In an interview earlier this year with Reuters, Arthur Hoeld, head of adidas Originals, told the news site: “The number of high-end fashion brands that are copying our silhouettes right now is unheard of.” It is hardly a secret that the German sportswear giant filed quite a few lawsuits late last year, including ones against Marc Jacobs and Skechers, for copying its wares, but what other brands are copying adidas that have not be subject to litigation from adidas? Well, a few high fashion brands come to mind, namely: Gucci, Isabel Marant, Saint Laurent, and Alexander McQueen. But let’s break it down a bit in terms of design elements.
THE STAN SMITH
Adidas’s most famous silhouette is certainly its Stan Smith. The shoe, which has recently taken the fashion industry by storm, was first named after French tennis pro Robert Haillet in 1965, and renamed in the early 1970’s for fellow tennis legend, Stanley Roger Smith.
A technical look at the design indicates that the Stan Smith has what adidas refers to as a “classic tennis shoe profile.” The design elements are typically as follows: a sleek upper, which consists of a thin tongue and seven rows of laces; three rows of angled perforations adorn the outer side of each shoe; there is defining stitching on each side that frames the perforations (the stitching comes to a point on the side of the shoe, above the midsole; also on the side, towards the toe, the stitching make up a small rectangular box; there is a prominent, “mustache-shaped” heel tab, which tends to contrast in color with the body of the shoe itself; and the sole of the shoe consists of a particularly flat rubber outsole.
According to the Adidas America v. Payless Shoes case, which was decided in 2008 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, “Adidas first introduced the Superstar Trade Dress in 1969 and its principle features have not changed since that time. It consists of: (1) three parallel stripes (i.e., the Three—Stripe Mark) on the side of the shoe parallel to equidistant small holes; (2) a rubber ‘shell toe’; (3) a particularly flat sole; and (4) a colored portion on the outer back heel that identifies the shoes as Adidas’ brand.” These four elements come together to make up the brand’s legally-protected “Superstar Trade Dress,” and gives adidas the right to sue other brands that are utilizing such a design without authorization.
THE COPY CATS
The Stan Smith is certainly one of the often-copied silhouettes to which Hoeld is referring. As we told you this past year, Paris-based brand, Isabel Marant, introduced a sneaker hat heavily channeled Adidas's classic Stan Smith: the Bart low-tops. In addition to Marant’s use of the similar stitching on the sides of the shoe and its adoption of a similar outsole and virtually identical profile, what makes the brand’s Bart sneaker particularly problematic is the existence and placement of the heel tabs. They are the element that most significantly gives the Marant shoe a rather distinct Adidas feel. Adidas has not filed suit against Marant in connection with the Bart style, but as we discussed last year, the German sportswear giant likely could be successful in its efforts.
After the Marant Bart sneaker came Alexander McQueen’s Oversized sneaker. Much like the Marant shoe, McQueen utilizes a very similar design element (the heel tab). Its version also incorporates a number of other Adidas-like elements, including the perforated holes on the side and similar stitching framing the perforations, a super-flat heel (albeit a thicker one on the McQueen shoes), and the round shell-like toe.
Also in the mix: Saint Laurent’s SL06 Sneakers and SL01 Court Classic Leather Sneakers, and Givenchy’s Leather Sneakers, both of which share a similar profile as the adidas Stan Smith and curiously similar heel tabs. The Saint Laurent pair is a bit more blatant as it also has two perforated lines on the sides and nearly identical stitching framing those lines.
One of the more problematic pairs: Serial copycat Virgil Abloh's take on the Stan Smith (pictured above) for his collection, Off White. The style at issue, which comes in a black colorway and a white one, as well, utilizes both diagonal stripes on the side of the show (a la the adidas Superstar model) and a logo-covered heel tab, neither of which are too dissimilar to those employed by adidas.
Adidas would likely also argue that GREATS’ Royale Leather Sneakers, Common Projects’ Retro Leather Sneakers, BAPE’s Bapesta Squash sneakers, and IRO’s Kobi Sneakers are a bit too close for comfort as a result of their silhouette, even though they all lack the distinctive heel tab.
THE ADILETTE SLIDE
Adidas’s Adilette slide is probably its second most iconic shoe and accordingly, another one of its most copied. Coveted since it made its debut in 1972, the Adilette shower slide has also become something of a fashion industry favorite in recent years, particularly given designer Raf Simons’ and others’ revamp of the classic style.
While adidas does not appear to have federal trade dress or design patent protection for the appearance/design of the shoe itself, the sportswear brand does have trademark protection that extends to the application of three stripes on the upper part of the sandal. This allows the brand to fight obvious copies, such as the similar four-stripe pair that K-Mart was selling several years ago. However, it does little to protect against the copying of the slide silhouette itself, which consists of a contoured footbed that dips towards the front, where it is particularly moulded; a sleek rubber outsole; a square synthetic upper with perforated detail that attaches on the outsole towards the bottom of the soles.
