AS SEEN IN SNEAKER FREAKER 46
Fakes, Copycats, Dirty Rats and La La Lawsuits
Fashion has long been obsessed with remixing, recycling and finding creative inspiration from myriad sources. The spirit of constant reinvention is precisely what makes it such a thrilling and dynamic business, but the temptation to appropriate someone else’s hard work for nada and polish that uncredited kernel of creativity until it ker-chings like a diamond is often too hard to resist. From Dapper Dan to Warren Lotas, Supreme Italia to Skechers, here’s a fast-paced – and way longer than anyone imagined – history lesson chock-a-block with bittersweet sneaker lawsuits, the most heroic trademark infringements of all time and even a few cornball copycats who laughed all the way to the bank.
This epic 6000-word retrospective appears in Sneaker Freaker Issue 46. Check out the accompanying interviews with Jeff Staple and Sneaker Law.
MONEY IS THE NEW DRIP
The sneaker industry loves a lawsuit. At any given time, there might be as many as 50 battles going on all over the world between brands, retailers and, as of late, high-profile customisers. Some cases drag on for decades, but since attorney fees can easily reach the multi-million-dollar mark, most disputes are settled long before they reach court. Regardless, ‘Use it or lose it!’ is no joke. Brands have to defend every breach or risk losing prized patents and trademarks. And if you think the stakes aren’t all that high, back in 2008, a jury found that Payless had stolen 267 different styles and colours from adidas and duly awarded $30 million in damages, $137 million in punitive damages and $137 million in Payless profits, for a total of just over $300 million.
Aside from the R&D teams working on new technologies to make us all run faster and jump higher, advances in surface-level aesthetics can be just as lucrative as an inflatable tongue widget or a visible Air bag. Flipping the Swoosh upside down on an Air Jordan 1 or adding ‘Misplaced Checks’ to the sacai LDWaffle might not qualify as rocket science, but these visual tweaks often prise open the padlocks to a whole new way of looking at shoes, especially a saturated classic that desperately needs a relevance reboot.
In sacai’s case, it’s fair to say those splayed-out Swooshes came courtesy of a custom project by John Geiger and The Shoe Surgeon. The fact that Nike essentially copied the copycat is not just a delicious irony; it also reinforces the experimental ideation role customisers contribute to the sneaker ecosystem.
Freed by restrictive style guides, watertight logo regulations and even brand loyalty, customisers have creative carte blanche to take an idea as far as they like… well, right up to the point where their work becomes a problem for lawyers and brand protection agencies. As we saw with the brilliant Lil Nas X extravaganza in early 2021, bootlegs and unlicensed customs can cause serious legal migraines for even innocent bystanders. Designed by MSCHF (who also released the ‘Jesus’ shoe in 2019), the $1000 ‘Satan’ Air Max 97s were laced with pentagrams, but the shock value arrived in the air bubbles, which were reportedly injected with human blood. Twitter and TikTok lit up when the Governor of South Dakota and others experienced biblical meltdowns as they (misguidedly) directed fire and brimstone at the Swoosh, who had nothing to do with Lil Nas X’s cunning stunt.
Nike were compelled to shut things down to staunch the PR damage from their apparent affiliation with an ostentatiously gay Devil-worshipping rapper. As part of the deal, which also cited liability issues around quality control of the modified shoes, MSCHF agreed to a buyback program of both the ‘Satan’ and ‘Jesus’ shoes. Considering they are currently on eBay for as much as $15,000, you can guess how many were returned to rot in hell.
For their part, MSCHF released a statement stating the concept was ‘intended to comment on the absurdity of the collaboration culture practised by some brands, and about the perniciousness of intolerance’. After everything had died down, Lil Nas X released a provocative parody video set in a Nike courtroom that segued perfectly into the launch of his new single ‘Industry Baby’. This was a modern masterpiece of high-performance trolling, one that made ‘Satan’ the biggest footwear story in the mainstream media since Marty McFly.
