A 19-year-old University of Missouri freshman has fallen under the bad graces of an $8 billion global clothing empire and one of its companies headquartered in San Leandro — and he is loving every minute of it.
Jimmy Winkelmann has a growing apparel company called The South Butt, which sells fleece jackets and T-shirts, just like The North Face, a popular outdoor San Leandro apparel company that has nurtured a reputation for rugged wilderness wear under the corporate umbrella of the multibillion-dollar VF Corp.
The North Face motto: Never stop exploring.
The South Butt motto: Never stop relaxing.
Winkelmann said he saw students paying big money for North Face fleece vests and puffy jackets just to fit in. With a little help from his businessman father and a godfather who has a company that puts logos onto T-shirts and pens, he started The South Butt to mock the entire concept of paying more for brand-name clothing.
In December, The North Face sued Winkelmann for trademark infringement and is attempting to shut him down and destroy his merchandise.
"I don't really understand why they're coming after me," Winkelmann said. "Some people think that parody is the sincerest form of flattery."
Before the lawsuit, Winkelmann said he sold about $5,000 in South Butt merchandise. But after the lawsuit, he pulled in that amount in a single hour.
"We're running out of inventory. The orders are still flying," he said.
The lawsuit has attracted the attention of newspaper and television reporters, and Winkelmann has been interviewed by a local radio station and National Public Radio, and was mentioned by Rush Limbaugh.
"Since the lawsuit, he has now made enough to pay for his tuition for four years of college plus room and board," Winkelmann's attorney, Albert Watkins, said.
With 14 employees, Watkins said Winkelmann has "created more jobs for the state of Missouri than Obama's stimulus plan."
Watkins said he heard about the lawsuit while playing squash with Winkelmann's father. He said he agreed to represent Jimmy in exchange for "an excellent bottle of burgundy."
"Little Jimmy is like a Midwestern Alfred E. Neuman," Watkins said, referring to the goofy character from Mad Magazine. "South Butt has never been more excited about what's going on. They are embracing the litigation and benefiting fiscally a great deal by virtue of it."
In response to an inquiry from the Bay Area News Group, The North Face released a statement that says, "Unfortunately, and inevitably, our success attracts hundreds of opportunists annually seeking to pirate our famous trademarks for their profiteering. The defendants named in the lawsuit against 'The South Butt' are the latest in a long line of such opportunists. Small and large companies alike face this type of infringement on a daily basis. We have a responsibility to our customers and employees to protect our trademarks against infringement, and we take these cases seriously."
But, in the meantime, "I just can't help but laugh about it all," Winkelmann said. "It's been a lot of fun."
Jason Sweeney covers San Leandro. Reach him at 510-293-2469.