Fashion Attorneys and the New Front Row

As New York Fashion Week came to an end this past week, I realized that it wasn’t just Kanye and the consumers that were revolutionizing the bi-annual women’s wear shows. Fashion law—and the attorneys making fashion week happen—were taking charge and becoming the new front row.

When New York Fashion Week kicked off nearly two weeks ago, I watched a standing room only crowd at the Fashion Law Institute’s breakfast panel with in-house counsel. Louise Firestone, General Counsel of LVMH addressed the importance of in-house counsel knowing their business well so that they are able to serve as a “translator” between the business and legal units. Melissa Schoffer Farber of SoulCycle captured the audience’s attention when she explained how fashion law is relevant to the fitness company known for its awe-inspiring indoor cycling classes.  SoulCycle launches a new apparel collection every month, so intellectual property law is key to protecting and promoting the SoulCycle brand. But the panelists did not just focus on the existing laws. Ralph Lauren’s General Counsel Avery Fischer discussed the importance of keeping up with the changing laws and policies affecting fashion and retail, including the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

Professor Susan Scafidi, Academic Director of the Institute—which is headquartered at Fordham Law School—greeted all of the guests. She appeared pleased with the packed-to-capacity audience of fashion industry professionals, attorneys, and law students. After offering the first fashion law course in 2006, and now, with runway shows and panel programs, the Fashion Law Institute has become part of New York Fashion Week. What was once considered to be a small area of the law limited to intellectual property protection, fashion law has gained prominence as a recognized legal field involving everything from data security and privacy to real estate, mergers and acquisitions, and even public policy issues in Washington, D.C. that stand to impact the future of fashion.

I could not help but to reflect on how the field of fashion law and policy has grown. I began working on legislation affecting the fashion industry nearly a decade ago while serving as counsel and senior policy advisor for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. I spent many late nights and weekends on Capitol Hill drafting legislation dealing with cyber attacks and advancing a postal reform bill through the Senate to adjust to the increase in e-commerce and package deliveries. Initially, there was just a small group of designers and retailers interested in the legislative and regulatory policies affecting the fashion industry, but now, as the industry has changed and there is more integration with technology and social media, both lawyers and non-lawyers have taken an interest in the field of fashion law and policy.

Wit this in mind, the Federal Bar Association also held its annual Fashion Law Conference during New York Fashion Week with a day-long fashion law event held at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Once again, there was a packed audience of 100+ attendees. Conference panels organized by attorney Olivera Medenica, and sponsored in part by The Fashion Law, covered legal topics related to emerging trends in fashion, from how to deal with unpaid interns to the ethical sourcing of cotton and other materials. I presented on the e-commerce and mobile apps panel, where I discussed the legislative and regulatory developments around fashion and technology, including the increase in cyber attacks, data security, and privacy.

Both the Administration and Congress have reacted to the increase in cyber hacks and the annual estimated loss of $400 million resulting from data breaches. The Federal Trade Commission — pursuant to its consumer protection mandate — has taken a strong interest in enforcement and business education initiatives around privacy and data security. Members of Congress in both the House and the Senate have also introduced numerous data security and breach notification bills, with discussions of moving towards a compromise bill this spring. Forty-seven states, the District of Columbia and three U.S. territories have separate data breach laws, so a federal uniform bill with reasonable notification standards would be a plus for the fashion and retail industries.

As the rise of new media and social networks continue to transform New York Fashion Week and the fashion industry as a whole, the field of fashion law will also evolve and expand. In its Fashion.NYC.2020 report, the New York Economic Development Corporation highlighted the consumer-centric and tech trends that are changing the future of fashion, while also noting the nearly $900 million generated annually from New York Fashion Week. More designers are using e-commerce, mobile apps and social media to circumvent the established Fashion Week process and communicate with their customers directly.

However, the tech and social media trends for fashion also raise additional legal and policy challenges for the designers and the field of fashion law. These include cybersecurity, privacy, new trade pacts and provisions on international data laws for engaging suppliers and customers outside the U.S.

In the weeks and months ahead, fashion industry professionals will continue to discuss the relevance of the runway shows and the future of the fashion industry as a whole. As the new front row, fashion law should be a part of that discussion.

Kenya Wiley is an attorney and political strategist at Ripe Strategic Affairs where she focuses on issues at the intersection of fashion, technology, and public policy. She previously served as Counsel and Senior Policy Advisor for the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and she also worked in the legal department of a global entertainment association.