The moment is also the perfect parable for the 2021 sneaker game, where ruthless resellers, high-quality fakes, authenticity guarantees, million-dollar player samples, unlicensed third-party colabs, rockstar customisers, trashy lookalikes, PR stunts and blatant brand–endorsed rip-offs are whipped into one almightily confusing postmodern thick shake. This is a long, long way from the pre-Internet purity of a bunch of sneaker geeks worshipping at the altar of obscure ACG catalogues. Still, if Lil Nas X has taught us anything about how far the game has progressed over the last 20 years, it’s that sneakers are now a showbiz staple.
‘When it’s from a place of love (and credited), it’s inspiration. If you’re trying to keep the reference quiet and cash in on someone else’s proven success, then you’re into theft territory.’Diet Prada, HighSnobiety.om
THE BIG V VERSUS DAP
Virgil Abloh has been accused of various degrees of plagiarism by the vigilante Instagram account Diet Prada. The ‘luxury knock-off’ jibes seem to bounce straight off Virgil’s Teflon-coated derrière as he continues to polarise audiences with his nostalgia-themed throwbacks, including the recent Louis Vuitton high-tops with light-up soles à la LA Gear.
More recently, Virgil’s official mash-up of Louis Vuitton’s ‘Damier Ebène’ checkerboard pattern and the Air Force 1 seemed to reference the late 90s when LV logos were splattered all over fake Nike Uptowns. Was Virgil punking us all with another recycled fad? Or was he intellectually legitimising the bootleg ‘Canal St’ couture that LV has spent squillions trying to eradicate over the last three decades?
The LV Forces were lauded by the cognoscenti and trashed in the comments, but if hype is sometimes equal parts hate, then this was mission accomplished on both counts.
That cultural elasticity is a mirror image of Dapper Dan, the hip hop tailor whose clientele flocked to his Harlem atelier in the 1980s to source custom leather jackets made from repurposed luxury textiles. Less well-known are his re-skinned sneakers, but custom New Balance 572s were also produced in small numbers. The Fat Boys famously repped Dap’s Air Force 1s with Gucci Swooshes on the cover of their long player Crushin’, inspiring the millennial boom in fake AF-1s that flaunted Burberry tartan and Vuitton monograms, before Virgil stepped back in to complete the loop 20 years later.
Today, ‘Daniel Day’ has been de-cancelled by the luxury houses and features front and centre in Gucci advertising campaigns, where he is rightfully celebrated as a living legend that changed the rules of fashion forever.
FATWA ON FAKES
In early 2021, Nike filed a 130-page lawsuit in the New York District Court that accused nearly 600 websites and 700 social media accounts of selling counterfeits. Those numbers might seem bananas, but they’re the mere tip of the berg. With prices spiralling from $500 up to $5000 for hype releases, the proliferation of premium quality fakes is yet another byproduct of the insane hyper-perineurial growth in the sneaker game.
The biggest change over the last two decades is that factory-backed websites with ever-evolving URLs like cheapcheapnikes.com have been upstaged by Facebook marketplace, where individuals pass off pirated product as a rewarding side hustle with few questions asked. With so many fakes floating around, mega-platforms like GOAT and eBay have been forced to offer ‘authenticity guarantees’ for their footwear transactions, and there is now a burgeoning market for sneaker Sherlocks to determine if shoes are legit. This is big business in more ways than one.
The news that Nike lodged a trademark over the Air Jordan 1 in July 2021 was greeted with scepticism. How is it possible to legally protect a shoe design that is already several decades old? As noted in our interview with the authors of Sneaker Law, the fact that the shoe has been around for so long is precisely what helped Nike secure rights to the iconic design. The move was also widely interpreted as a warning that Nike was about to crack down on creatives that operate on the legal periphery.
Cutting up Jordans, Dunks and Air Forces and remaking them using exotic animal hides might be a direct descendant of the lionised Dapper Dan, but many have wondered, myself included, if Nike tolerates customisers because they create a positive ‘halo-effect’ for the brand, or whether they do in fact have a legitimate business model?
