He won a David and Goliath legal battle. But at what cost?

'This whole thing has ruined us'

By David Barnett

When Christopher Lees was 16, his father told him he was buying a clothes business. Another one — because the family was already heavily invested in the rag trade.

It was called Bentley Clothing, and it had been going since the 1960s — making polo shirts and other casual sportswear that consciously harks back to the decade of its founding and the era of gentlemen sports stars like the golfer Arnold Palmer. Its clothes were stocked by House of Fraser, Fenwicks, and hundreds of golf clubs across the country.

Christopher’s father Robert Lees moved the company to Manchester after purchasing it in 1990. He integrated it into his existing textiles firm, which had factories in Wigan, Stretford, Rusholme and Ashton-under-Lyne and which produced coats for quality clothing brands like Burberry, Aquascutum and Gieves and Hawkes.

Robert had borrowed against the family on Hartshead Estate in Ashton-under-Lyne to get the companies going. Robert drove a Ford Fiesta and their neighbours were teachers on one side and a nurse and taxi driver on the other. The family wasn’t rich, but the business had high cash flow and plenty of promise.

Christopher struggled at school and was diagnosed with dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia. An early school report said he couldn’t even spell his own name. He went on to St Damian’s RC High School in Ashton, then the Xaverian College, not far from a factory in Rusholme that his father owned.   

At Xaverian, he was the class joker. His French teacher struck a deal with him — he would be allowed to entertain his classmates for five minutes at the start of lessons, then had to let him teach the class.

Despite the hurdles he’d had to overcome during his early education, he left Manchester Met with a degree in Economic History and then got a Masters in Urban Regeneration from the University of Manchester.

During the school holidays, Christopher worked at his father’s factories, operating a button wrapping machine. It was all hands to the pump.

In-person he comes across as bright and detailed in his thinking. He is now 46. For months, he has been contacting The Mill about the case that has consumed his life for well over a decade. Now is his chance to talk about it.

The modest proposal

Christopher started working full-time in his father’s business in 1996. It was a true family firm, with his mother Ann and brother Richard also involved at various times.

But things started to go wrong in the textiles firm. It’s hard to understand exactly what went awry, but the company wasn’t able to pay its overdraft on demand, and the bank put it into receivership. “Because we didn’t have something like £600,000 in hard cash to pay off the overdraft we were essentially wiped out,” he says.

Not only did the family lose the factories — they lost their home too. “We were screwed,” he says.

What they didn’t lose was the Bentley clothing brand. It was much diminished from its peak, when it recorded retail sales of £5 million, but it was still owned by the Lees family, and Christopher sensed an opportunity for redemption.

In 1998, Volkswagen bought Bentley Motors, hoping to revive a storied luxury carmaker that had steadily lost market share to Rolls Royce. Part of that, observers assumed, was to rejuvenate and market the prestige of the Bentley brand, which was founded in London in 1919 and had risen to fame in the 1920s after repeatedly winning the 24-hour race at Le Mans.

Christopher knew his family’s Bentley clothing brand had nothing to do with the car manufacturer, but he also knew that if Volkswagen wanted to sell branded clothing, they would need to strike a deal.

In this country, registering a trademark registration gives a company exclusive rights to use that name or logo on the type of goods or services it sells. It also gives the registrant the right to prevent other companies from using “confusingly similar marks for their goods or services.”

So if you have registered the trademark Bentley for sports clothing, no one else can use it on sports clothing.

Christopher wrote to Ferdinand Piëch, the Austrian tycoon who was chairman of the car giant, described by the FT as “the ruthless engineer who built Volkswagen.” The Lees family of Ashton proposed a deal to the scion of one of Europe’s motor dynasties.

“I can’t remember exactly what I said,” he says. "But it was along the lines of, we’re a family with a lot of business experience, our fortunes have changed, we’re going through a very tough time. But we have all these employees with a lot of expertise.”

And, crucially, they had the Bentley trademark for clothing. “And we were happy to do a deal with them about that,” Christopher says. If Bentley was going to produce lines of branded clothing, he was offering to partner with them. It was a modest proposal, and it led to talks.

Christopher and Bentley Motors exchanged a series of letters and phone calls. Then he was invited to meet the firm’s General Counsel at its headquarters in Crewe.

He thought he was getting somewhere when the company asked for a written proposal. Executives told him they were “waiting to receive the views of their new owners, Volkswagen regarding non-motor products”. And then they went quiet.

‘Dirt cheap’

In 2004, when Christopher had more or less forgotten about his plan to partner with the luxury carmaker, Bentley Motors applied to register the Bentley name for clothing. It was a shock. The Lees family hadn’t heard from Volkswagen for six years. They wondered what on earth was going on.

The Lees family went to see their lawyers and were told they had a case for trademark infringement. There was just one wrinkle: they might be looking at about half a million pounds in legal costs to bring a successful action.

They didn’t have anything like that, so in 2005 they went back to Bentley Motors and proposed more talks about licensing the use of the word Bentley on clothing. “We put together a proposal, which to be quite honest was dirt cheap as far as they were concerned,” says Christopher.

“They rejected it,” he says, with resignation in his voice and a shrug that is somehow audible down the telephone line. “And they didn’t come back with any counter-proposal. We weren’t asking for a lot of money. I think our royalties would have been something like five per cent, which is very low, and given us maybe £75,000 a year.”

The family waited for a counter-proposal. “But there was nothing.”

Late in 2006, a website appeared showcasing the Bentley Collection — merchandise from Bentley Motors, including clothing. Soon after, the carmaker advertised its forthcoming clothing range comprising a “high-quality range of jackets, tops and T-shirts with contemporary design and subtle Bentley branding.”

