One of these things is a lot like the other – which is why Allbirds is suing Steve Madden for allegedly copying its signature Wool Runners.
Three years ago, former All Whites player Tim Brown set out to make a woollen shoe. In 2017, everyone from Larry Page to Mindy Kaling is sporting Allbirds, rounding off a seminal year for the startup in which it opened two retail stores in the US, released its second product style in the Wool Lounger, and launched Smallbirds for the little ones after popular demand. But 2017 also seems as if it might be ending on a slightly sour note, with the sustainable shoe company announcing last week that it’s taking legal action against global fashion house Steve Madden for allegedly copying its signature kicks.
Available in five different shades, the aesthetic resemblance of Steve Madden’s Travelers to Allbirds’ Wool Runners is uncanny, replicating the shoes’ fuzzy texture, synthetic sole, 8-eyelet design and fabric laces down to a tee (as an aside, Steve Madden’s Triper walking shoes also bear a striking resemblance to the Allbirds Wool Loungers which, although not included in the lawsuit, bears mentioning anyhow).
On Amazon, some reviewers rave about the Travelers being “close to perfect” and “comfortable and soft”, while others denounce the Travelers as a “cheap knockoff”.
“These are a rip off of Allbirds, but not [at all] comfortable,” one Amazon reviewer wrote on the website. “One factor is definitely the insole of the shoe. It feels like cheap foam and terrible quality when you compare it to how the Allbirds insole feels. The outside sole also feels cheap. The only thing they did well was copying the design and colours exactly from Allbirds without the quality but still with a high price tag.”
While Allbirds was originally founded by Brown and designed by Jamie McLellan in New Zealand, the company is based in San Francisco close to Silicon Valley’s tech elite and its American co-founder Joey Zwillinger. This means the lawsuit was filed as a trade dress infringement in the North District of California.
For trade dress law to apply, the average buyer would need to associate the design with a single source (think Louboutin’s red soles or Hermes’ Birkin bag). It’s comparable to a design patent in that it aims to protect similar aspects of a product, but trade dress differs in that it protects not only the appearance of a product, but also its packaging, labelling, advertising and presentation. A trade dress lawsuit can either result in a court order restraining one party from infringing on another party’s trade dress, or financial compensation for any losses suffered by the injured business.
This isn’t the first (second, third or fourth) time Steve Madden’s been sued for copycat designs. In June, Valentino filed a lawsuit in the US over a “strikingly similar” patterned bag from the brand’s ‘Rockstud’ collection, while Dr Martens alleged earlier this year that the brand had copied elements of its signature black boots. In 2016, Aquazzura sued the company for lifting three of its designs, and 2015 saw Stella McCartney take the brand to court over a “virtually identical” tote. In 2014, Balenciaga alleged that Madden had violated the trade dress that extended to its celebrated Motorcycle bag, which follows on from its 2009 lawsuit over an infringement of its multicoloured Lego heel. That same year, Alexander McQueen also took issue with the brand for allegedly copying its Faithful bootie.
Despite the string of litigations over the years, Madden stated back in 2014 that he “[hasn’t] had a lot of lawsuits” compared to the amount of business he’s had. He also suggested that even though he always tries to do his own thing, copying – to a certain extent – is somewhat inevitable in the fashion industry, a fact that he insists applies both ways. “I’m copied more than anybody in the shoe business. No one is copied more than Steve Madden,” he said. “If you go to the Chinese guys, SoCal [Southern California] with all the Chinese mafia, they live in my stores, they bring all the samples back.”
The lawsuit by Allbirds (a first for the company) could prove to be costly if it fails to succeed. While most brands that take on Madden are established and well-resourced enough to take on whatever legal result awaits, for a fledgling startup like Allbirds that’s just starting to make scale in the US, failure to win the infringement case could pose as a major setback for the company. But its founders are steadfast in their conviction over the lawsuit, with Brown telling Business of Fashion last week that “a billion dollar business has taken a stab at our very livelihood and mission that we are on, and we felt like it was wrong.”
Zwillinger added that the shoes have “the potential to hurt us, but more importantly it has the potential to hurt the positive environmental mission we set out to achieve,” referring to Allbirds’ status as a certified B Corporation and champion of sustainable fashion. And to emphasise this point, it’s pledged that if proven successful in court, it’ll donate any proceeds from the lawsuit to the National Audubon Society which protects birds and their habitats across the Americas.
While it’s hard to say whether Allbirds has a decent shot in court (especially since the brand’s only been active in the US for about a year), there’s no doubt the company’s success is inspiring plenty of imitators beyond Madden’s blatant attempt, from Le Mouton’s Merino Wool lightweight shoes to Baabuk’s Urban Wool sneakers. “The ransom of success” is how Coco Chanel described the inevitability of knockoffs in the fashion industry, proving that while being trendy is certainly cool, imitation isn’t always the sincerest form of flattery.
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