In their claim against Drip Creationz, also from July 2021, Nike claimed that ‘it has no desire to limit the individual expression of creatives and artisans, many of whom are some of Nike’s biggest fans… but it cannot allow ‘customisers’ to build a business on the backs of its most iconic trademarks’. That sounds reasonably positive, but it’s not exactly clear how that logic will be applied, given Drip Creationz offered mass-produced Nike knock-offs with DRIP branding alongside legit Air Force 1s hand-painted with cheesy flowers and butterflies.
As one well-known customiser persuasively told me, his business is no different to an auto shop where owners can update their interiors and rims. The factory warranty might be voided, but Dodge won’t send a cease and desist if you repaint your Hellcat Challenger and install an electric Prius powerplant. The entire aftermarket business thrives on the whims of the motorhead clientele.
From a layman’s perspective, it’s a logical argument that seems to stack up, but there have been times when customisers couldn’t resist poking the bear to catch a well-placed cheque. A recent project by The Shoe Surgeon used GAP tongue tags and denim to coat the Yeezy Wave Runner with extra layers of pop culture context. Another colab with TWIX featured a dozen chocolate bars alongside a handmade pair of unlicensed Air Jordan 1s trussed up in the most insanely elaborate packaging. Limited runs using authentic components is one thing, but building an entire marketing campaign for a multinational confectionary manufacturer – that unofficially flaunts a Nike shoe as the centrepiece! – is pushing the limits, to put it mildly.
Nike also pursued KickRich (an ex-employee) for painting Air Jordan 1s with Amazon logos, though not for the ‘Google’ and ‘UPS’ customs from the same series. There is more to come on this front, for sure.
A more likely target of the Air Jordan 1 trademark is the type of bootlegger personified by West Coast streetwear phenom Warren Lotas. This saga started in late 2020 and reached a crescendo in the new year thanks to Lotas’ self-proclaimed ‘reinterpretations’ of iconic Nike Dunks, which feature modified ‘Jason Voorhees’ hockey masks instead of the sacred Swoosh.
‘The Reaper is a radically different sneaker… It contains no Swoosh, no panels and stitching that mimic the Dunk trade dress, and has a differently-designed outsole that features the skull and scythe of the grim reaper. Nike’s effort to convert the Court’s injunction against the accused sneakers into an injunction against an entirely new shoe – where there has been no showing anyone is confused – is inappropriate and warrants an order from the court.’Warren Lotas
As the pre-orders mounted, Nike was watching closely. Following the release of a Jeff Staple-endorsed ‘Pigeon’ edition, the legal eagles finally pounced. According to Hypebeast, the $300 Reapers may have raked in as much as $10.8 million in total, an absolutely discombobulating windfall. Yep, Nike sued Lotas for making Lotsa money!
One thing is for sure, Lotas’ street cred has since skyrocketed as his battles with Nike paint him as the ‘Darryl Kerrigan’ of the streetwear world. Lotas is still taking Reaper pre-orders, but the design has been substantially modified and no longer features Swoosh-alike branding or references to existing Nike schemes. Interestingly, the owners of the Friday the 13th franchise did not sue Lotas for nicking the hockey mask motif.
‘(Lotas) should’ve come up with an original idea, first of all. Second of all, he shouldn’t have taken one of the best-known brand’s intellectual property and made it look like some shit they would sell you at Payless. I don’t get why HB is trying to make this guy a big story. He likely knew what he was doing was wrong, so painting him as a victim of some vindictive corporation is stupid. Fuck that. He’s no Robin Hood.’SneakerSpeaker 2019 (Hypebeast comments)
A second stanza arrived when Nike sued La La Land, the LA-based manufacturer of the Reapers. According to legal documents, La La Land’s invoices totalled $1.8 million, which may or may not indicate Lotas’ profit margin on the shoes was juicy AF. Nike are also seeking damages due to a loss of ‘reputation and goodwill’. A statement released by La La Land referred to the lawsuit as ‘completely baseless and founded in erroneous assumptions’, so it will be interesting to see how this one is resolved.
