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Battle of the Brands

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    Fashion designer Thom Browne, second from right, arrives at court in New York City on January 3, 2023. (AP/Seth Wenig)
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    Models wear Adidas clothing. (Adidas)
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    Clothes by fashion designer Thom Browne are taken into court in New York City. (AP/Yuki Iwamura)
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    An Adidas shoe (Adidas)
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    Thom Browne waits in line outside court on January 9, 2023, in New York City. (AP/Yuki Iwamura)
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Sportswear giant Adidas takes its brand seriously. So when one designer’s logo seemed to infringe on its striped trademark, the two headed to court. Now the “underdog” hopes his triumph inspires others.

Brands function as symbols. Adidas, Apple, Rolex, Supreme—these brands have built recognition. Their logos communicate information. They are designed to appeal to their customers.

The Adidas-Browne dispute began in 2007. Back then, Browne was using three bold stripes on his clothing line. But since 1952, Adidas has been the “three-stripe company.”

In the 1970s, Adidas’ three stripes stood for the three major landmasses where its product was sold. The company’s more recent logo features the three stripes in a triangle shape. The shape is meant to look like an upward sloping mountain. It symbolizes overcoming challenges—just like the athletes that wear Adidas sportswear.

Adidas said Browne’s triple stripes were too similar to its trademark. The young designer shifted to four stripes. For years, the company didn’t object.

Today, luxury garb designer Thom Browne isn’t minor league. Thom Browne Inc. is featured at over 300 locations worldwide. As he became more well-known, Browne began making more activewear.

That woke the sleeping sportswear giant.

In 2021, Adidas sued Browne. Adidas officials argued that Browne’s “Four-Bar Stripe” could confuse customers.

Browne didn’t see the confusion. He answered that the two companies aren’t direct competitors and don’t serve the same market. After all, Browne’s compression tights cost $725, while Adidas leggings are under $100.

Jeff Trexler teaches at the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School. He says rules around trademarks are changing. The changes reflect how companies themselves morph as they grow. One example is Coca-Cola and its forays into sports drinks, coffee, water, and more.

So, as long as Browne put four stripes “on a man’s sport coat and his narrow luxury goods, maybe the occasional pair of sweat pants,” Trexler says, there was no problem. But when he expanded into activewear, Adidas objected.

In January, a jury sided with Browne. His lawyers successfully portrayed Browne as an underdog. They “got the jury to see this case as The People vs. The Corporation,” Trexler says—and the people won.

 “We are disappointed with the verdict,” Adidas spokesperson Rich Efrus states, “and will continue to vigilantly enforce our intellectual property.”

Browne is happy the battle of the brands is over. “I think I was fighting for every designer that creates something and has a bigger company come after them,” he says.

As the dust settles, one designer won’t need to change his stripes.

Why? The symbols or brands we admire and use can reveal much. Do your symbols tell the story you want to tell?