They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In the case of Levi Strauss, however, the motto seems to be “respect your elders.” The denim juggernaut has been around since the late 1800’s, but only began producing modern jeans in the 1920’s. Some time later, in 1943, the USPTO granted the company a trademark in it’s back pocket design, or what is described as “a double arcuate and tab design shown on the shape of a pocket, as indicated by a solid line. The lining and shading shown in the drawing are features of the mark and not intended to indicate color.”
Aside from being a giant in the denim industry, Levi Strauss has made an everlasting imprint on the legal side of the fashion industry by filing over 100 lawsuits against competitors since 2001. At issue has either been the double arcuate design, first used in the early 1870’s, the accompanying Tab, used since 1936 and first registered in 1938, or sometimes the combination of both.
But Levi’s success in the denim industry has been inconsistent throughout time. In fact, after a long reign on the top, the mid-1990’s saw the company becoming unprofitable partially due to a weak presence in the female denim market, unflattering fits, and a shift of distribution into lower-priced retailers like J.C. Penney, Sears and WalMart. Ironic or not, Levi’s misfortunes came at a time considered to be a boom in the denim industry. Small upstarts began manufacturing better fitting, more stylish jeans at high fashion prices and consumers were drawn right in. In 2007, the NY Times ran an article on Levi’s where the following was quoted, “The emergence of all this denim sold at astronomical prices simply passed them by,” said David Wolfe, creative director of the Doneger Group, a fashion consulting firm in Manhattan. “They should have jumped on the bandwagon but they did not even seem to see the bandwagon rolling, which amazed everyone in the fashion industry.”
Levi’s recognized that almost all of these newer premium brands were in some way indebted to the brand, either through inspiration or as an outright template for their own products. Levi Strauss reasoned that if it couldn’t compete in the high-end market, it could at least prevent these newer brands from infringing on its arcuate and tab trademark and diluting these marks. Over the years, Levi’s has brought suit against Guess?, Espirit, Zegna, Lucky Brand, Jelessy Jeans, Von Dutch, Silver Jeans, Karen Kane, Jones Apparel, Fossil, and Vanilla Star – just to name a few.
Fast forward to 2011 and the newest lawsuit in Levis’ back pocket involves Italian luxury fashion house Dolce & Gabbana. As with the previous lawsuits, Levi’s filed in federal court in San Francisco claiming that D&G’s 2011 collection offers jeans that “…include tab devices on the left and right vertical seams of the right rear pocket…and jeans that include these pocket tabs in combination with pocket stitching that is highly similar to [Levi's] Arcuate trademark, as well as jeans that bear the pocket stitching alone.” Unique in this case is the fact that these two parties had a prior dispute in 1998 over similar allegations and a subsequent settlement agreement which Levi’s claims has been violated. In its lawsuit, Levi’s asserts that D&G also violated the agreement. View the complaint here.
On a final note, Levi Strauss also has a history of suing many Japanese denim brands. In 2007, Levi’s filed trademark infringement lawsuits against brands such as Evisu (which is a play on Levi’s), Sugarcane, Samurai, Studio D’Artisan, Iron Heart, and Skull Jeans, along with American retailers such as Self Edge in San Francisco for carrying these brands. Levi’s was specifically concerned with the fact that the jeans made by those brands resemble classic Levi’s from the 40s, 50s and 60s and have demanded that all sales were to be stopped by January of 2007. Specifically the lawsuit said:
- There are to be NO tabs attached between two pieces of fabric on the rear pockets.
- The cards hanging out of the back pocket, stapled to the pocket, must not look anything like vintage/modern Levi’s Info Cards.
- Arcuates on the rear pockets must not resemble the Levi’s arcuate in ANY way shape or form,
- Rear leather patch cannot contain an image of two moving objects (horses, motorcycles, pigs, etc..) pulling apart a pair of jeans.
My favorite Japanese denim brand, Skull Jeans, reacted to the lawsuits in their own unique way:
Now that’s what you call distressed denim.