It’s hard to know if Lotas’ clientele is bonafide sneakerheads. Probably not, though some would undoubtedly be attracted by the TMZ-style buzz. Truth be told, the Reapers are fugly as hell, but as a spectacle, the way the story played out was priceless entertainment. And as artefacts, the Reaper will be one of a select few shoes – along with those ‘Satan’ Air Max 97s – that will be emblematic of the footwear scene in 2021. For what it’s worth, you can still find a few of the ‘Nike-edition’ Reapers on Grailed, but legit reseller platforms have turned their back on Lotas. Next!
On the other end of that power spectrum, we have the legendary NYC artist Futura, who recently mounted a one-man guerrilla war against The North Face for copying his long-recognised ‘atom’ design and using it to front their FUTURELIGHT campaign. The legal system does not generally favour solo artists in their skirmishes with highly resourced global goliaths, so using Instagram to publicly shame TNF was a much more effective strategy than an expensive Tinder date in court. In this case, the personal esteem of Futura swayed the day, and The North Face crumbled like a soggy Clif bar, though the case is still evolving as we went to press.
YEEZY DOES IT
No stranger to lawsuits over uncleared samples, Kanye also has form in the sneaker world, issuing a writ against Walmart in 2021 for allowing third-party sellers to flog fake Foam Runners on Walmart.com for as little as $20 a pair. The legit version sells for $75 but scarcity has led some desperados to snap up cheap counterfeits instead, though Ye’s claim that Yeezy would stand to lose ‘hundreds of millions of dollars in sales’ seems a tad melodramatic. Walmart recently returned serve, accusing Kanye of knocking off their logo. Who knows where this tit-for-tat tennis match will end up? Presumably Ye will abandon GAP and throw his chips in with Walmart and Crocs to create an uber-clog brand. Stranger things have happened!
Not content with biting a mere t-shirt design, in 2015, Michele Di Pierro and his son started Supreme Italia, a fake version of ,Supreme, the quintessential NYC skate brand. Di Pierro not only managed to register ‘Supreme Italia’ and ‘Supreme Spain’ as trademarks in 2016, his phoney firm also had big enough balls to open a flagship store in Shanghai and sign an endorsement deal with Samsung, who had to issue a hasty and humiliating retraction.
Given the common assumption that counterfeiting is a ‘victimless’ crime dealt with in the civil courts, the fact that Di Pierro senior was recently found guilty of fraud in London and sentenced to eight years is a unique result. The younger Di Pierro copped a three-year stint in the slammer. Who knows how much loot they may have squirrelled away in the Cayman Islands, but a fine of $10 million hints at the scale of their financial impropriety. You’d have to think there’s a killer Netflix documentary waiting to happen on this one.
FAKE IT TIL THEY MAKE IT
In the graff world, being a biter gets you bashed or worse. In the tattoo scene, any self-respecting artist would refuse to copy another’s work. Like unwritten tribal laws, the informal sanctions that govern a sub-culture are always the best mechanism for self-policing and protecting the group. In the sneaker world, any regard for those sanctions seems to have fizzled out in the free-for-all that is sneaker culture in 2021.
There was a time when rocking fakes was considered heinous. Today, it seems there are many self-appointed aficionados that happily don’t care about the provenance of their footwear, or perhaps proudly wear fakes just for giggles. Then there is another disenfranchised horde who are sick of taking Ls and have moved on from the real thing to the next worst thing. Search YouTube and you’ll see all manner of youngins dropping science on the subject, which does seem to indicate a generational change in attitudes towards fakes.
As I was thinking about all this, I recalled an unpublished article by Gary Warnett recently retrieved from a long-lost Blu-ray Disc that must be at least a decade old. One paragraph sung out. Here it is, straight from Gary’s posthumous typewriter. RIP to the authentic OG.
‘If you wear fakes, those in the know will clown you, and even if their opinion means nada in your world, the point of lusting after a design in childhood, then finally getting it on your feet, is lost if you settled for the cheap option. You failed. If you can saunter around happy in the knowledge that the shoes on your feet are fake, then you’re kidding yourself. At every level, the experience of purchase, opening them up and wearing them hinges on authenticity. Because if there are fakes on your feet, someone somewhere, from an observer to the seller, is laughing at you. No one wants that.’Gary Warnett
Clocking dweebs rocking knockoffs used to be an amateur online sport. Back in 2017, Yeezy Mafia dissed Stormzy for donning fake Yeezy 350s on MTV. The British MC fired shots back and while it seems unlikely an adidas-affiliated musician would publicly countenance counterfeits, we’ll never really know what went down.
