Counterfeit and knockoff merchandise has long been a potential problem a consumer will face — especially when dealing with hype fare and the potential to swindle somebody for hundreds of dollars due to the increased demand outweighing the supply.
Whereas counterfeit items find the seller attempting to fool the buyer, knockoffs find the buyer attempting to fool everyone else.
In a contemporary context, these counterfeit items have all the attributes of a real product — albeit in a lesser form where materials and small details are missed by would-be artisans.
Of course, this is extremely illegal.
Attorney Jeff Gluck, who has become somewhat of a legal maven in the streetwear sector, advises, “Essentially what you look for in these instances is whether or not there is a trademark issue. For example, Louboutin was granted trademark protection over their signature red sole, adidas has protection over their signature three stripes, and Nike has the swoosh.”
All of these fake products carry the name of the companies they are attempting to mimic. Not only does it further the ruse, but it limits liability should a brand seek to prosecute the entity that has been doing so.
But one company has been completely unafraid — wearing their imitation like a badge of honor for over 40 years.
Thom McAn began as a brick-and-mortar institution in 1922. The brainchild of Ward Melville and J. Franklin McElwain, the store’s growth was sparked by a low-cost/high-quality initiative and eventually found them expanding to Third Avenue New York City several years later.
Regularly producing shoes for a ridiculous $3.99 USD price tag, the company continued to flourish through the Great Depression, grew throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and was eventually the largest American shoe retail chain in the country with over 1,800 stores by the end of the 1960s.
By 1972, Thom McAn had sales of $512 million USD and more than 15,000 employees.
One of the biggest changes for the company was the competition it faced. Whereas during its greatest growth period during the Mad Men era it produced low-cost wingtip and oxford style shoes, the emergence of brands like Nike and adidas saw both the tastes and aesthetics of the consumers shifting quite drastically.
In turn, Thom McAn faced a conundrum. How would they compete when they would never have the ability to market and make signature shoes for athletes like Michael Jordan and Stan Smith?
Simple, they would copy them — and still be able to provide a cheap price point after becoming the in-house brand for big box stores like Sears and Kohl’s.
“Silhouettes are harder to protect because they historically do not quality for copyright protection, and without any ‘trademark’ element being copied (swoosh, three stripes, red soles, etc) it would be hard to qualify for protection,” says Gluck. “Think about it in comparison to the design of a woman’s dress. The same silhouette of a dress is often made by 100 different brands. That is not protectable. But logos, brand names, any graphic elements that might appear on the dress – that is all protectable.”
Aided by the tagline, “Who needs to spend more when you have Thom McAn?” the company regularly produced several silhouettes that were definitive rip-offs of shoes that would later being cemented as true classics.
Here are the most brazen Thom McAn knockoffs.
Air Jordan 1
Thom McAn wasn’t the only sneaker brand looking to adopt the styles of Michael Jordan’s first signature shoe. In the mid ’80s, brands like Pro-Joggs, Honors Sport, Sang, AAU, XJ9000, Stacy Adams, VTG and Pro Wings all presented their own iteration featuring red, white and black aesthetics of the Nike model — of course sans Nike/Jordan branding.
Elements like arrows, stripes and reworked Swooshes were all hallmarks of each knockoff iteration.
Thom McAn’s athletic sub brand, Jox, went so far as to even produce a version of Jordan’s wings logo which featured a basketball going through a net which had been made to look like the OG logo.
adidas Stan Smith
There’s no mistaking that Thom McAn’s Jox Tennis Shoe drew inspiration from adidas’ Stan Smith model. And since the latter model was minimalistic and light on branding from the start, it certainly would cause a double take for those growing up in the late 1970s.
Boasting a leather model for $19.99 USD and a canvas iteration for $10.99, the Jox version even went so far as to mimic the breathable vents on the side.
The major difference in approach between Thom McAn and adidas is that the German brand was hoping to encourage tennis players to don the Stan Smith — so as to channel the exploits of the American pro. But with McAn, they stated “you don’t have to be one (a tennis player) to wear them.”
Onitsuka Tiger California
The California was introduced in 1978 following Onitsuka’s realization that the growing “jogging boom” in the United States was not simply a fad and was here to stay.
Thus, Thom McAn followed suit with a “Cross Country” model which matched key attributes of the original like flared sole, reflective panel and disk on the heel and their own version of the “Tiger stripe” branding.
Nike Air Force 1
Much in the same way they added their own branding to the Air Jordan 1, Thom McAn produced their own version of the Air Force 1 which they branded the “High Five.”
Featuring a “proprioceptic belt,” which later became known simply as an “ankle strap” to sneakerheads, additional matching attributes included the cupsole design, perforated leather toe box and branding on the heel.
First introduced to the public as “Style 38” in 1978, Vans would later change the name to the Sk8-Hi to reflect its pedigree in the four-wheel community.
Unlike other shoes catered towards the thriving skate community in Southern California, Vans opted for a silhouette that was much higher than past iterations — complete with a “Jazz Stripe” on the upper.
In 1982, Thom McAn matched Vans’ sensibilities with the Jox Turbo which also seemed like a near identical clone.
In a modern context, we think of basketball shoes as being high-top silhouettes to ensure maximize ankle support. But this of course wasn’t always the case — famously illustrated by PUMA’s “Clyde” which was released in 1973 and game worn by New York Knick, Walt Frazier.
The Thom McAn Jox Basketball version adopted similar low-top attributes and quite blatantly utilized PUMA’s Formstrip which they slightly modified with two strikethrough-esque flourishes.
But with a tagline like “the ticket to your best game is only $9.99,” it was no wonder that people often for the Thom McAn version.
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