Levi's Gets Litigious: Lawsuits Now Almost as Ubiquitous as 501s

Last Updated Apr 1, 2010 3:28 PM EDT

Guy wearing Levi's 501sWhen does inspiration become infringement? In fashion, the line can be as fine as the difference between a few threads, but once it's crossed copycats should be prepared to be bitch-slapped with a lawsuit. Especially if the company that's getting the dubious honor of imitation is struggling.

So it is with Levi Strauss. While the venerable San Francisco-based manufacturer navigates the rocky shoals of the recession, it won't stop to accept the flattery of imitation. Levi's just wants to hang on to its market share. Hence the company's swift move to file a suit against Evisu International for trademark infringement. Call it protection of its ass-ets. Let's just hope that litigation doesn't obscure the big picture for Levi's -- which includes selling more jeans.

Though it holds the distinction of being the original creator of those indigo wardrobe staples, Levi's ongoing challenge is staying relevant in a world where premium jeans brands are proliferating. Seven for All Mankind, True Religion, J Brand, Diesel, and many other designers of denim are jockeying for position on the booties of fashionistas, offering their specially structured fits and washes in bricks and mortar stores of their own, or at online retailers. Heck, even Gap (GPS) got in the game recently offering to swath the smallest bums in designer jeans in effort to expand its customer base.

With competition as stiff as a brand new pair of shrink-to-fits, Levi's net income took a hit in 2009 with a 34 percent decrease. That was on top of 2008's 50 percent decrease. The company attributed this to, among other things, continued sales declines in Japan.

So it's not much of a surprise that Levi's got its knickers in a twist when it heard Evisu's chief executive officer Scott Morrison tell WWD the Japanese premium denim company's limited Private Stock line "would pay homage" to Levi's 1944 501s, 1890 "Nevada" and 1917 "Campbell" jeans. Levi's wasted no time issuing a comeuppance in the form of pointing out to Morrison and company that a 1999 settlement which stipulated Evisu agreed not to use several specific pocket designs and other details.

For his part Morrison, founder of such premium denim brands as Paper Denim & Cloth and Earnest Sewn, has been trying to breathe new life into Evisu, a company that's got its own history and heritage -- albeit one Morrison admits has a long love affair with Levi's.

But like other Japanese jean companies, Evisu's enchantment with vintage Levi's goes beyond the look. In fact they are just as enamored of quality construction and durability as they are of such details as 501's signature stitching and vertical tabs on the rear pockets. Their denims are produced from a heavier cotton cloth than most commercial fabrics and dyed using highly guarded (and highly concentrated) formulas. It's no wonder Evisu and other premium brands command prices well north of $200, while a pair of "Original" 501s will only set the wearer back around 50 bucks. That didn't stop Levi's from suing five other Japanese brands for infringing on the aforementioned proprietary details in 2007.

Which begs the question: shouldn't Levi's be spending more time marketing than mired in litigation? After all, the business of denim is so cutthroat now it spawned an entire reality series on the Sundance Channel. In one episode, Dirty Denim takes viewers inside a dye house where the staff reveals stealing designs and formulas for washes is rampant -â€" and hard to control. Levi's would do well to take serious measures to cement its brand into the minds of young consumers rather than picking stitches with other companies.

Image via Levi.com