For years, the world's two largest shoe and apparel companies -- Nike and Adidas -- have battled for supremacy, with the competition occasionally leading to a lawsuit over a particular design or material, which one considers proprietary.
But on Monday, Nike took it to the next level, suing three former designers who had left the company, alleging they used Nike's trade secrets to sell themselves to Adidas.
The lawsuit, filed in the county in Oregon where Adidas has its U.S. headquarters, alleges that some of its biggest designers, Denis Dekovic, Marc Dolce and Mark Miner, while still employees of Nike, began to build a blueprint to replicate Nike's famous Innovation Kitchen and stole secrets from inside its walls to take elsewhere. The Kitchen is where Nike's top designers build out shoes years in advance, testing new materials and concepts. Only a select few on Nike's sprawling campus have access to open its doors.
The lawsuit, which asks for more than $10 million in damages, alleges that before the three left Nike, they were already consulting with Adidas. To further sell themselves and capitalize on their position, Nike says Dekovic had the contents of his laptop duplicated, which gave him access to "thousands of proprietary documents relating to Nike's global football (soccer) product lines" where Adidas and Nike most fiercely battle.
Among other things, the documents included specific designs, including models of team uniforms and products for the 2016 European Championships, plans for Nike-sponsored athletes in at least seven countries, unreleased financial information and projections concerning the company's business and information about Nike's planned launches in the marketplace.
"All of this information is among the most important and highly confidential information in Nike's athletic footwear business, particularly its global football business," the lawsuit reads. "Disclosure of any of this information would irreparably harm Nike, by, among other things, enabling a competitor to effectively undermine and counter Nike's performance in the athletic markets for the next three to four years."
Before leaving the company, Nike alleges the three designers erased emails from their computers and text messages on their phones to destroy any incriminating data that would lead back to their scheme.
"We find Nike's allegations hurtful because they are either false or are misleading half-truths," the designers said in a statement provided to the Portland Business Journal by their law firm. "We did not take trade secrets or intellectual property when we departed Nike in September. The athletic footwear industry is fast moving and rapidly changing and, as creative people, we thrive on innovation and freshness. We are looking forward to bringing new and innovative ideas and designs to Adidas when our non-competition agreement expires."
Dekovic was the senior design director for Nike football (soccer), Dolce worked on the shoes for LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and managed historic brands such as the Air Force One and the Dunk shoe and Miner was the senior footwear designer for Nike running, one of the company's biggest growth categories.
Nike says the three had signed a noncompete contract that spanned to September 2015. Yet less than two weeks after the three resigned, Adidas announced that it would back a Brooklyn-based design studio managed by Dekovic, Dolce and Miner.
Even though Adidas said at the time that the three wouldn't work for them until 2015, Nike remained concerned about the trade secrets it claims were stolen from them.
The company says it has spent more than $1.5 million in the past three years alone to ensure that its employees keep information confidential, and said in a statement Tuesday night that "Nike is an innovation company and we will continue to vigorously protect our intellectual property."
Adidas officials did not specifically address the allegations.
"Many of our employees have storied careers and rich experiences, but we have no interest in old work or past assignments as we are focused on shaping the future of the sporting goods industry, not looking at what has been done in the past," the statement said.
Nike's world headquarters in Beaverton and Adidas' U.S. headquarters in Portland are located about 13 miles from each other.