Student with designs on fashion law gets crash course (and a handbag) at summer institute in NYC

On Memorial Day, I piled out of a taxi in Brooklyn.

It was the quintessential “20-something girl from the Midwest heads off to New York” opening scene to a movie — I dragged my huge suitcase up the front steps and struggled to figure out how to unlock the apartment doors with the set of keys my sister’s best friend had left for me at a neighborhood coffee shop.

Of course I had packed a huge suitcase, full of a myriad of outfits for all types of occasions. I was in New York City for two weeks for the inaugural Summer Intensive Program in Fashion Law at Fordham University School of Law.

Fashion Law? Yup.

I actually have an undergraduate degree in apparel marketing and public relations and spent two years working for Payless ShoeSource at the corporate headquarters in Topeka. My friends like to joke that I’m like Elle Woods from “Legally Blonde,” but unfortunately I did not get a 179 on the LSAT nor do I resemble Reese Witherspoon.

I heard about the program on NPR last summer when Professor Susan Scafidi spoke about the new Fashion Law Institute, the only place in the country to study the emerging field of fashion law. As an undergrad at K-State, an apparel marketing course focused on the global textile industry sparked my interest in going to law school. Intellectual property law came up, and since then I have been captivated by the legal issues of the apparel and retail industry.

Back to New York.

We had class every evening, so I took full advantage of exploring the city each day. I wandered around all of the highlights, walked along the beautiful Highline in Chelsea, and visited four of the five Apple stores on the island (my boyfriend works for Apple Retail). I went to museums and saw the phenomenal Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

And of course, I ate some delicious meals. I loved having a big dish of Pinkberry for dinner (it truly is better than all of the knockoff yogurt shops around Kansas), and I scoped out the good food trucks and followed them on Twitter to find them in the city.

So what did I learn?

“Students in the Summer Intensive Program will explore the diverse areas of the law that affect the fashion industry and are at the heart of the Fashion Law Institute, including intellectual property, business and finance, international trade and government regulation, and consumer culture and civil rights. Within these categories, specific topics include the protection of fashion designs, counterfeiting, licensing agreements, fashion financing, garment district zoning, real estate, employment issues from designers to models, consumer protection, sustainability and green fashion, import/export regulations, sumptuary laws, and dress codes.”

The class was composed of 35 students from around the world: 40 percent law students, 40 percent practicing lawyers, and 20 percent non-legal fashion industry members, including the ultra-chic director of ecommerce from Marc Jacobs, who gifted us all with a Marc Jacobs tote bag that pokes fun at designers knocking off their own lines.

The class’s diversity made for interesting discussions, and Professor Scafidi had us sign up at the beginning of the course to defend a position statement. I chose to disagree with and defend the following statement: “Except in cases in which consumer safety or health are directly threatened, the manufacture and distribution of counterfeit goods should be legalized.”

We also had a series of guest speakers. My favorites included the former president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), Stan Herman, who had an outstanding sense of humor and immense knowledge of the fashion industry; and Sigrid Olsen, a former fashion designer. Sigrid had her namesake company bought out by Liz Claiborne in 1999, only to see the brand she built shut down in 2008, and the “Sigrid Olsen” trademark retained by Liz Claiborne. Lesson learned from her? Don’t name your company after yourself. Once the trademark and copyright rights to your name are sold, they are sold forever.

When we discussed issues related to modeling (employment and contract law) we had a former model tell her story about her experiences in the fashion industry, and then later in the evening heard from lawyers representing two different modeling agencies. I had never thought about the legal issues in the modeling world. Modeling agencies fight with each other to represent certain models; while models fight to stay alive on meager wages and starvation diets. Additionally, models often blindly sign away copyright privileges to the images they pose for, so the photos they think will be used in one way by one company are often resold by the photographers many times without the models receiving a penny of compensation.

I was incredibly impressed by Professor Scafidi. She lectured off the cuff nightly on a wide array of topics that are clearly her passion. The discussions on intellectual property were the most interesting to me, and it was interesting to contrast the laws in Europe, where apparel design is generally more protected, to the United States, where a bill is actually before Congress right now to offer more protection to designers.

The class was phenomenal, but I left New York overwhelmed by how much we had learned and discussed in two weeks, and figuring out how to apply it all. I hope that down the road I may be able to find a way to incorporate my love for the apparel industry into my career as a lawyer. In the mean time, I will continue to read articles posted to the Institute’s Facebook page and a few different blogs dedicated to fashion law, like the one by my professor, Counterfeit Chic, or by one of my classmates.

And yes, we all received fuchsia beach towels emblazoned with the Fashion Law Institute’s fantastic logo. I will use it with pride.

Lauren Luhrs, 2L at KU Law