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Taking a Stance Against IP Infringement, Birkenstock Cuts Ties with Asian Retailer

Birkenstock is breaking up with one of its largest retail partners in the Asia Pacific region due to the proliferation of copycat designs.

The footwear maker has accused Japanese distributor ABC-Mart of ripping off iconic Birkenstock silhouettes and is taking action by dissolving a nearly 20-year relationship. In a memo seen by WWD, Birkenstock said that the retail chain’s line of shoes, called Hawkins, “adopts designs identical—or confusingly similar—to our shoes.”

Birkenstock’s multiple requests over the years that ABC-Mart halt the production of the knock-off goods were rebuffed by the retail chain.

“Unfortunately, ABC-Mart has proved unwillingness to make any concessions or display any interest in cooperating on this matter whatsoever,” the memo said. “We have now reached the point where we are forced to take unilateral action to protect our brand and avoid further damage to it.”

The memo explained that Birkenstock would cease accepting orders from ABC-Mart immediately. Signed by chief sales officer Klaus Baumann, it also encouraged Birkenstock sales teams to ask for support from other distributors in fighting IP theft and counterfeiting.

It’s an arena where Birkenstock historically has pulled no punches; in July of 2016, the brand removed its products from Amazon’s marketplace over counterfeit concerns.

“The Amazon marketplace, which operates as an ‘open market,’ creates an environment where we experience unacceptable business practices which we believe jeopardize our brand,” Birkenstock USA CEO David Kahan said at the time. “Policing this activity internally and in partnership with Amazon.com has proven impossible.”

While countless other brands have cited concerns about illicit products and sellers, few have resolved to cut ties with the e-tailer. The cost of losing Amazon’s volume-driving business is too great, even if it means facing competition from fakes and illegitimate sellers.

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Birkenstock, however, has taken a hard line when it comes to protecting its stature as a key player in footwear retail. The nearly 250-year-old German brand has enjoyed a steady, stable following for decades, rarely deviating from its simple, comfort-driven styling.

Despite the shoes’ modest appearance, the brand has gone through a notable renaissance in recent years, attracting the attention of the high-fashion set.

The brand is so confident in its vision that it turned down a potential collaboration with streetwear giant Supreme. Oliver Reichert, one of Birkenstock Group’s CEOs, told The Cut in 2018 of the logo-laden brand’s overtures, “There’s no benefit for us except prostitution.”

Clarifying those sentiments to the Financial Times in May, sales chief Baumann said, “It was never about function for them, just logos. These were not product people.”