We first met Thaddeus O'Neil, the Long Island-bred designer of luxury unisex "playwear," back in 2015, when he was a finalist in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund competition, as well as a menswear finalist for the annual International Woolmark Prize. Today, he's a member of the CFDA and its Fashion Incubator Class of 2018; his beach-inspired, Bohemian pieces are stocked in some of New York and Japan's top retailers, including Tomorrowland, American Rag, Ron Herman and United Arrows. Despite the impressive trajectory his small business has taken since he launched the brand with a small capsule in 2013, he's still a relatively unknown name outside of fashion circles and his devoted fans — but that hasn't stopped massive global surf company O'Neill from slapping him with a lawsuit that threatens the very core of what he's built.
"In what amounts to little more than institutionalized bullying, [O'Neill has] been trying to force me to stop using my name," O'Neil recently wrote to Fashionista in an email. "It seems like there is essentially no recourse unless you have lots of money to burn, or have the perception of size or strength to oppose them." O'Neill, which was established in California 65 years ago as a wetsuit and surfboard business, has filed motions to block the trademark of the designer's word mark "Thaddeus O'Neil," as well as his stylized stacked logo (see neon sign below) that includes a "TO" illustration which looks like an inverted Venus symbol. ("O'Neill," with two Ls, and its signature "wave logo" are both trademarks that are registered worldwide and bear no resemblance to O'Neil's.) Despite his position in the CFDA Incubator — which purports to teach the next generation of New York-based fashion designers crucial business development skills — the CFDA is unable to provide him with neither legal nor financial assistance.
"I've spent five years building brand equity in my company, and now it appears as though I'm going to be forced to abandon not just my word mark, but my trademarked stylized logo as well — and therefore my entire business," O'Neil said. The designer has already spent ample time and money in an attempt to rectify the situation; he even flew out to California to meet with O'Neill's lawyers in person. In addition, the designer is in the midst of creating a new collection that goes to market in less than a month and is currently shipping deliveries of completed product to retailers. If O'Neill is successful in the suit, and O'Neil must comply with a name and logo change, this stock would essentially be considered contraband and unsellable — another chunk of money lost, not to mention a hit to the retailers who bought items from the collection and would no longer receive them.
Despite the fact that O'Neil and O'Neill are spelled differently, cater to a completely different customer base and have vastly different price points, there's always the chance of legal liability for fledgling designers who start an eponymous brand. "It's unfortunate, but Thaddeus may be barred from using his own name as the marks could be construed as being confusingly similar," says Staci Zaretsky, editor of Fashionista's brother site Above the Law. "O'Neill has been around since 1952 and has established secondary meaning in the surf apparel market. Thaddeus, on the other hand, has only been around for about five years. He may be able to find someone to help him on a pro bono basis, but given O'Neill's dominance in the market, who knows what the outcome will be."
O'Neil grew up surfing off of Fire Island near his home and frequently takes surf trips around the world and is both shocked and saddened that members of his own laid-back community would, essentially, spend so much energy trying to take him down, despite the clear lack of customer confusion or aesthetic similarity. In another unfortunate twist, the founder of O'Neill, Jack O'Neill, passed away earlier this month at the age of 94, and was known for his relaxed soundbites like, "[The] three most important things in life: surf, surf and surf," and, regarding his company, "I'm just a surfer who wanted to build something that would allow me to surf longer." If nothing else, it's clear that the private group in Europe that acquired O'Neill in 2007 doesn't quite feel the same way. In a worst-case scenario, O'Neil told Fashionista that he would be willing to change his brand name in order to salvage his company, but we're truly hoping it doesn't come to that.