‘You call yourself the yeezy mafia and wanna say I’m wearing fakes. I’m a big fucking man to be wearing fake Crep’s you fools what the hell did you think? Fucking dumb arses!’Stormzy
The @yeezybusta IG account boasted over 600k followers at its peak and earned a rep for calling BS on Jackie Chan, Teyana Taylor and Zac Efron among others. Busta’s beef with Soulja Boy went global on WorldstarHipHop, while one attempt to finger Kanye for wearing dodgy Yeezy samples was ill-advised… or was it?
Yeezybusta was himself dusted in a brilliant stitch-up on the YouTube channel ‘Full Size Run’ (S2, E4) when he erroneously claimed that a fake Yeezy 500 was legit. The hubris is hilarious as Busta backtracks from his claims of never being wrong.
If all is fair in love and war, the same is now true in the sneaker world. No one seems to care, or even notice, if famous idiots and idiot influencers clown in fake shoes. Diet Prada has made a brilliant business out of shaming corporations like Dolce&Gabbana, Off-White and Gucci for stealing ideas, concepts and designs, but those accusations are universally shrugged off. If consumers don’t care, why should brands?
FOR ART’S SAKE
As the first issue of Sneaker Freaker hit the streets in 2002, the percolating scene freely traded on Nike motifs. We were all guilty of swiping the Air Safari pattern in t-shirt graphics, but the use of Air Jordan 3 ‘elephant’ print was beyond ubiquitous. Dave White was busy painting Nike canvases live on stage as he travelled the world as part of the Sneaker Pimps roadshow, before signing colab deals with Nike and Jordan. Gabriel Urist produced miniature Nike pendants, including a notorious $12,000 platinum Dunk bedazzled with diamonds. What started as a sideline quickly turned legit as Urist inked serious deals with the NBA, Major League Baseball, Timberland and New Era. The legality of those original mini-Nikes remains unclear, but the fame earned from their profile clearly opened doors.
In New York, Scott Nelson started a brand he cheekily called Mike 23 in honour of both His Airness and the Beaverton-based brand. With Chi-Town colours and GOAT references galore, Mike 23 also dabbled in bootlegs such as Chucks with handmade ‘crackle’ and high-quality packaging. The label was on the up until Nike shut Nelson down in 2008 for operating one of the most wilfully subversive trademark infringements of all time.
Indie footwear grommets Gourmet also felt the wrath of Nike in 2008 when they wound up in front of Judge Judy for messing around with several canvas-clad designs that resembled Jordan classics. Calling the models ‘Cease’ and ‘Desist’ was daring Nike to kick Gourmet in the gooch and the brand duly obliged. Sadly, the brand threw in the towel shortly afterwards. Compared to the YUMS fiasco, it’s hard to see how Nike won this one, even if the Air Jordan 7 is plainly visible in Gourmet’s bite. Several years later, Gourmet founder Jon Buscemi based his eponymous luxury brand on the Hermès Birkin bag, complete with Italian-made panache and a teenie-weenie padlock on the ankle strap, proof that old biters never die!
Steve Piantoni’s cute SneakerToons illustrations made the jump from social media to small business when he started selling prints. Knowing full well the risks, Piantoni decided to invest in the Art Max 90, an unlicensed 3D-printed Nike sneaker-ine. Two months after offering pre-orders, his online store was served with a brutal ‘Notice of Trademark Infringement’ by a brand protection agency. The fledgling business was dead in the water. Piantoni retired to lick his wounds and penned a sanguine feature published in Sneaker Freaker Issue 40.,
‘In summing up, it’s the Constitution, it’s Mabo, it’s justice, it’s law, it’s the vibe, and… No that’s it. It’s the vibe. I rest my case.'Dennis Denuto, The Castle
The moral of the story is this. Nike are a savage and mercurial opponent. Even if they have a watertight case, they may litigate your bony behind or they may not, but they might still try to sue your pants off even if they don’t have a leg to stand on. If you’re thinking of going down Bootleg Street, get in early, make it rain while the sun shines and get out while the green is good. And while it definitely helps if what you’re doing is cool AF, that won’t stand up in court if it gets that far. One other thing to keep in mind. Defending a serious case can run from the tens of thousands for a few basic missives from a Dennis Denuto-level attorney into the millions if the case drags on, which is why most cash-poor creatives roll over and beg for mercy. It’s always the smart move.
