Tyga‘s “Wavy Baby” sneakers were at the center of tense hearing in Brooklyn federal court Wednesday (April 17), during which attorneys for Vans sparred with lawyers for a New York design studio over whether the shoes were protected art or illegal knockoffs.
MSCHF, the same studio that got into a legal battle with Nike last year over Lil Nas X’s “Satan Shoes,” dropped the Wavy Baby earlier this month. That sparked an immediate lawsuit from Vans over allegations that the shoe — a surreal, warped version of Van’s classic Old Skool sneaker — violated trademark law.
During a two-hour hearing over a potential restraining order sought by Vans that could ban further sales of the Wavy Baby, attorneys for MSCHF argued the shoes were a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment – an artistic parody on “sneakerhead” collectors and on branded corporate collaborations.
“These shoes comment on consumerism, on the absurdity of sneakerhead culture,” said Megan K. Bannigan, arguing for MSCHF before a Brooklyn courtroom full of the company’s local supporters. “This was released as an art project. It was not released in competition with Vans.”
But an attorney for Vans argued back that MSCHF’s claims of artistic freedom were an after-the-fact defense for a knockoff product that copied “every element” of the Old Skool and tricked consumers into thinking it was an authorized collaboration with Vans.
“MSCHF is free to create art,” Lucy Jewett Wheatley told the judge. “But MSCHF’s sneakers must follow the same rules … that all other sneaker companies follow.”
Tyga announced the Wavy Baby in an April 6 post on Instagram, sparking plenty of buzz but also immediate comparisons to Vans. Footwear News said the shoe “appears to be loosely based on the classic Vans Old Skool” that had been altered with a “wave-like aesthetic.” The site HighSnobiety went bolder: “MSCHF & Tyga’s Insane Skate Shoes Look Like Liquified Vans.”
Three days before the shoes were set to drop on April 18, Vans filed suit – claiming MSCHF’s sneakers violated its trademark rights and demanding an immediate restraining order. Citing its own efforts to collaborate with artists and riff on its own designs, Vans argued that consumers would think Wavy Baby was an authorized product, not a parody by a separate company.
MSCHF fired back with interesting arguments. It admitted that the Wavy Baby was based on the Old Skool, but said it had a legal right to use the shoe as “the cultural and physical anchor when creating its art.” The company said it wanted to critique “consumerism inherent in sneakerhead culture” and “the phenomenon of sneaker companies collaborating with anyone to garner clout and shoe sales.”
It also stressed that there was no need for a temporary restraining order, since all roughly 4,000 pairs of the Wavy Baby had already been sold and the company had no plans on selling any more in the immediate future.
At Wednesday’s hearing U.S. District Judge William F. Kuntz seemed skeptical of those assurances, and repeatedly pressed MSCHF’s attorney to explain the company’s future plans for Tyga’s sneaker or new iterations. Bannigan reassured him that no new Vans riffs were in the cards while the case was pending, but he said her statements remained “a little vague.”
“The Wavy Baby might have Wavy Babies, and I think that’s what they’re afraid of,” Judge Kuntz said, drawing laughs from the courtroom. “If that wasn’t an issue, I don’t think we’d be here.”
The judge declined to issue a ruling at the end of the hearing, and offered little clear indication that he was leaning one way or the other. But he did express some doubt about MSCHF’s argument that the shoes amounted to rare works of art that could be placed in a museum.
“You’re at 4,000,” the judge said, referring to the total number of shoes sold. “So you’re not exactly Brooklyn Museum rare.”
At the end of the hearing, the judge said a ruling on the restraining order would be issued in short order, but did not give a hard timeline.