In a previous era, this might have represented an annoyance to the Lees family, rather than a serious threat to their business. But the internet meant that Bentley Motors’ use of the brand was starting to sow confusion and mistrust among the Lees family’s clients.

When suppliers and customers Googled “Bentley clothing” they started to see the car company’s range and worried that Christopher and his family didn’t actually own the trademark for their own brand. Some worried that stocking the clothes made in Greater Manchester could land them in legal trouble.

Christopher recalls a phone call in which he was closing a deal to supply clothing when the customer did that exact Google search and got cold feet. An obscure dispute over intellectual property was now real and concrete — and it was eating into the family company’s bottom line.

The legal wrangling began. “They would try to register the brand and we would oppose them, and they would oppose our use of it, and it just went on and on,” says Christopher. “Each case took about 18 months. It was relentless.”

In 2015, almost a decade into the dispute, Volkswagen became more aggressive. It applied to cancel all the registered trademarks owned by the Lees family’s company and made two new applications to register the name Bentley for its own use on clothing.

A lawyer for the company laid out what would happen if the application was successful:

In the event that our client successfully pursues both the invalidation proceedings and (if required) the application to cancel the BENTLEY element of the series mark, you will have no remaining registrations for BENTLEY. In such circumstances, if you use the name BENTLEY in connection with clothing, Bentley would have no option other than to pursue a claim for trademark infringement and passing off to prevent any such unauthorized use of the name…

‘I didn’t sleep at all’

Christopher speaks in a low voice, but he's animated and seems in good spirits when we meet in Ashton. He's wearing a white shirt, denim jacket, grey trousers and black boots.

It's a blustery day, and clouds skid over the sky. He's also wearing black leather gloves. We walk around Stamford Park, and he points to a row of red brick houses on one side. That was where I was born, he says.

I ask him how he’s been keeping. "Shit, really. I'm bitter,” he says. “If I had to talk to the general public now, I don't think I'd win any allies. We've been fighting since 2004, and we've had no help at all. No one really cared." 

He’s been working at ASDA to help pay for the legal costs: at first on the tills and then since the pandemic, he pushes the trolleys in the car park. He was working evenings, but now he does Sundays, bringing in about £2,000 a year.

He talks about the experience of the past decade as something like a trauma. He recalls waking up in the middle of the night, soaked in sweat, heart racing. He'd switch on the computer, which was next to his bed, and just work.

Each bout of the fight with Volkswagen cost the Lees family thousands of pounds. There were umpteen registration applications, cancellation attempts, and then re-registration applications.

This is the point at which many people would have given up. Corporate history is littered with sad stories of family businesses that couldn’t afford to take on giant competitors in the courts. But for Christopher, the fight became personal. It actually became obsessive, taking over his life to the exclusion of everything else.

He decided that since the family couldn’t afford to carry on employing the lawyers they needed, he would litigate the case himself. He started teaching himself intellectual property law, reading legal textbooks into the early hours.

“I would stay up all night, reading cases and the law,” he says. “And then I would get all these documents to do with the court case. Sometimes they’d be literally thousands of pages. Some nights I didn’t sleep at all.”

In 2017 the case went to the High Court. It dragged on for another two years, during which time his father was diagnosed with cancer. Christopher was visiting him, worrying about his mother, trying to keep the business afloat, and preparing the company’s legal case.

He says his anxiety levels were so high he couldn’t eat. He would pretend to eat dinner with his mother and hide the food then go and throw it away. “I feel like real damage has been done to me,” he told me. “I don’t think anyone can understand what has happened to us.”

It is now 23 years ago that he went to Crewe to propose a deal with Bentley Motors. He admits he has no friends any more and hasn’t developed any interests outside of the court battle. Before lockdown, he would go swimming every night as his only release, but he had to give that up when the pools closed.

Why did he keep on fighting? During the more than three hours I’ve spent speaking to Christopher, I’ve never had the sense it was about the money. Was it pride that drove him on? Or some natural sense of justice?

“I was confident we could grow our business to a reasonable level,” he says. “I also never dreamt it would take 17 years. And finally, I would never let a big company come along and take what has been rightfully ours since 1990.”

In 2019, the High Court ruled in his favour. Judge Richard Hacon said that from around 2000 Bentley Motors engaged in a "steady encroachment on Bentley Clothing's goodwill". Christopher was quoted in the press saying the decision was “a huge relief."

In January, that judgement was confirmed. The court of appeal ruled in favour of the family. Bentley Motors was ordered to stop using the name on their clothing and destroy their stock. Christopher had won.

“Although of course we are very disappointed by the ruling of the Court of Appeal, we fully respect the judgement,” says a spokesman for Bentley Motors.” “Ever since the order was made by the trial judge a year ago we have followed this meticulously and will continue to do so in the future.”

But the family business is struggling badly. Bentley Motors has been ordered to pay the Lees family £400,000 in legal costs, although Christopher says they haven’t received any of that money yet, and most of it will go towards repaying legal bills. “It's not damages,” he says.

In addition, the family is in mourning. Christopher’s brother Richard died last year of a heart attack. He had stepped back from his day-to-day involvement in the business, unwilling to dedicate his life to a legal battle like Christopher has.

“This whole thing has ruined us,” says Christopher softly. “My parents are old, my dad had a massive operation for the cancer. They should be relaxing at their time of life. My brother is dead. The business is on its knees.”

What is he planning to do with his life now? He’s surprised by the question — as if his mind hasn’t been gone there yet. “I haven’t really thought about that,” he replies.

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Additional reporting and photographs by Dani Cole.