SOLE SONIC FORCE
Released at the turn of the millennium, Supreme’s home-brewed Downlow design can be considered a grandaddy of all Nike Air Force 1 clones. Denuded of the Swoosh, the streamlined panelling gave the Downlow an emotional blankness. A year or so later, Supreme commenced their fruitful partnership with Nike and the Downlow was never officially seen or heard from again, though vintage pairs are still easily found today.
While the Downlow failed to fire, another Air Force 1 wannabe would become the most lucrative clone of all time. First released in 2002, the BAPE STA is worthy of its own unique designation in the definition of plagiarism. The concept was born when Nigo decided to pin his lightning bolt logo on the Air Force 1 and call it a day. Genius move! As reported in the ‘BAPE Shall Not Kill BAPE’ feature in Issue 46, the BAPE STA arrived at a time when the Japanese label had only recently become widely available in the USA via the brand’s New York store. Colabs with Kanye, Daft Punk, KAWS and Marvel Comics lent legitimacy to BAPE’s calculated appropriation. Identikit copies of the PUMA Clyde and adidas Superstar also appeared on BAPE shelves, though they generated a fraction of the heat devoted to the BAPE STA.
For whatever reason, Nike did not sue Nigo’s vintage Levi’s-clad ass, which may or may not have been a decision the higher-ups in Beaverton have since regretted. As Jeff Staple mentions in his interview, there is some speculation that Nigo’s ‘affiliations’ in the Tokyo fashion scene may have influenced Nike to make a calculated decision and not pursue the matter. History shows the BAPE STA sold by the bucketload. They were as insanely profitable then as they are grotesquely gaudy now, which forced Nike to play BAPE at their own dirty game, releasing Air Force 1s in the same-same patent materials and colour combos. Not for the first time, Nike were emulating a fake version of their own legitimate designs.
Another AF-1 rip that has made a recent comeback is YUMS, which used the Force’s distinctive profile as an American counterweight to the BAPE STA. In 2009, YUMS survived a legal stoush with Nike after they won a points decision in the Supreme Court, which according to the Dallas News, resulted in Nike’s first-ever ‘covenant not to sue’. Quite why Nike would pursue YUMS and not A Bathing Ape is unclear. Perhaps it’s just a helluva lot easier for Nike to intimidate a one-man brand based in the USA?
BIG IN JAPAN
There is a school of thought that Japanese designers – who apparently all suffer from acute otaku-ism – are excused from copyright laws simply because they are ‘paying tribute’ when they emulate an item in exacting detail, which, when you think about it, is pretty much the textbook definition of a trademark infringement. After all, one man’s ‘homage’ is another brand’s ‘lawsuit’.
That logic can be applied to Japanese label Hender Scheme, whose custom Air Jordan 4s remade using vegetable-dyed leather set the Internet alight in 2014. Released under the brand’s Manual Industrial Projects code, the exquisite leather-soled beauties aged gracefully over time as the raw cowhide naturally absorbed oils and moisture. Like BAPE, Hender Scheme has thus far evaded the long arm of the law, which presumably does not reach all the way to Tokyo. The outlaw mystique didn’t hinder Hender, who signed deals with adidas to produce official collaborations on the NMD and Superstar, making this yet another example of brands selectively applying the rules of corporate warfare.
