There’s a war brewing in the world of athleisure.
On Friday, the premium sportswear retailer Bandier launched its very first in-house brand, called We Over Me. When I covered the story for Fast Company, I noted that the brand focused on creating ultra-soft fabric and using a color-blocked pattern of gentle colors, like greens, pinks, and grays.
Over the weekend, however, fans of the direct-to-consumer sportswear brand Outdoor Voices took to social media to claim that these looks were ripped off from Outdoor Voices. On Bandier’s Instagram post featuring these new looks, hundreds of comments began bubbling up along the lines of: “Hopefully @outdoorvoices is getting the proceeds from the sales of these gross knockoffs. Since when did @bandier become the Steve Madden of activewear? (via @_ginageorge)”
Meanwhile, Bandier defenders responded by saying things like: “@outdoorvoices is an amazing brand, but they didn’t invent color blocking. Every other brand out there is doing it. Invented in the early 1900s by Piet Mondrian. Why attack a women’s owned business, especially in these times? There is enough room from everyone. (via @battoreypersonal)”
Bandier and Outdoor Voices have been key players in the athleisure boom that has taken over the apparel market over the last five years. The brands were launched in the same year, 2014, both by female founders. They each sell leggings and sports bras at high price points, with the average price of an Outdoor Voices legging going for around $95, while the We Over Me leggings will run you between $98 and $105.
But while Jennifer Bandier, Bandier’s founder, wanted to create a store where consumers could have access to many brands side by side, Outdoor Voices’s founder, Tyler Haney, wanted to create a very distinct aesthetic and brand, then sell it directly to consumers.
Haney reached out to Fast Company saying she was, “appalled by how identical this ‘new’ line is to iconic” Outdoor Voices. “Seems strange to me to promote this line when it’s nearly exact copies of all of our styles we’ve been selling for years,” she wrote in an email.
When I chatted with Haney on the phone this morning, she explained that it is not merely the fact that Bandier is using Outdoor Voices’s color-blocking style in a similar color palette. She claims that it has to do with the exact construction of the garment. “Color-blocking is not the issue,” Haney says. “If you go piece by piece through the 12 pieces they launched, the style lines, and construction of the garment are a ripoff-of OV. We make technical, functional product, so all of the seaming is completely intentional, and the color blocking emphasizes where the different panels within the product are.”
Haney says that several years ago, Outdoor Voices had tinkered with selling through retail rather than just direct-to-consumer. At one point, she sold through Bandier, but then decided to withdraw from that deal to focus on selling exclusively through Outdoor Voices’s own channels, like its websites and brick-and-mortar stores. “We ended up pulling out because they were hard to work with,” Haney claims. “For us it was about creating a direct link with our consumers and they had a real issue with that.”
From Haney’s perspective, Bandier is simply replicating Outdoor Voices’s style, since it is unable to carrying Outdoor Voices products in store. “It seems like they just thought, ‘Let’s copy every style,'” Haney says.
When I reached out to Bandier, the company had a different take. As a retailer that carries dozens of activewear brands, Bandier sees all of the latest trends in this industry, and it makes the case that it was simply staying on-trend with this collection. “With the growth of active apparel available on the market today, it is easy to draw similarities between almost any two brands,” Bandier’s CEO, Neil Boyarsky, told me over email. “Some of the features in We Over Me’s current collection, including two-tone color combinations and cut-out elements, are all features commonly used by a multitude of other apparel companies and which are currently trending.”
And it only takes a quick scan of sportswear brands to see that there are other designers on the market with very similar aesthetic. Fabletics, for instance, the activewear brand launched by Kate Hudson, also has looks that are fairly similar to Outdoor Voices’s core styles, down to the choice of colors. Meanwhile, Old Navy has color-block compression legging with a similar aesthetic, as do many other brands.
Boyarksy also makes the case that, beyond the style, the material of the garment is quite different. It is softer and has a different feeling against the skin. “Outdoor Voices does not own color blocking as a style of design,” says Boyarsky. “There are at least four points of major difference in construction of the garment. Also, the fabric itself is very different—soft to the touch and light weight.”
Haney says that while some of the garments in her collection are not copyrighted, she has taken measures to protect the IP of her upcoming collections. She says the We Over Me collection looks most similar to the Landscape Legging, which are protected by a patent. These pants are inspired by the colors of the Pacific Coast and 10% of sales of these leggings will be donated to the Nature Conservancy.
Of course, imitating designs is nothing new in the fashion world. Brands like Steve Madden, Zara, and H&M are regularly slapped with copyright infringement lawsuits when they create garments or accessories that are too similar to those originally created by other designers. However, these lawsuits are notoriously hard to litigate because brands are often not copying one another explicitly. There are often many differences between two pieces, whether it has to do with the colors, textures, materials, or execution. Taking inspiration from other brands is not illegal, and in the end, all fashion is in some way an evolution or interpretation of a style that came before. So trying to figure out whether Bandier actually did copy Outdoor Voices will be very hard and expensive to prove.
Underlying this battle, we get a glimpse into how loyal customers now are to their favorite brands. Bandier and Outdoor Voices have very distinct approaches to selling activewear, and they have spent the last three years carefully cultivating communities around the brand.
And they’ve both been successful: Their die-hard fans are willing to go to bat for them at a time of crisis, like this one has become.