CHRIS Lees, a director of Tameside-based Bentley Clothing, has described the devastating effects on his family of the company’s ongoing 15-year legal battle against Bentley Motors over a registered trademark.
Chris, who lives near Stamford Park, claimed fighting a corporate giant has ruined their lives.
“All we did was try to grow a clothing brand we bought in 1990. But our business is near crippled, our lifesavings have gone, and my brother is dead from a heart attack aged 48,” he said.
Chris added though Bentley Clothing successfully sued Bentley Motors in the High Court in July 2019, the battle still has no end in sight as he demanded: “Should this be allowed to happen in a fair society?”
It was back in 1990 that the clothing group owned by Chris’ father Robert, who was managing director of Audenshaw firm Pikrose in the late 1960s, bought the Bentley brand from founder Gerald Bentley.
It had been established in 1962 and, Chris’ family, reached annual retail sales of approximately £5 million across the UK and Ireland and stocked by House of Fraser and Fenwicks.
Chris pointed out his earliest Bentley registered trademark for clothing dated as far back as 1982.
Bentley Motors, he pointed out, is a car brand with a chequered history. It was owned by Rolls Royce which candidly admitted in a 1984 press release: “the company thought seriously about dropping the name (Bentley, on cars)”. Its fortunes changed dramatically for the better in 1998 when it was bought by Volkswagen.
Chris pointed out their clothing company’s fortunes had also changed dramatically a few months earlier when it had been put into receivership by the bank and they been almost ruined.
He said: “We lost our home and jobs. But we got back the Bentley clothing brand and managed sales that year of about £100,000.
“When Volkswagen bought Bentley Motors and we read they would struggle to turn around the car brand we thought it was a great opportunity for both companies.
“I wrote to Volkswagen CEO Ferdinand Piech explaining our history and suggesting the car company might benefit by selling ‘Bentley’ clothing.
“We’d been a major supplier to companies like Burberry. We were offering to help Bentley Motors and proposed a deal that would allow them exclusive use of our registered trademark on clothing. We had discussions but nothing came of it and we carried on our business.”
But in 2005 the situation changed dramatically when they discovered Bentley Motors had begun to use their registered trademark on their clothing.
Chris said: “Trademarks are registered for specific products. Bentley Motors has the trademark ‘Bentley’ registered for cars. Only we ever had it registered for clothing in the UK.
“We were selling Bentley clothing long before Bentley Motors. There are also other ‘Bentley’ brands in different fields. They would not be allowed to enter our field, nor Bentley Motors’, nor vice versa. The Intellectual Property Office said: “Benefits of registration: Registering your trademark gives you the exclusive right to use your mark for the goods … that it covers in the United Kingdom.”
Chris said: “Our lawyers in 2005 advised us Bentley Motors’ clothing was infringing our trademarks and advised us to take action, but were told, we would need at least £500,000 to sue. We couldn’t afford that.
“We tried to reach an amicable agreement instead. At Motors’ request, we made a proposal that would have allowed them to use our trademarks. We did not ask for big money. But they rejected our modest proposal, made no counter proposal, but continued to use our trademark regardless.
They probably knew we could not afford to sue.”
As Motors were now using their trademark, Chris added they had little chance of securing funding to grow the brand.
Chris said: “We therefore tried to find partners we could work with but, as the Intellectual Property Office found, we had “entered into a series of negotiations, many of which foundered upon the fears of those companies of being sued by (Bentley Motors)”.
“Still, we worked hard to grow the business but under the circumstances it struggled.”
Since then, Chris explained they have endured a multitude of legal actions which can each cost them up to £20,000.
Chris continued: “As Motors had begun to use our registered trademark on their clothing, I sought to differentiate our name from theirs.
“Three times I tried to register a similar trademark with a point of difference such as ‘Bentley 1962’, the year our brand was founded. Bentley Motors took legal action to block them all.
“They tried to register an identical trademark for clothing as ours four times, costing us each time. Then from 2015 they instigated five legal actions that would have cancelled all our trademarks.
“Some of these actions we didn’t fight because we couldn’t afford to. We concentrated on the critical ones. Because the legal costs were so high, I began to represent us myself acting both as solicitor and advocate in court. I won them all.
“These legal actions proved we were the rightful owners of the registered trademark ‘Bentley’ for clothing in the UK and stopped Bentley Motors from getting it off us.
“When litigation funding became available to us in 2017, we had little choice but to take legal action that would stop Bentley Motors from using our trademark.”
The High Court decision, in November 2019, said Bentley Motors had infringed the clothing company’s trademark.
The judge wrote Bentley Motors’ policy is “consistent with an intent to clear away Bentley Clothing’s right to protect the Bentley mark for clothing and headgear and ultimately to extinguish Bentley Clothing’s right altogether”.
Bentley Motors is appealing the High Court decision and has another action against Bentley Clothing.
Chris said: “The damage to my family has been astronomical. I collapsed earlier this year and the consultant at A&E thought it was stress related and in May my brother Richard died aged 48 of a heart attack.
“We are near financial ruin and have lost 15 years of our lives. The legal work has been extremely stressful and relentless. We’ve had many sleepless nights and many times I have worked through the night.
“Somehow, we’ve managed to keep the business going, but our legal costs are far more than the business makes. Money has been so tight I have had to work in my spare time in an Asda supermarket.
But Bentley Motors is now appealing the High Court decision and, separately, another action they instigated has just re-commenced. Somehow, we will have to find the money to pay towards these legal costs so the battle continues.”
“All we did was try to grow a clothing brand we bought in 1990. It shocks me that giant corporations can be allowed to behave in this way,” Chris concluded.
The Correspondent has previously contacted Bentley Motors who declined to comment due to the legal action being ongoing.