Arguably the most famous and valuable sneaker trademark is the ‘Three Stripes’ owned by adidas. What is less well known is that the original custodian was Finnish brand Karhu Sports, who agreed to sell the stripes to Adi Dassler in 1952 for the princely sum of two bottles of whiskey and a few thousand bucks.
The ubiquitous nature of those stripes has caused legal squabbles ever since and forced adidas to constantly reinvigorate the merits of their ownership. Apparel is the key battleground, but back in the 1970s, Saucony and other brands openly featured stripes on their shoes. Since then, adidas have beefed with the International Olympic Committee, Wimbledon’s All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). Disputes with J.Crew, Skechers, PUMA, Polo Ralph Lauren, Payless, Walmart, H&M and Abercrombie & Fitch pop up on a yearly basis. Tesla’s use of three parallel lines in a logo the electric carmaker devised for the new Model 3 was also successfully challenged by adidas.
In 2014, adidas were granted ownership of ‘three parallel equidistant stripes of identical width, applied on the product in any direction’ on apparel and shoes. However, as recently as 2019, that decision was nullified following a challenge from Shoe Branding Europe, who won the case primarily because the three lines were not considered ‘distinctive enough’, despite the fact that Adi Dassler first applied stripes to a football boot as far back as 1949. With billions in revenue at stake, competitors are now lining up to take shots and chip away at the lucrative trademark.
BATTLE OF THE KNITS
In the case of Nike Flyknit versus adidas Primeknit, who stole what, when and from whom – or whether two brands simply had the same idea at the same time – remains unclear. Nike may have been ﬁrst to market the concept, which inﬂuenced many to believe it was solely their idea, but this alone was not enough to secure a legal W. Nike’s patent was ultimately ruled invalid, simply because knitting had been around since grandmas were invented.
‘Yo Nike! It doesn’t help to sue another company for copying when you have Virgil Abloh on the roster. Just take the tip and walk off from this (Skechers) lawsuit.’The Gramps (Hypebeast comments)
Today, both brands use knit-tech and there is no confusion among punters. Less well known is the fact that Nike sued Skechers in 2016 for ripping off Flyknit as Skechers Burst. The gradient patterns are an obvious lift, but Skechers also imitated the polystyrene-style texture unique to adidas BOOST cushioning, marking possibly the first time that the two biggest sneaker behemoths – who instinctively despise each other – were united against another brand for ripping them both off in different ways.
A list of lawsuits filed against Skechers would swamp this already wordy feature in mind-bending volumes of minutia, which lends weight to the widely held opinion that Skechers is pathologically obsessed with stealing ideas from other brands. In 2019, Nike accused them of producing ‘Skecherised’ versions of the Air Max 270 and the VaporMax. A side-by-side comparison with the Skech-Air Stratus and Skech-Air Atlas should be all the evidence any jury needs to convict, but Skechers dug in and did their best to stymie the case. It’s worth a reminder here that Robert Greenberg, Skechers’ pugnacious 81-year-old CEO, was also behind 90s brand LA Gear, who shamelessly copycatted competitors including Reebok, whose inflatable Pump tech was repackaged as the Regulator.
A new low in rock-bottom woefulness was reached when Skechers created BOBS, a brand that promised to donate a pair with every purchase to a child in need. What should have been an altruistic achievement was of course a total rip-off of TOMS – from the four-letter humanised name right down to the brand’s signature loafers and sandals. Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS, was pleased that any brand would adopt his charitable business model, but what he – and the entire Internet – didn’t appreciate, to put it mildly, was the duplicitous move to create a carbon-copy of an entire brand.
THE COLOUR OF MONEY
The UK food manufacturer Cadbury spent a fortune trying to secure the rights to the purple Pantone 2685C on all global chocolate packaging. Despite numerous successful court battles, Cadbury lost their final appeal in 2019. Tiffany’s however, was successful in filing a trademark for the minty colour so synonymous with the jewellery brand. In 1998, Tiffany Blue was recognised as Pantone 1837, named in honour of the year the company was founded.
