Polartec defends patents as it puts itself up for sale

Ingredient brand aims to protect famous grid-back fleece. Private-equity owner looks to sell.

Last year at OutDoor Friedrichshafen in Germany, Polartec noticed a garment from one of its customers that used the brand’s patented grid-back knit construction. Someone had simply cut Polartec’s logo out of the fabric.

The culprit turned out to be Pontetorto S.P.A., an Italian fleece fabric supplier. Pontetorto apologized, but has continued to use its alleged copycat Technostretch fleece, selling it to manufacturers who built garments with it. Polartec claims Technostretch is an infringement of its patent on grid-back fleece fabric, best know from Patagonia’s R3 fleeces.

Polartec has taken up legal action against Pontetorto, filing a patent infringement complaint with the German District Court Duselldorf against the Italian company and its German sales agent Christian Weichert Internationale Textilvertretungen GmbH. The Massachusetts-based company made the decision to take the case to court defending its European patent because German legal decisions usually set precedent across the rest of the European Union and it was the country where the worst examples of infringement were taking place. The suit seeks monetary compensation as will as an injunction preventing the sale of products made with Technostretch.

“A lot of the damage has already been done,” Polartec CEO Gary Smith said. “We carry the cost of creating these fabrics. It’s more than a copying issue. It’s time for the industry to pause and reflect on what it is doing. We complain about a ‘sea of sameness,’ yet many are turning to global outsourcing. At some point, you have to create a point of differentiation. For us that’s the intellectual property of creating innovative textiles.”

This is not the first nor will it be the last time Polartec — which has recently brought to market new fabrics like its breathable, waterproof NeoShell and breathable Alpha insulation, created initially for military needs — has had to defend its patents. In most cases, the offending companies settle by creating a supplier agreement or paying a licensing fee with Polartec. The current case disappoints Smith, since Pontetoro is part of a larger complex of Italian fabric manufacturers who have slowly been losing their generations-old connection to local families.

“It smacks of desperation,” he said.

This all comes amid a buzz that Polartec is for sale, news that Smith confirmed as true, explaining that the Massachusetts-based company has been steadily growing since it was bought out of bankruptcy in 2007. The current owners are Versa Capital Management, which invest into troubled companies and get them back on their feet, including Eastern Mountain Sports and Sport Chalet.

“It’s not a question of if, but when,” said Smith, who has overseen new product launches at Polartec since he came on two years ago. He said a natural owner would make more sense than the brand being part of a financial portfolio.

–Doug Schnitzspahn