitors, and one does not take away business from the other.

Thom Browne designs are wheeled into court for the trial. Credit…Yuki Iwamura/Associated Press
A selection of Thom Browne designs with four bars and grosgrain ribbon signatures. Adidas claimed that these products were trademark infringements in the complaint filed in federal court.

But it was another argument, Thom Browne’s legal team said on Thursday, that they believed ultimately resonated more with the jury: “Adidas does not own stripes,” the lawyer Robert T. Maldonado said repeatedly during his closing argument.

The Adidas lawsuit, filed in 2021, concerned two Thom Browne signatures: a stack of four bars, usually found on one sleeve or one pant leg, and a red-white-and-blue grosgrain tab — a locker loop inspired by the striped ribbons attached to sports medals. Adidas claimed that Mr. Browne’s use of these stripes on his more casual and athletic designs was too similar to its three-stripe trademark, which it has used since the 1950s. (Think of the three diagonal stripes on the sides of Adidas Samba or Superstar shoes, or the three vertical stripes that run down the sides of its sweatpants and jerseys.)

The two companies had crossed paths before, in 2006. At the time, five years into building his brand, Mr. Browne was using three horizontal bars instead of four. When Adidas asked him to stop, he agreed, adding a fourth stripe to the set.

Adidas didn’t approach Thom Browne again until 2018, around the time the Browne label began dressing FC Barcelona and the Cleveland Cavaliers in suits for the teams’ pregame appearances. This was also around the time that Thom Browne, like many luxury brands, began expanding its active-wear category with more sweatpants, hoodies and other recreational clothes.

The jury ruled in favor of Mr. Browne’s company, determining that it wasn’t liable for trademark infringement or dilution.

Thom Browne employees in the gallery wiped tears from their eyes. In some ways, they saw themselves as David battling Goliath. (The company, which is part of the public Ermenegildo Zegna Group, brought in about $285 million in 2021 revenue — essentially Adidas’s annual advertising budget, as revealed at trial. Adidas’s 2021 revenue was about $23 billion.)

“Fighting this was important,” Mr. Browne said in an interview after the verdict was read, calling the decision a “protection for creativity” against big companies. “When you create something, someone can’t just come and take it away from you.”

In a statement, Adidas said it was “disappointed with the verdict and will continue to vigilantly enforce our intellectual property, including filing any appropriate appeals.”

While claims like these often arise in fashion — Adidas in particular has pursued hundreds of matters related to its three-stripe trademark — they are often settled or dismissed before reaching a jury trial.

The Thom Browne four-stripe signature on his socks.Credit…Yuki Iwamura/Associated Press

But here, the decision to keep fighting was as financial as it was emotional; the active-wear products in question constituted about 10 percent of Thom Browne’s sales in the United States, according to information disclosed over the course of the trial. Over the last decade, athletic wear has been widely considered one of the fastest growing categories in fashion. McKinsey has estimated that the global sportswear market is expected to grow to nearly $428 billion in 2025.

Thom Browne is not a sports-oriented brand, but the designer takes inspiration from sports. His arm bars were inspired by midcentury varsity jackets, and past fashion shows have been themed around swimming, ice skating and tennis. (During the trial, the company said it doesn’t invest in traditional advertising, and these elaborate fever-dream fashion shows, like the one last April with 500 teddy bears dressed in mini Thom Browne outfits and a rollicking Kelly Clarkson lip-syncing number, are effectively the brand’s advertising.)

On the witness stand, Mr. Browne advised people not to actually wear a pair of his $630 running shoes while running. But Adidas singling out these pieces to sue over raised an interesting question about getting dressed in 2023. If people are wearing active wear in their everyday lives, to go to work or to dinner or to serve on a jury (nearly half of the jurors wore hoodies on the trial’s final day), when does it stop being active wear?

At one point during the trial, the judge read aloud the Merriam-Webster entry for sportswear, which has both a fairly common-sense definition (clothing suitable for recreation) and a fashion-industry-recognized definition (clothing designed for casual or informal wear).

The fluidity of these definitions — and of getting dressed, in general — is the kind of theme one might expect to see explored in one of Mr. Browne’s theatrical gender-challenging runway shows. He has been known to choreograph dozens of models, recreating stories like Cinderella and Noah’s Ark, building his own surreal offices and schoolhouses.

But for his next show, scheduled for New York Fashion Week in February, he won’t be touching courtroom drama, he said.

“I never want to go through this again. This is the last thing I will ever use as inspiration.”

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