It’s the go-to footwear of Shaolin monks and kung fu practitioners.
For nearly a century, the plimsolls of Chinese sneaker brand Feiyue have been coveted for their comfort, flexibility, and price (a pair still retails in China for about $3 to $8).
The shoes’ history dates back to the 1920s, when a tire company in Shanghai decided to use its excess rubber to make footwear.
They quickly became popular with athletes and martial arts practitioners, who found the shoes functional and light. They were famously worn by performers at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Since then, Feiyue has earned cult status among fashion connoisseurs the world over. Among the fans are Orlando Bloom and Poppy Delevingne, who once told W Magazine that she “lived in” the sneakers.
But the brand also has a complicated history. Like many companies in China, Feiyue fell victim to the idiosyncrasies of local trademark laws and global hype for all things retro.
Feiyue’s Chinese name means “to leap” or “fly over,” but its slogan, “Flying forward,” might be more familiar to people in the West.
It encapsulates the brand’s unexpected trajectory from local gem to international fashion icon.
From the 1960s to ’80s, the Chinese footwear industry was dominated by two brands: Feiyue and Warrior.
Both labels were founded in the 1920s and became famous for their plimsolls. In their heyday in the 1970s and ’80s, everyone in China seemed to have a pair of canvas sneakers from one of these labels.
By the 1990s, though, young people had become more enthusiastic about foreign sportswear brands such as Nike and Adidas.
Warrior and Feiyue were forgotten for about a decade until a French entrepreneur, Patrice Bastian, rediscovered the shoes while learning martial arts in Shanghai.
Sensing potential for the shoes outside China, Bastian bought the rights to sell Feiyue in France in 2006.
In the same way that Vans, Converse, and Superga evolved from humble beginnings to become street fashion statements, Bastian hoped Feiyue might resonate with the Western market.
It worked. In 2008, Feiyue reached unexpected heights when it collaborated with French fashion label Céline. The low-end nature of the affordable sneakers contrasted stylishly well with high-end Parisian fashion, giving new life to the Chinese brand.
Pictures of Bloom rocking the kicks on the set of New York, I Love You also gave the brand a boost.
Who is the ‘real’ Feiyue?
Meanwhile in China, the original maker of Feiyue was fuming.
“They’re robbers,” says Liu Qinglong, manager of Shanghai Da Fu Rubber, the parent company of Double Coin, considered the original manufacturer of Feiyue.
Liu claims the French company took advantage of China’s Feiyue during a period when the country was still grappling with the concept of intellectual property rights.
“No one in China knew about intellectual property rights at the time,” Liu says. “It wasn’t until 2007, 2008 that we found out the French had registered the trademark.”
For his part, Bastian says the vagaries of Chinese trademark protection made it difficult to ascertain who was the brand’s true owner.
“It’s actually a legal issue and there are many things that we cannot control,” he says. “The main issue is that many people are claiming the right to this brand in China.”
The factory that Bastian started out working with was an affiliate of Double Coin, he says, but he was unaware of that at the time.
“My dream was to partner with the real Chinese owner.”
“I wanted to have a unified brand,” Bastian says. “My dream was to partner with the real Chinese owner.”
Ironically, if the Chinese company now tries to sell its shoes in France, or other markets where Bastian’s company has trademarked the Feiyue name, customs officials can intercept them and declare them as fakes, copies of the “authentic” French version.
“Why would we work with them? They just came to take our stuff away.”
Liu asserts that Da Fu is the rightful owner of Feiyue and has legally registered the trademark in China, where the brand originated.
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.
From a legal perspective, trademark protection is territorially limited, says Li Yahong, a professor at the University of Hong Kong who specializes in intellectual property law.
“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,” she says, “and its registered mark is protected in France.”
Two countries, one brand
Until the legalities are resolved, both companies have continued to churn out Feiyue shoes for their respective markets.
“For us, our shoes are original in our countries where the registration is there,” Bastian says. “It’s another version of the Chinese, I would say.”
Uniting the French and Chinese Feiyue brands could be one way around the thorny trademark and intellectual property problems.
Bastian says he is open to the idea of a partnership, but Liu isn’t as keen.
“Why would we work with them?,” he says. “They just came to take our stuff away.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.