Fashion history is littered with brands that fell victim to indiscriminate and poorly executed licensing agreements. However, most brands today lack the resources and wherewithal to produce the entirety of their product offerings in-house, so brand collaborations and licensing remain extremely common throughout the industry. When done right, licensing can provide substantial benefits to both the licensor and licensee. However, when these deals go sour, they raise questions about who should maintain ownership of the intellectual property involved. The most recent example of such controversy involves Yeezy, the brand created by Ye (formerly known as Kanye West).
Ye has been at the center of numerous widely-publicized controversies since he rose to stardom as a rapper and then designer. The incidents of the past month surrounding the infamous artist involve his antisemitic commentary, as well as his anti-Black statements and “White Lives Matter” shirts. Recently, these controversies culminated in what many believe are long overdue consequences for Ye, including the termination of his brand partnership with Adidas, and the end of a long-running relationship with the couture house, Balenciaga.
Adidas’ move to terminate their partnership came as a surprise to some, with many having claimed in the past that the partnership with Yeezy was too integral to Adidas’ business to lose. Yeezy products are estimated to have made up nearly 8% of Adidas’ revenue, a fact which further underscores the gravity of Ye’s recent conduct. After announcing the termination of the Yeezy partnership, Adidas also clarified that all of the Yeezy products they produce would be pulled from shelves. However, Adidas also added that they own the design rights to most of Yeezy’s sneakers. These developments raise interesting legal questions about the future of Yeezy sneakers, as well as fashion licensing and ownership at large.
Broadly speaking, licensing arrangements are ubiquitous in the fashion industry, with brands frequently licensing their trademarks to various licensees who will manufacture products in the brand’s name, rather than produce the full range of products themselves. In exchange for licensing out their name and trademarks, the brand will receive royalties and other fees. However, Ye’s arrangement feels slightly unusual in that licensing is more traditionally utilized by brands for secondary product lines (i.e. a clothing brand will license out their name to create a fragrance line), but Yeezy sneakers are arguably the core of the brand.
Although Ye’s contract with Adidas is not public, many have speculated about the contents of the agreement based on public statements from both Ye and Adidas. The trademarks for most Yeezy sneakers can be found registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office under Adidas, though Ye’s company has applied for trademarks pertaining to the Yeezy brand. Some speculate that the contract could potentially contain a “morals” clause, which would allow one party to “take the IP” from the other under certain conditions. If such a clause were to exist, it is hard to envision Ye emerging victorious, given the slew of hateful comments and damaging actions he has taken as of late.
In order for Ye to continue producing clothing under the Yeezy brand, he will likely be forced to abandon the designs owned by Adidas. In the meantime, Adidas has also stated that they will cease production of Yeezy products, leaving a tenuous future for Yeezy sneakers. Theoretically, Adidas could produce sneakers which resemble the Yeezy designs, so long as they refrain from using Yeezy branding. However, the optics of continuing to produce Yeezy shoes under the Adidas name, after having made public statements to the opposite effect, would be questionable at best.
Ye may have created Yeezy and designed their sneakers, but he is now left unable to produce what are arguably his most famous designs. Few would be surprised if there are ensuing legal battles over his right to produce similar looking products, or to regain ownership of the Yeezy designs held by Adidas. Perhaps Ye will try to expand the accessibility of Yeezy’s products without Gap and Adidas to bolster the brand, but it is hard to imagine how he can produce mass-market products at accessible prices without the resources of a much larger company. Unfortunately, Ye’s fall from whatever grace he had left showcases exactly why fashion has a love-hate relationship with licensing agreements, and leaves a tenuous road ahead for Yeezy.
 Shoshy Ciment, Does Kanye West Have a Legal Claim Against Adidas?, Footwear News (Sept. 9, 2022), https://footwearnews.com/2022/business/legal-news/kanye-west-legal-claim-adidas-contract-1203334157/ [https://perma.cc/DV26-HND8] [https://web.archive.org/web/20221101040312/https:/footwearnews.com/2022/business/legal-news/kanye-west-legal-claim-adidas-contract-1203334157/].
 Jenni Reid, Adidas Terminates Ye Partnership, Gap Removes Yeezy Items Over Rapper’s Antisemitic Remarks, CNBC (Oct. 25, 2022), https://www.cnbc.com/2022/10/25/adidas-terminates-partnership-with-ye-following-rappers-antisemitic-remarks.html [https://perma.cc/W3Z4-4D4R] [https://web.archive.org/web/20221101040647/https://www.cnbc.com/2022/10/25/adidas-terminates-partnership-with-ye-following-rappers-antisemitic-remarks.html].
 Kim Bhasin, Adidas Plans To Keep Selling Its Yeezy Product Designs—Just Without the Kanye West Branding, Fortune (Oct. 26, 2022), https://fortune.com/2022/10/26/adidas-plans-keep-selling-yeezy-product-designs-without-kanye-west-branding/ [https://perma.cc/Q5F5-K3ZP] [https://web.archive.org/web/20221101040910/https:/fortune.com/2022/10/26/adidas-plans-keep-selling-yeezy-product-designs-without-kanye-west-branding/%20%5B/].
 South China Morning Post, Adidas Cut Ties with Ye – But What Happens To Yeezy? (Oct. 28, 2022), https://www.scmp.com/magazines/style/celebrity/article/3197568/adidas-cut-ties-ye-what-happens-yeezy-end-kanye-wests-multibillion-dollar-deal-sportswear-brand-will [https://perma.cc/2BRV-V6FP] [https://web.archive.org/web/20221101041124/https:/www.scmp.com/magazines/style/celebrity/article/3197568/adidas-cut-ties-ye-what-happens-yeezy-end-kanye-wests-multibillion-dollar-deal-sportswear-brand-will].