Chinese company calls French firm ‘robbers’ for making Feiyue trainers

Durable sports shoe favoured by martial art exponents in China at the centre of international dispute that raises questions about intellectual property rights in an age of global commerce

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 February, 2017, 6:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 February, 2017, 6:15pm

When it comes to the sincerest form of flattery – imitation – Chinese companies are often considered to be the champions. From popular luxury handbags and Rolls-Royce cars to smartphones and even KFC fast food, there is little they won’t duplicate. Additionally, Chinese transliterations for famous Western brand names are trademarked in China, putting the original innovators in a bind when they want to sell in China.

Now, the tables may be turning, with one French business finding inspiration in a Chinese product and giving the design a sophisticated makeover. And not everyone in China is happy with the turn of events.

Feiyue is a brand of sneaker that originated in Shanghai in the 1950s as humble footwear favoured by monks and martial arts students. Known for their durability, the plimsolls gained a cult following. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, all martial arts performers in the opening ceremony wore Feiyue (which translates as “fly forward”). They are also the footwear of choice for secondary school students in PE lessons.

Patrice Bastian, a marketing and events manager, bought a pair of Feiyue for practising martial arts while he was living in Shanghai in 2005. He sensed that there could be a market for the shoes outside China. In the same way that Vans, Converse and Superga have evolved from humble beginnings to become youthful fashion statements, Bastian wanted to transform Feiyue into a hip must-have sports shoe for the French market.

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So in 2006, he began working with a factory in China that manufactured the shoes. The following year, however, a factory representative told Bastian it could no longer continue to provide the small quantities his start-up required. Having poured his life savings into the business, Bastian was reluctant to give up. He asked if he could buy the brand registration to continue producing Feiyue independently through other factories in China and sell them in France. The factory manager consented, and Bastian went on to trademark the Feiyue name in France, and then the US.

Going it alone, the French shoe brand has grown exponentially and on a global scale. It has recently trademarked the Feiyue name in Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan. Bastian has also harnessed social media and marketing to turn the shoe into a chic, sought-after label, with more than 250,000 likes on Facebook.

The popularity of Bastian’s products has not gone down well in China, however.

“They’re robbers,” says Liu Qinglong, manager of Shanghai Da Fu Rubber Co, speaking to the Post by phone from Shanghai. Liu says he has worked with Da Fu, the parent company of what is considered to be the original Feiyue manufacturer, Double Coin, since 1979. He claims the French company took advantage of China’s Feiyue during a period when the communist state was still grappling with capitalism and privatising state-owned assets.

“No one in China knew about commodity intellectual property rights at the time and it wasn’t until 2007-08 that we found out the French had registered the trademark,” Liu says.

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Bastian, 45, co-founder and creative director of France’s Feiyue company, says: “It’s actually a legal issue and there are many things that we cannot control. The main issue is that many people are claiming the right to this brand in China. So it’s very difficult to work with one owner.

“I wanted to have a unified brand. My dream was to partner with the real Chinese owner,” he adds.

He says when he tried to acquire the rights, there seemed to be multiple factories in China producing similar styles of the Feiyue plimsoll, so it was difficult to identify the “original” manufacturer. The factory he started out working with was an affiliate of Double Coin, he says, but he was unaware of that at the time.

Ironically, if the Chinese company tries to sell its shoes in France, or in other markets where Bastian’s company has trademarked the products, customs officials could intercept them and declare them fakes – copies of the “authentic” French version.

As long as the Chinese company has not registered its Feiyue mark in France, the French company can register it in France without getting anyone’s approval, and its registered mark is protected in France
Dr Li Yahong, the University of Hong Kong

Chinese Feiyue in France are counterfeit, Bastian says. “Ultimately, it comes down to business. We have the brand registration. We’re very respectful of the legal issues. For us, it’s two very different products.”

Liu asserts that Da Fu rubber has legally registered the trademark in China, where the brand originated, and is the rightful owner. Still, he acknowledges that the French market is legally off-limits to the Chinese company.

“We have overseas Chinese and foreigners come to buy our shoes, but we don’t take overseas orders because we’re in a stand-off with the French,” he says.

Dr Li Yahong, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong who specialises in intellectual property law, says that from a legal perspective a trademark is protected territorially, and on a first-to-file basis.

“As long as the Chinese company has not registered its Feiyue mark in France, the French company can register it in France without getting anyone’s approval, and its registered mark is protected in France,” she says.

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The cross-border trademark issue has been in the spotlight recently after it was revealed that more than 225 Trump-related trademarks had been registered in China, based on the corporate brand name of US President Donald Trump. Chinese Trump trademarks range from condoms and toilets to pacemakers and a hotel. Representatives for Trump are fighting to have the Chinese trademarks dismissed.

It also emerged last week that at least 65 applications to use Trump’s daughter’s name “Ivanka” as a trademark have been submitted in China, for products including wallpaper and alcohol.

The issue of intellectual property rights in the case of the Feiyue brand – or brands – is further complicated by the fact that factories in Shanghai have recently started copying Bastian’s designs.

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The original Feiyue plimsolls were produced in white or black. As Bastian has grown his company, he has introduced new designs and styles, such as blue canvas and patterned pairs. These are now being replicated in China. There is even a helpful article on eBay.com titled “How to identify fake Feiyue shoes”, with photos of the French versions – and the “designed in Paris” logo – included in it to help users differentiate between the “authentic” French ones and the “fakes”.

The rise of online shopping makes matters even murkier, because in the global marketplace physical boundaries are no longer a barrier, and this raises a host of questions about the future of intellectual property rights.

Until such legalities are resolved, one factor in the race for online Feiyue sales could be pricing. Bastian’s shoes sell for upwards of 55 (HK$450), whereas the Chinese version of the shoes retail at between 20 and 60 yuan (HK$23 and HK$68).

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Bastian says the difference in price largely reflects the quality, although there are other factors. “The quality is very, very different,” he says. Representatives of his company held discussions with many factories in China, each proposing drastically different prices. However, lower costs equated to lower quality when it came to the rubber, the glue, the canvas and the working conditions for employees. Bastian says he wasn’t prepared to compromise in his choice of manufacturer.

“In Europe or the US, you can’t provide something bad. There are a lot of things out of our control … the glue matters, the canvas, the rubber … all the chemicals that they can sometimes use in China that we can’t use [in France].

“Maybe you can’t see it, but actually in the end the quality is very different. Also, if you buy it in China, there is no taxation, no importation costs, and no transportation costs,” he says, further explaining the price differentiation.

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By extension, the differences are why he feels he hasn’t just copied the Chinese product.

“For us, our shoes are original in our countries where the registration is there. It’s another version of the Chinese, I would say. For example, we have brand registration in the US. [Our] Feiyue in the US are the original ones, because we have the brand registration,” he insists.

Uniting the French and Chinese Feiyue brands could be one way around the thorny trademark and intellectual property problems. So despite current disagreements, could there be collaboration in the future? Bastian says he is open to the idea of a partnership, but Liu isn’t as keen.

“Why would we work with them? They just came to take our stuff away,” he says.

Additional reporting by Young Wang