But the design for a Levi’s pocket, first used 133 years ago, has become the biggest legal battleground in American fashion.
Levi Strauss claims that legions of competitors have stolen its signature denim stitches — two intersecting arcs and a cloth label — for their own pockets, slapping them on the seats of high-priced, hip-hugging jeans that have soared in popularity.
So Levi’s is becoming a leader in a new arena: lawsuits. The company, once the undisputed king of denim and now a case study in missed opportunities, has emerged as the most litigious in the apparel industry when it comes to trademark infringement lawsuits, firing off nearly 100 against its competitors since 2001. That’s far more than General Motors, Walt Disney or Nike, according to an analysis by research firm Thomson West.
The legal scuffles offer a rare glimpse into the sharp-elbowed world of fashion, where the line between inspiration and imitation is razor thin. After all, clothing makers’ trade secrets are hung on store racks for all to see, and designs can be quickly copied with small changes to exploit a hot trend.
The lawsuits, which Levi’s says it is compelled to file to safeguard the defining features on its jeans, are not about the money — one settled for just $5,000 in damages. Instead, the company says, they are about removing copycats from stores. Nearly all the cases have settled out of court, with Levi’s smaller rivals agreeing to stop making the offending pants and to destroy unsold pairs.