Clothing firm’s David versus Goliath legal victory against car giants over trademark

IN what has been described as of the most memorable David versus Goliath legal cases in history, tiny Ashton family-owned Bentley Clothing has beaten luxury carmaker Bentley Motors in a legal battle over their trademark which began in 1998.

And after the victory, Bentley Clothing director Chris Lees pledged to rebuild the business back to the £5million a year brand it once was.

Chris, 46, who lives near Stamford Park, said: “Our battle began in 1998 and the High Court said Bentley Motors had sought to ‘extinguish’ our Bentley clothing business.

“In a period when my brother Richard died from a heart attack and my mum and I looked after my very ill dad who had duodenal cancer, I have represented myself in court several times to defeat Bentley Motor’s attacks on our trademarks.

“Last year I turned the tables by suing Bentley Motors in the High Court. Their appeal in the Court of Appeal was dismissed by unanimous decision of all three judges last month. Now I intend to get our Bentley clothing back to the £5m a year brand it once was.”

Father and son, Robert and Chris Lees

Bentley Motors had appealed a High Court decision it lost last year when it was sued for infringing the registered trademarks of a family-run clothing company it had attempted to force to cease trading.

Bentley Clothing began producing clothes in 1962 sold in stores across the UK and Ireland including House of Fraser and Fenwicks. At its peak, under its current owners who bought the brand in 1990, it generated £5 million a year.

Last year it successfully sued Volkswagen owned Bentley Motors for trademark infringement. Bentley Motors was ordered to stop using the trademark BENTLEY and their combination sign on clothing.

Judge Richard Hacon wrote: “My impression of 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.

“I think Bentley Motors’ policy will have had the intended effect of increasingly arrogating to itself goodwill associated with BENTLEY in the clothing business. This amounted to a steady encroachment on Bentley Clothing’s goodwill.”

Bentley Clothing sought to resolve the dispute amicably, but Bentley Motors continued to use their registered trademark and attempted several times, unsuccessfully, to cancel all the clothing company’s registered trademarks that go back as far as 1982.

The ‘ruinously expensive’ legal costs forced the family to represent themselves in the Intellectual Property Office and one director, Richard Lees, suffered a fatal heart attack in May aged 48, believed to have been brought about by the stress.

The origins of the dispute can be traced back to August 1998 when Chris wrote on behalf of Bentley Clothing to Ferdinand Piech, then CEO of Volkswagen and a director of Bentley Motors, offering Volkwagen’s newly acquired Bentley Motors a license to use Bentley Clothing’s registered trademark.

No agreement was reached but Bentley Motors went on to use Bentley Clothing’s registered trademark on their clothing anyway.

Bentley Motors’ appeal was under sections 10(1), 10(2) and the Transitional Provisions of The Trade Marks Act 1994 and was heard before Lord Justice Arnold, Lord Justice Lewison and Mr Justice Marcus Smith on December 8. Simon Bennett and Scott Steinberg, of Fox Williams LLP, represented Bentley Clothing.

Chris described the legal battle against the corporate giants as having a “devastating” effect on his family.

“All we did was try to grow a clothing brand we bought in 1990. But our business is near crippled, our lifesavings gone, and my brother is dead from a heart attack aged 48,” he said.

“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.”

It was back in 1990 that the clothing group owned by Chris’ father Robert, now aged 84, who was managing director of Audenshaw firm Pikrose in the late 1960s, bought the Bentley brand from founder Gerald Bentley.

Bentley Motors was previously 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 said: “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.”

“We tried to reach an amicable agreement. 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 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 culminating in the latest one when Bentley Motors were defeated in the Court of Appeal.

Bentley Motors issued the following statement: “Although, of course, we are very disappointed by the ruling of the Court of Appeal, we fully respect the judgement.

“Ever since the order was made by the trial judge a year ago, we have followed this meticulously and will continue to do so in the future.

“It is, however, of great shame that our request to donate all relevant stock to charitable causes after it had been de-branded, has been rejected by the third party in this time of great need.

“Whilst ensuring that we are complying with the order, we are taking all possible steps to ensure that any goods which have to be destroyed are destroyed in an environmentally friendly manner as possible.”

Chris took exception to Bentley Motors’ statement, declaring: “All Bentley Motors’ clothing seems to have Bentley in the fabric of the garment and even sometimes in multiple places.

“As clothing experts, we don’t believe it is possible to remove Bentley without ruining the item and we suspect the offer is a disingenuous PR stunt from Bentley Motors’ PR team.

“It’s also very important that their infringing clothing stops finding its way on to eBay. The very existence of their clothing has damaged our business. In the courts words it has ‘arrogated’ the goodwill from our trademark.”

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