It was a normal afternoon as I was sitting in my college apartment. My younger brother had recently got into sneaker reselling so he had been messaging me the last several weeks about certain shoes that he should buy. He then sent me a picture of the coveted Nike "Pigeon" SB Dunk Low and asked if he should buy it. Being an avid sneakerhead myself, I immediately reassured him that securing a rerelease of such a coveted colorway would merit a great value of return. He then replied, "These aren't actually Nikes, they are made by some designer." I was so confused. The shoe looked just like the rare and highly sought after "Pigeon" dunk, but it wasn't. I had heard of the name Warren Lotas before and been somewhat familiar with the bootleg market. I knew the shoe could still have value even if it was a bootleg. And right when my brother had decided to pull the trigger on the $300 preorder retail price, Nike sued Warren Lotas over infringement.
The last several weeks had been a rollercoaster legal battle between Nike and Warren Lotas. Warren Lotas had been very local on his Instagram account about fulfilling orders, but Nike shut that down quickly. Warren Lotas then proceeded to offer a replacement "Reaper" sneaker with the ongoing legal battle, only for Nike to shut that down as well. Ultimately, Nike got what they wanted and had won the lawsuit. But who really won? While the majority of sneakerheads would argue Warren Lotas got what he deserved for blatantly copying the Nike SB Dunk and marketing them as his own, I propose a controversial opinion. To me, this lawsuit is just another example of corporate America marginalizing smaller creators.
Nike wasn't always the sneaker mecca it is seen as today. I would be lying if I said working for Nike wasn't my dream job. However, what if I told you Nike actually got its start capitalizing off of the bootleg market. In a recent article with Benjamin Kickz, Jeff Staple, who was the original designer of the original Nike "Pigeon" SB Dunk Low and also collaborator of Warren Lotas' "bootleg" pigeon design, said, "The founder of Nike Inc. is the OG shoe dog bootlegger," recounting how the company began as Blue Ribbon Sports, a distributor of Onitsuka Tiger sneakers, and got in legal trouble for applying its logo to Tiger shoes and selling them. "The whole company is built on a bootleg." Staple and Nike's other co-founder Bill Bowerman made their own versions of Onitsuka sneakers after the Japanese company failed to meet demand on a distribution deal between the two in the early 70s. It's worth noting that a legal dispute between Nike and Onitsuka did take place, centered around the Cortez—a shoe originally known as the TG-24 that Bowerman had actually designed and engineered. Nike produced its own version and won rights to the Cortez name in 1974, Onitsuka rebranded its shoe the Corsair and they both continue to sell their respective models today.
I was initially on Nike's side after hearing about Warren Lotas' knockoff Nike SB dunks, but upon further research, I started to see Nike as a corporate conglomerate. It's okay for Jeff Staple to work with Nike, but as soon as he works with a different designer it suddenly becomes infringement? I get it, the shoes look exactly like Nike SB Dunks and I was fooled too, but this entire situation did not sit right with me. Jeff Staple goes on to cite BAPE's Bapestas as one of the most prolific examples of another brand capitalizing off of a rendition of a Nike sneaker design. According to a former Bape employee, the company founder Nigo cleverly released the shoe when Nike let its trademark around the Air Force 1 lapse. The Bapesta shoe has changed since then, more than likely to protect themselves, but what I also see is a clear example of a bigger brand being able to get away with infringement without receiving any repercussions. The similar appearance to the Air Force 1 did not deter BAPE and Nigo fans from appreciating and purchasing the shoe and Nike also didn't feel the need to sue them.
This Warren Lotas situation had not been the first time Nike had sued somebody for copying their Nike design. Meet Ari Foreman, a designer whose replica Air Force 1s caused legal action from Nike and the Lorillard Tobacco Company. He had designed the Ari Menthol 10, which highlights the similarities between Nike's Swoosh and the spinnaker logo used on Newport cigarette packs. They were made to show the parallel of addiction to and consumption of sportswear and cigarettes. Foreman's message was, "the two brands that have taken the most and given the least." They were paying homage to customers who were willing to consume without question as Foreman adds, "They'll spend their whole lives giving their money away to a corporation who couldn't care whether they live or die."
So when does Nike decide to pursue or not pursue litigation against copies of their sneakers? According to a former employee of Mike 23, "Nike is gonna leave you alone until you make money." Mike23 was essentially a tribute brand of Nike that added its own slogans to Nike designs. However, Mike23 shut down quickly after its 2008 cease-and-desist settlement. While operating, Nike designers actually enjoyed Mike23 sending promotional gear to people at the company. Plus, the employee says, the two companies weren't really providing the same type of product at the time. Nike's market was limited edition sneakers while Mike23's was streetwear apparel, something Nike hadn't figured out yet at the time. "We were getting into accounts that Nike couldn't," the Mike23 employee says. "We were in Collette, Isetann, all the lifestyle boutiques. Back then, Nike couldn't get into any of those boutiques." It wasn't until a Mike23 product was worn on a mainstream stage that fostered action from Nike. Paul Rodriguez, a top Nike skateboarder, wore Mike23 apparel during a competition. The anonymous Mike23 employee felt this type of attention for a brand on a Nike-affiliated athlete motivated the company to send the cease-and-desist. There is speculation that the attention brought by the Staple co-sign led to the lawsuit in the Warren Lotas case. Their advice to Lotas now is to stay quiet and lawyer up.
My takeaway is this: wrong person, right idea. Warren Lotas' SB dunks are blatant copies of Nike's SB Dunks. You can't just slap your notorious Jason Vorhees logo on a shoe and call it your own. In fact, that logo doesn't even belong to him. I would have much rather seen more changes to the shoe to distinguish itself as its own bootleg. I also agree with Nike's point that, "They are disruptive of the resale market, offering a shortcut that erodes hype Nike has cultivated for the past two decades. Instead of buying a real pair of SBs from 15 years ago that costs thousands of dollars, one could instead spend $300 on a Warren Lotas version that evokes the same history." As much as Warren Lotas or Jeff Staple tries to deny the claim that they aren't profiting off the likeness of Nike, the reason why their version is even garnering any hype is for that same exact reason. There have been several resellers on eBay marketing previous Warren Lotas renditions of the Nike SB dunk as original Nike products proving its mere identical resemblance. It isn't fair to the sneaker community that some people are getting bamboozled into thinking they are purchasing originals when they aren't.
It also doesn't help Lotas' case that despite his denials of the shoes being a cash grab, he reportedly has made over $1 million dollars off of his previous SB's alone, not accounting for the preorders for his "Pigeon: bootleg. In addition, Lotas has said he knew nothing about the culture of sneakers before making his shoes which goes to show his intent. Although Warren Lotas may have been in the wrong, this situation poses a much larger question: Is Nike being hypocritical by suppressing smaller creators? Examples like Mike23 and the Air Menthol 10 say otherwise but I will leave that for you to decide.