On the first day of the trademark trial between adidas and Thom Browne Inc., fashion designer Thom Browne showed up to court donning some of the very apparel his eponymous company was being sued over—a pair of black, calf-high socks with four stripes. On January 12, a jury in the Southern District of New York found that Browne’s four-stripe design does not infringe on adidas’ Three-Stripe trademark, capping a nine-day trial filled with well-dressed witnesses and enough activewear to fill an Equinox. 

The Stripes

adidas owns several trademarks for its “Three-Stripe Mark” covering various types of clothing and shoes. Thom Browne is a high-end fashion designer, with clothing retailing for thousands of dollars. For years, Browne has included various stripe designs on luxury sweatpants, socks, and sweaters, most prominently using a four-stripe design and a “grosgrain” design.  

Images from top left: Browne’s sweatpants, adidas’ sweatpants, Browne’s shorts, adidas’ sneakers, and Browne’s sneakers.  All images derived from adidas’ complaint in this case (see Complaint, adidas America Inc. v. Thom Browne Inc., No. 1:21-cv-05615 (Dkt. 1) (S.D.N.Y. June 28, 2021).

The Dispute

This was not the first time these parties have squabbled over stripes. In around 2006, earlier in Browne’s career, he used a three-stripe design. adidas asked him to stop. He added a fourth stripe. In 2018, adidas approached Browne—this time objecting to his four-stripe design. Around this time, Browne’s four-striped designs were prominently featured on pre-game apparel for athletes and the designer had moved into the “athleisure” market. Settlement negotiations between the parties broke down, which prompted adidas to file suit in June 2021 seeking $8 million in damages from Browne.  

adidas sued Browne for trademark infringement and dilution. adidas claimed that the similarities between Browne’s various stripe patterns and adidas’s three-stripe trademark may confuse or mislead customers. adidas’ complaint alleged that “Thom Browne has . . . encroached into direct competition with adidas by offering sportswear and athletic-styled footwear that bear confusingly similar imitations of adidas’s Three-Stripe Mark.”  

In fall 2022, the parties cross-moved for summary judgment. adidas moved for summary judgment on Thom Browne’s affirmative defense of laches, acquiescence, and estoppel, and its fourteenth affirmative defense, which asserted that adidas abandoned the Three-Stripe Mark. Thom Browne moved for summary judgment on its first affirmative defense of laches, acquiescence, and estoppel. Judge Jed Rakoff entered summary judgment in favor of adidas dismissing Thom Browne’s fourteenth affirmative defense of abandonment. Judge Rakoff dismissed the portion of Thom Browne’s first affirmative defense asserting acquiescence and estopped, but denied summary judgment to either party on Thom Browne’s first affirmative defense of laches.

The Trial

Judge Rakoff presided over the trial. adidas presented evidence showing nearly 30% of people surveyed thought that the disputed Thom Browne products were associated with adidas. Thom Browne testified that he is influenced by sports in his designs. While adidas argued that Thom Browne had leaned into the sportswear market, Browne’s team sought to dispel the notion that the brands had anything in common. Browne’s attorney told the jury that Browne and adidas compete in “different worlds,” comparing a $50 pair of adidas sweatpants to a nearly $800 pair by Browne and arguing that the brands are not competitors. In closing arguments, Browne’s attorney told the jury that “adidas does not own stripes.” The jury agreed, finding Browne’s company was not liable for trademark infringement or dilution.

The case is adidas America Inc. v. Thom Browne Inc., S.D.N.Y., No. 1:21-cv-05615.