While Nike do not specifically own ‘Infrared’ or ‘Viotech’ – colours instantly familiar to any self-respecting Nikehead – they do own the rights to ‘Volt’, which was initially applied to the Lunar range of shoes in the mid 2000s. The United States Patent and Trademark Office denied the first application, but asked Nike to document examples of advertising, the amount of money spent on marketing the name, and consumer statements that recognised the specific lime-green colour. A year later, ‘Volt’ was officially recognised and is now a Nike stalwart.
According to The Fashion Law, Nike feuded with Vans as recently as 2020 over the latter’s attempts to own the checkerboard pattern. Nike argued that such a ruling was unfair, primarily because: 1. Every brand has used the check since underpants became a thing and 2. Nike have sold and continue to sell products since the 1980s that feature ‘checkerboard patterns of various sizes, shapes and colours placed in various locations on shirts and pants’. This presumably includes the OG McEnroe tennis collection and the recent Off-White soccer gear.
From here it’s a quick kickflip over to Louis Vuitton in Paris. Despite a legal challenge that lasted five years, Vuitton’s ownership of the ‘Damier Azur’ trademark was reinforced by the European Court in 2020 and appears unimpeachable, though there is no guarantee this will not change in the future. Damier is of course French for ‘checkerboard’ and references the brand’s famous leather pattern. Some things stay the same and some never change. Either way, it seems checkerboard is inherently tough to trademark.
The highest selling shoe in the cosmos has also been subject of countless claims over the years. As we saw in Issue 45 of Sneaker Freaker, even New Balance released a canvas hightop with an uncanny resemblance to the Converse All Star. The generic nature of the design might theoretically make it a difficult candidate for winning a trademark, but that hasn’t stopped Nike from trying. In 2014, they issued proceedings seeking monetary damages from 30 firms – including Skechers, Ralph Lauren and Walmart – they accused of ‘mass-producing, distributing or selling sneakers that knock off the look of the iconic Chuck Taylor’. Today, nearly all of the brands listed by Nike in the civil suits have settled out of court, though Skechers ended up winning concessions that enabled them to keep making knock-offs in specific configurations. With sales well in excess of a billion pairs, don’t feel too bad for old mate Chucky!
JOCK THE BOK
For all their demoralising Ls, Nike have also been guilty of blatantly copying other brands over the years. Back when Reebok was on a red-hot run with the Freestyle aerobics shoe, Nike released the Aerofit, a stitch-for-stitch remake with a Swoosh slapped on the side. The Aerofit was retro-ed in 2008, so any hostility seems to have waned over the years, but such deliberate theft is still embarrassing for any brand, or at least it should be.
In a different era, Nike also released their own version of the adidas Superstar, adding a distinctive rubber toe to a shoe they referred to as the Blazer Low. ASICS also produced their own rubber-toed Superstar-alike, while BAPE joined the party by releasing the SKULL STA in dozens of colourways.
Nike have also been guilty of hijacking the cultural cachet of everything from horror films to mass murders and European beer brands. Sneaker Freaker was sent a yearly letter from a Dutch law firm who told us to stop calling the ‘Heineken’ Dunk the ‘Heineken’ Dunk, which we totally ignored. Many other Nikes have fallen foul of similar grievances, including the Air Max 90 ‘Silver Surfer’ and ‘USPS’ Air Force 1s, as well as ‘Heaven’s Gate’, ‘Van Halen’ and ‘Freddy Kreuger’ Dunks. The hall of name shame is a long and sensitive one and we don’t even know the half of it.
So there you have it. This convoluted story of good versus evil is mired in all kinds of murk with no clear winner except the tumescent lawyers who pocket gratuitous fees as their clients jostle for tactical supremacy. The law is an ass and nothing is fair in this game of corporate cat and mouse, especially when Skechers is involved. Grey areas are inherently confusing and shifting allegiances can be downright uncomfortable depending on your viewpoint.
In the case of Warren Lotas vs Nike, do you side with the maverick ‘Robin Hood’ valiantly trying to make an honest dime by cheekily duking it out with the biggest bully in the game? Or is Nike the patron saint of purity, protecting an iconic design from being exploited by a ruthless opportunist who created a corny shoe worn by gullible idiots? Hmmnh… let me think about that!