Levi Strauss & Co. might be racing into the future — with Michelle Gass ready to become chief executive officer and the company pushing all the more into retail — but its products live on legacy.
Founded as a San Francisco dry-goods business in 1853, Levi’s is credited with inventing blue jeans and last year celebrated the 150th anniversary of its 501s.
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For the last 88 years, Levi’s has also used a colored tab of fabric sewn into the edge of a pocket to stand out. Registered as a trademark in 1938, it’s a feature that Levi’s is ready to fight for.
The denim giant sued Brunello Cucinelli SpA and the company’s U.S. unit in San Francisco federal court for trademark infringement, dilution and unfair competition, alleging that the Italian luxury company has “misappropriated LS&Co.’s famous Tab trademark as a symbol for their own apparel products.”
“Despite repeated attempts to resolve the matter short of litigation, defendant has refused to commit to ceasing use of the Brunello Cucinelli Tab, and now continues to promote and sell these infringing garments, and — on information and belief — increasing [its] production of such garments,” Levi’s said in its suit.
Levi’s has asked the court for a preliminary and permanent injunction that would stop Cucinelli from making looks that it argues are infringing on its trademark.
In an exclusive statement to WWD, Brunello Cucinelli said that his namesake fashion house “has always valued the originality of its creations and the integrity of its business practices.”
Acknowledging the suit, he said he “wished to clarify that the decorative elements, present on a very limited number of our products, represent a unique ornament, created exclusively for aesthetic purposes. They distinguish themselves as having different length, shape and position on various garments and never incorporate the logo or our brand.”
Cucinelli went on to say that he “grew up with the myth of Levi’s jeans: I believe they have represented for entire generations the idea of the American dream combined with a unique and inimitable taste. I started to wear them when I was a kid and I continued to do so over the years. Before launching our own ‘total look,’ we used Levi’s denim to complement the outfits, confirming the great admiration I always had for this iconic and timeless brand.”
The entrepreneur started his fashion career learning to sew from his mother, and when he was 25 he sold his first 53 women’s pullovers. They were in six colors, from azure to orange and light yellow, slim, and to be worn under a fitted jacket. He was driven by the idea of a Made in Italy product, leveraging the expertise of the artisans in the Umbria region, a storied knitwear hub. He went on to build his company in Solomeo, in Umbria, and publicly listing it in Milan in 2012. Last year, the company registered revenues of 1.14 billion euros, up 23.9 percent compared with 2022.
“Our intention has never been, nor will it ever be, to exploit or violate the brands or ideas of others. We understand the value of intellectual property and respect the uniqueness of each brand on the market. While taking into account the concerns [that Levi’s] raised, we believe there is no risk of confusion for any customer in the world. The decoration we use is different in design and purpose and it is evident it is not a logo but an ornamental embellishment,” Cucinelli said.
He also remarked that the brand’s collections comprise around 4,000 men’s and women’s models a year, while “the decorative elements at issue concern an entirely negligible number of seasonal denim pieces for women.”
This being Cucinelli, he turned to his beloved philosophy and concluded by saying that, “I always lived and worked with the idea that the great thinker [philosopher Karl] Popper passed on to me when he says: ‘He who copies is almost never in the right.’”
Levi’s started using the tab as a way of fending off copycats.
“LS&Co. began to display the Tab trademark on the rear pocket of its pants in 1936 when its then national sales manager, Leo Christopher Lucier, proposed placing a folded cloth ribbon in the structural seams of the rear pocket,” the suit said. “The purpose of this ‘tab’ was to provide ‘sight identification’ of LS&Co.’s products. Given the distinctiveness of the Tab trademark, Mr. Lucier asserted that ‘no other maker of overalls can have any other purpose in putting a colored tab on an outside patch pocket, unless for the express and sole purpose of copying our mark and confusing the customer.’”
Levi’s said it has continuously used the trademarked tab, selling millions of jeans, jackets and other goods bearing the mark every year. The mark has also appeared as part of the company’s logo, in its stores and on its website.
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