The brand could make a case for common law trade dress protection. Trade dress is a form of trademark protection that refers to the overall appearance of a product that indicates or identifies the source of the product and distinguishes it from those of others. It may include the design of a product. Absent federal protection, trade dress may be protected by common law, which would only apply to the markets in which the mark is used (for Adidas, this would be vast, given the widespread distribution of its goods).
Given the fact that adidas does not appear to have sued in connection with the design of the sandal, chances are its case for trade dress protection is slim. This is likely because the design of the shower slide itself is probably not original to adidas, thereby, limiting its ability to act as a source identifying design – even though the Adilette style has certainly been popularized by the sportswear giant.
THE COPY CATS
And popularized it has been. The high fashion lookalikes styles are certainly not few and far between. In fact, over the past several seasons, in particular, we have seen a lot of shower slides on the runway, which adidas would certainly argue are direct references to its Adilette. Every brand, from high fashion houses like Gucci, Givenchy, Valentino and Versace to more reasonably priced brands, such as Coach, Marc by Marc Jacobs, and Loeffler Randall, have showed footwear with a similar footbed and upper. However, with the exception of Gucci, all of these styles lack the distinctive adidas 3-stripe trademark. And because adidas does not seem to enforce its common law trade dress rights in connection with the Adilette style, these brands are likely in the clear.
The copy that stands out as almost certainly infringing is one that comes by way of Fausto Puglisi. The Italian brand showed some interesting embellished slides for Spring/Summer 2015, including a pair that consisted of three lines of rhinestones, which could likely be taken as looking a bit too similar to a hypothetical pair of Adilette sandals – one that resulted from a high fashion collab, maybe. Considering adidas’ long list of fashion collaborators (think: Raf Simons, Yohji Yamamoto, Rick Owens, Mary Katrantzou, Stella McCartney, etc.) and its increasing reliance on fashion as a means for making up market share it lacks, such a collab is not entirely unlikely.
It is interesting to note that an array of the Fausto Puglisi slides have hit the market – all except the 3-stripe pair. With this in mind, there is a chance that adidas took preemptive action on this – by way of a cease and desist letter – before the sandals made it to stores.
It Pays to Play it Safe
The frequency with which adidas is copied might be shocking but at the end of the day, it should not be terribly surprising. The fashion market is almost entirely dominated – even in the upper echelon of the industry – by commercial concerns. Fashion has always been a business, but as fashion brands become international fashion houses, and fashion houses become billion-dollar fashion conglomerates, demands are being heightened, and creative bets must be hedged.
We have seen this depicted very clearly in connection with the influx of pre-season collections, such as Pre-Fall and Resort, which oftentimes provide consumers with slightly watered down, more accessible versions of what we see in the main Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter collections. These pre-season collections serve as cash cows for brands. They allow for much need revenue streams but in accordance with a zero-energy universe theory, they do not come without downsides. Such collections, for instance, tend to place a strain on designers’ abilities to be truly creative and innovative as a result of time constraints.
Having said this, there is certainly an argument that designers are being increasingly pressured to churn out products that will absolutely sell, particularly if they want to take risks on the runway. Largely gone are the days of fashion for fashion’s sake. That may have a home in terms of haute couture but it certainly is not a concept upon which ready-to-wear in founded.
As I wrote for Dazed on the heels of the announcement that Meadham Kirchhoff, the celebrated British brand known for romanticizing fashion with its darling and daring garment, was too debt-ridden to continue, “the current model of fashion does not leave much room for imagination that cannot be put into an e-cart, purchased and shipped.” That brand, with its technically proficient designs and cerebral themes, was arguably part of the old order. That brand was arguably taking risks in the wrong way. The consumer, for the most part, does not reward risk without a safe counterbalance that they can physically touch and buy and wear. And as a result, here is something to be said for being “inspired” by existing garments and accessories.
Primarily, it is both easy and safe for brands to copy or emulate styles with a proven track record and strong customer base (which the Stan Smith and Adilette slide certainly have). Yes, inspiration is a safer (don’t read: better) bet than trying new things, and having to risk them not turn out to be a significant success. Such risk, which is often coupled with decreased sales and subsequent markdowns, can be mitigated by playing it safe, and it seems that this is just what many brands are doing. This is what smart brands are doing now.
But just as innovation is a risk, relying on the status quo is arguably a risk as well. That is why the smartest brands (as distinct from merely smart brands) are not relying entirely on such items. They are using them to complement more innovative and creativity-driven garments and accessories in order to allow fashion to maintain its ability to thrive as an industry based on novelty and modernization. And to allow them to cater to at least three different sets of consumers – the ones who want play-it-safe staples, the true high fashion shoppers who want innovative designs, and a third group that wants a little bit of both.
Regardless of what this means for the industry at large, it seems clear that adidas is making its mark in the fashion industry – both by way of legitimate designs – whether it be Phoebe Philo in her Stan Smiths or Kanye West’s Yeezy collection which will show its third season (of Raf Simons, Martin Margiela, Haider Ackermann and Christopher Decarnin for Balmain copies) this February during New York Fashion Week – and also in the form of an “unheard of” number of copies. As for whether this will give the German sportswear giant a leg up on the competition (read: Nike), that is yet to be seen.