Levi's turn from sewing to suing as jeans brand fades

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It has been more than 130 years since Levi Strauss and a Nevada tailor called Jacob Davis received a patent for using copper rivets to hold together the pockets of the denim work trousers they had been selling to prospectors in the California Gold Rush.

Ever since, the company founded by Strauss has been working to protect its copyrights. Indeed, research suggests that Levi Strauss has become one of the world's most litigious companies, more so than any other clothing company.

And as the company's fortunes have faded - its sales have fallen by more than 40 per cent in the past decade - it appears Levi Strauss has only become more determined to resort to the law to protect itself.

"They missed the boat," Tony Sorensen, chief executive of Von Dutch Originals, a jeans manufacturer that was sued by Levi's six months ago, told The New York Times. "Now they want to make a lot of noise and scare people away."

Figures provided by the research company Thomson West suggest Levi Strauss was involved in 99 lawsuits between 2001 and 2006, placing it sixth on a list of US companies.

Much of the litigation concerns not the patent for the copper rivets but a 1943 design which relates to the two intersecting arcs of stitches sewn into the pockets of their jeans.

Levi Strauss says that since then other jeans manufacturers have sought to copy this design. To identify such alleged breaches, Levi Strauss employs 40 "denim detectives" who scour stores around the world for possible infringements.

Records show that in most cases a rival company will stop a particular design and destroy the remaining jeans rather than bother with the expense of having to defend the lawsuit, even if they do not believe they have committed a breach.

Rivals point out that in the past decade Levi Strauss has slipped from its once pre-eminent position in the jeans markets, having failed to catch on to the mid-1990s boom in so-called premium designer jeans for women from brands such as 7 for All Mankind, which can sell for $200 a pair.

Instead, Levi Strauss stuck to selling its $30 jeans in department stores and supermarkets. It was only last year that the company introduced a premium label to try to compete.

Executives at Levi Strauss belatedly admitted they had failed to spot the trend and the company was forced to embark on radical cost-cutting, closing dozens of factories and making more than 7,000 workers redundant.

A spokesman for Levi Strauss said he would not dispute the number of lawsuits the company has reportedly filed. "We are one of the largest jeans manufacturers in the world, and also we have some of the oldest trademarks in the apparel business," he said. "We must protect them for them to have any meaning to our customers. Also if you don't enforce a trademark you might those them. Our trademarks are our most valuable asset."