Two dress forms grace the entrance of Fordham University Law professor Susan Scafidi’s new ground-floor office. One is hugged by a lavender RM by Roland Mouret moon dress, and the other wears a pink knockoff by the — perhaps ironically named — label Rare. “It’s no accident that I put pink dresses on there,” Scafidi says, gesturing to the dress forms. “Fashion is a pink-and-lavender discipline. It’s associated with women and gay men, and there is an ongoing perception that this is a lighthearted subject. It can be, but the legal issues are every bit as complicated and hard to crack as in any other field.”
Scafidi is the director of Fordham University’s new Fashion Law Institute, the first of its kind, which officially launches September 8. The Institute, supported in part by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, will be the primary nerve center for the academic study of fashion-related legal issues; it’ll also offer pro bono legal counseling to designers in need. “Fashion law is a new academic field and it’s new to even call it ‘fashion law,’ never mind to even conceive of it as a whole,” says Scafidi.
It’s been an eventful year for the pink-and-lavender discipline, one that will not only see the opening of the Fashion Law Institute, but may see the first legislative extension of limited intellectual-property protection bestowed on an industry long plagued by copycats. Last Thursday, New York senator Charles E. Schumer introduced a ten-page Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention Act to Congress (read the full text here), the third iteration of a bill that’s been argued twice before. Scafidi is no stranger to Washington, D.C., having grown up there, testified for fashion-related intellectual property issues, and worked closely with legislators on this bill (as well as past versions). The day after the bill officially dropped, Scafidi sat down with The Cut for a one-on-one about the forthcoming Fashion Law Institute and why it’s so important for designers and retailers to really know the law.
What specifically will the Fashion Law Institute do once it opens?
It is an academic institute that will offer coursework and extracurricular kinds of symposia and seminars, but it also has an outreach aspect. We’ll be training lawyers of the future, and providing legal assistance to designers who can’t afford it for when they’re facing difficulties.
Why is it important for designers to be well versed in law?
No one wants to turn a designer into a lawyer. However, it’s so useful for anyone running a business to have some sense of what the legal aspects of that business are. And that certainly includes designers. When they set up shop, they need to know at least the point at which they need to call a lawyer, or they at least need to know what to avoid [in order] to avoid having to call a lawyer. At this point, that’s just not being provided to them. Nor do they have any centralized place to turn when they need assistance.
How is fashion law different from any other industry or field-specific law? What would, say, a Fashion Law 101 syllabus look like?
Fashion law is a little bit like a course in any other industry-specific area, like a health-law course or an art-law course or maybe a banking course — that is to say in fashion it’s about the law that touches the garment at every point in its existence. So we start with things like [what] impacts intellectual-property law? Then we move to areas in business and finance as the garment is produced, as a company is run, as there are employees involved — and that can be inside employees or independent contractors, like, for example, models. Then you have questions of import/export, of government regulation, of safety and sustainability, and so we have green fashion questions. And then toward the end of the course, we come to the point of the life in the garment where it actually reaches the consumer and is worn by the consumer. So we have some consumer-protection issues, but we also have civil-rights issues, having to do with what you wear to work, or not, what you can wear to school, or not, as well as questions of really broad issues like banning the burka, and can France do that and could that ever happen in the United States?
Beyond classes, how will the Fashion Law Institute help designers?
The outreach aspect has to do with the education of designers, but also making sure that those designers have legal services available to them when it’s necessary [and] when they can’t afford it. We will not be launching a full in-house clinic to start, although we’re hoping to work with some of the clinics already in existence when appropriate issues come up. We have a wonderful group of attorneys who want to volunteer.
What sorts of cases will you be taking on?
A designer who is fresh out of school and is starting a new business and needs to figure out how to incorporate, how to register a trademark. All the basics. Sometimes, it is just an IP case. Sometimes a designer has been knocked off and doesn’t like it; sometimes a designer wants to incorporate somebody else’s artwork in a T-shirt or in a fabric pattern and doesn’t know how to go about getting the permission. So, copyright and trademark. But it could be anything. It could be a real-estate license that somebody says, “I’m about to open a boutique. I’ve just been handed a 25-page document in very fine print from the landlord; can somebody go over it for me?” It’s all fashion-related in some sense, but it doesn’t have to be an issue that is unique to the fashion industry.
Sounds great for young, emerging designers. But what sort of representation would a bigger-name designer like, say, Alexander Wang have at the Fashion Law Institute?
Fashion houses and designers have always had lawyers. Sometimes they have different lawyers for different needs — somebody they go to for intellectual property, somebody they go to for real estate, somebody they go to when they have an employment-law question, somebody they go to when they have an immigration-law question. But small fashion houses often don’t have a single in-house counsel, [and] that’s where we can help. Or, if they do have that but just want to send the person who’s responsible for their licensing to the Institute to learn what are trigger issues, possible pitfalls … things like that.
What do you hope to accomplish here overall?
The goals are small. [Laughs.] We launched a new field of law. I want to see that field of law established so that it becomes a standard part of the legal repertoire. I want to educate an entire generation of lawyers. And I want to make sure that the fashion-design community has a place to go to educate itself, and to be sure it’s getting the right advice when it comes to legal issues. So! Three tiny little goals to achieve in the next year.
Is one of your goals also to earn respect for fashion law, in the legal field proper?
The legal community respects money. And this industry globally turns over more than a trillion dollars annually. And that’s pretty much the answer to any objection. That, and the realization that this is a very serious academic discipline. If you’re doing a mergers-and-acquisitions issue, then it’s the same issue in fashion as it would be if you were merging a couple of airlines. Obviously the details are different and it’s very important to understand how this industry works as opposed to other industries, but it’s the same kind of law. The discipline has the same — how shall I say — the same gravitas as any other. My feeling is you can fight the perception of frivolity, or you can take it and run with it. I love to play with it. And you know, it creates a very friendly space for a lot of students who would otherwise feel a little bit alienated by the law. I cannot tell you how many students have said to me “Well, professor, I knew that we would get along because I love those shoes.” And you have to laugh, right? Four years of college, three years of law school, God knows how many years of graduate school — but we bonded over the shoes.