Adidas v. Thom Browne

The battle between Thom Browne and Adidas over a striped design dates back to 2007.1 For over 20 years, Thom Browne has been a force in luxury fashion, bringing a unique and distinctive design aesthetic that combines classic tailoring with American sportswear.2 Sportswear giant, Adidas, originally objected to Thom Browne’s use of a three-bar design on its clothing in 2007, which led Thom Browne to subsequently change to a four-stripe design.3 Adidas has been using its three-stripe logo since the 1950s, and has a litigious background when it comes to striped brand signifiers.4 In 2018, when Thom Browne applied for a trademark of its Grosgrain Signature – a red, white and blue-stripe logo – in Europe and expanded into sportswear, Adidas approached the brand for a settlement.5

After unsuccessful attempts to settle the matter, Adidas filed a trademark infringement and dilution complaint in Manhattan’s Southern District Court against Thom Browne in 2021,6 claiming Thom Browne’s four-bar stripe patterns on its shoes and high-end activewear violated its three-stripe trademark rights.7 Adidas specifically claimed that Thom Browne is “selling athletic-style apparel and footwear featuring two, three or four parallel stripes in a manner that is confusingly similar to Adidas’ three-stripe mark,” and sought $867,225 in damages, as well as $7,011,961 in profits.8 Adidas’ main argument was that Thom Browne’s use of the four-stripes was likely to cause consumer confusion since the logo appeared to be the same as that of its products when displayed on social media, e-commerce sites, store racks, or even to the eye of the general public.9 Adidas did not allege that a customer spending $3,000 on a Thom Browne cashmere sweatshirt with stripes on the side would necessarily believe they were purchasing an Adidas product, however, it argued if the product was not clearly identified as Thom Browne on social media, or when being worn in public, there was a risk of confusion.10 Adidas pointed to a consumer survey which found that 26.9% of participants believed Adidas was the manufacturer of some Thom Browne sports-related pieces with four parallel stripes.11 Adidas further argued that Thom Browne’s recent move into the sportswear business, such as partnering with sports teams such as the FC Barcelona soccer club and its star athlete, Lionel Messi, who had previously been an Adidas-sponsored ambassador for 15 years, as well as the Cleveland Cavaliers, who Adidas has had a long relationship with, is evidence of bad faith by Thom Browne. However, such arguments proved unavailing.12

Thom Browne argued that its designs have a different number of stripes, and that stripes are a common design element for clothing.13 Thom Browne successfully argued that confusion between the companies’ designs was unlikely since they “operate in different markets, serving different customers, and offer their products at strikingly different price points.”14 Thom Browne sells luxury fashion products, sold at prices significantly higher than Adidas’ athletic wear, which tends to be geared towards the general consumer class comprised mainly of sports fans.15 Thom Browne also argued that Adidas intentionally stayed silent on the issue for a decade following its change from a three-stripe design to a four-stripe design, during which time Thom Browne experienced significant growth.16

The jury found that Adidas failed to show Thom Browne’s use of stripes on its clothing infringed the sportwear brand’s signature three-stripe trademark.17 The jury found that Thom Browne’s parallel stripe designs were not likely to cause consumer confusion with Adidas’ products.18

The outcome of this case could expand smaller companies’ power to enforce trademarks.19 The outcome is arguably an indication that brands can exist within the same broader industry, as long as they remain in a different niche within such industry. This suggests that brands do not necessarily have an unchallengeable monopoly simply because they own a trademark registration. The dispute may not be over yet, as Adidas can still file an appeal.