Image: Alexander Wang

Alexander Wang is dead-smack at the center of the fashion industry’s latest round of allegations of sexual assault. The backlash against 37-year old Wang erupted leading up to the end of the 2020 calendar year when model Owen Mooney posted a video on social media site TikTok documenting how he was groped by “a famous fashion designer” – who he specified as Alexander Wang – in a nightclub in New York in 2017. As Mooney’s allegations began to make rounds on TikTok and thereafter, spread to other social media platforms, “further allegations of sexual assault and nonconsensual encounters were made against the designer, posted by Instagram accounts that did not identify the accusers,” the New York Times reported on December 31. 

In response to the recent allegations, Mr. Wang – a well-known designer famous for the cool-girl, model-of-duty-esque wares of his 15-year old eponymous label, and his stint as creative director of Balenciaga from 2012 to 2015 – asserted in a statement, “Over the last few days, I have been on the receiving end of baseless and grotesquely false accusations. These claims have been wrongfully amplified by social media accounts,” including @ShitModelManagement and @DietPrada, which Wang says are “infamous for posting defamatory material from undisclosed and/or anonymous sources with zero evidence or any fact-checking whatsoever.”

Wang – who has been celebrated with industry accolades, such as the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Womenswear Designer of the Year award, and found fans in the likes of Lady Gaga, Kendall Jenner, Miley Cyrus, and Rihanna, among many other mega-stars – continued on to assert, “I never engaged in the atrocious behavior described and would never conduct myself in the manner that’s been alleged. I intend to get to the bottom of this and hold accountable whoever is responsible for originating these claims and viciously spreading them online.”

To date, Mr. Mooney has not initiated legal action against Wang for the alleged assault, nor has it been definitively reported that he – or other accusers – intend do so. Regardless of whether Wang’s accusers opt to file suit (or maybe, aim to work out a potential settlement with the designer out of court with the help of counsel Lisa Bloom, the famed victims’ rights attorney known for “harnessing the media to get results when the courtroom is not enough,” as Business Insider put it), a few points are deserving of attention from a legal perspective, including the relevant statutes of limitations, which may have already run for certain claims.

The statute of limitations – or the amount of time a party has to initiate legal proceedings from the date of an alleged offense – for forcible touching in New York, for instance, is two years from the alleged event. However, depending on each specific accuser’s allegations and the terms of the criminal code in which the alleged events took place, the window for bringing other claims, for instance, may still be on the table. In New York, the statute of limitations for sexual misconduct charges can reach up to five years for felonies.

On the civil front, questions have been floated on social media about whether individuals that have allegedly been victims of Wang can – or will – band together and collectively take legal action against the designer similar to the way accusers of Harvey Weinstein did when they accused the film executive, the Weinstein Company, and a number of the company’s officers, directors, and executives of perpetrating and/or facilitating Weinstein’s decades-long pattern of unlawful sexual harassment and assault by way of a class action filed in 2017. (One of the draws of the civil suit was that the toll for many of Weinstein’s accusers’ claims had run; “Many of us are outside the statute of limitations, and we can’t have our day in criminal court with Harvey,” Caitlin Dulany, who accused Weinstein of sexually harassing and assaulting her in the mid-1990s, told the New York Times this summer). 

In addition to the class action, a civil rights lawsuit was filed by the New York Attorney General’s Office against Weinstein, his brother Robert Weinstein, and Weinstein’s companies in 2018 “egregious violations of New York’s civil rights, human rights, and business laws.”

The proceedings in the Weinstein case, and in particular, the rejection of a $25 million, two-years-in-the-making settlement by a New York federal court in July 2020, demonstrates the complexity and resource-intensive nature of such litigation. “After two years of legal wrangling, Harvey Weinstein and the board of his bankrupt film studio reached a tentative $25 million settlement agreement with dozens of his alleged sexual misconduct victims,” the New York Times reported in December 2019. “The settlement, [which] would require court approval and a final sign-off by all parties, would be paid by insurance companies representing the producer’s former studio, the Weinstein Company.”

Fast forward six months and that proposed deal was blocked by the court on the basis that plagues many-a-proposed class action: the individual accusers had vastly different experiences with Weinstein, thereby, leading to different harms. “Because the experiences of Mr. Weinstein’s accusers are so varied, the judge believed the case shouldn’t be handled as a class action, a legal mechanism that allows people with similar claims to band together in a single lawsuit,” the Wall Street Journal reported on Judge Alvin Hellerstein of the U.S. Southern District of New York’s decision in the case in July. 

Judge Hellerstein’s decision that injuries of the proposed class-action plaintiffs, whose allegations against Weinstein range from sexual harassment to rape, were too varied to be grouped together under the umbrella of a settlement, and thus, “would be unfair to women who Weinstein raped or sexually abused, because it treated them no different from women who had merely met him,” go to the notion at the heart of a class action certification is the notion that the individual class members all possess the same interests and assert a claim for the same injury allegedly suffered by the collective class. 

With that in mind, the case “has been controversial since its contours first came into view,” the Times’ Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey wrote at the time. “It was always a legal hodgepodge, consisting of various lawsuits, including the class action, soldered together in an attempt to reach one global deal.” Taken together, the court simply did not buy it. “This is not a class action,” Judge Hellerstein boomed during a hearing-via-phone in mid-July, inquiring as to why “the women were not pursuing individual cases, given how much their allegations varied in severity.” Further illuminating the issues at play in connection with the settlement, the judge “went on to question how the women’s allegations would be evaluated and the money allocated among them.”

Despite the fact that rejected settlement took years to negotiate (and was further complicated by the complexity of the bankruptcy proceedings,” according to the Times), potentially leaving at least some of the women “reluctant to restart the process,” lawyers for the Weinstein Co. filed the latest proposal – which includes an $18.8 million sum – with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware in September as part of a revised bankruptcy plan for the Weinstein Co. As of November, the accusers were slated to vote on the terms of the settlement, with a confirmation hearing set for January 14. 

Certainly, the scenario involving Weinstein and the allegations against Wang differ on many fronts, but the years-long sequence of back-and-forth clashes over the scope and terms of the proposed settlement in the Weinstein case, nonetheless, provides something of a demonstration of the difficulty that comes with such proceedings, which could serve to deter Wang’s accusers from initiating such a hypothetical suit, coupled, of course, with the myriad of risks that come with publicly speaking out.

All the while, it is not yet clear whether – or how – Wang will make good on his hints of potential legal action against what he calls the “defamatory” allegations lodged against him. It is also not immediately discernable whether the bona fide social media storm and growing attention from mainstream media outlets will impact the viability of Wang’s eponymous brand, which seems to be the subject of tempered demand in recent years compared to the industry-wide buzz of the not-too-distant past. It is worth noting that fashion has been slow to confront these very issues, with whispers of Wang-related allegations circulating for years, and figures like Terry Richardson working for major publications and fashion brand while allegations of his misconduct proliferated. 

For the time being, the Wang brand is protecting itself – err, its Instagram feed – from fury. As the Times’ Elizabeth Paton points out, “Mr. Wang’s Instagram account turned off the ability to comment on his latest post. The official Instagram account for his brand did the same on all of its posts this week.”

UPDATED (January 5, 2020): “Several” models accusing Wang of assault have enlisted Lisa Bloom as counsel. In an email to Vogue, Bloom – who is representing a number of models accusing photographer Bruce Weber of sexual assault and who notoriously advised Harvey Weinstein in 2017 – wrote, “The fashion industry is long overdue for a reckoning of its frequent, disturbing mistreatment of models. I’ve represented many alleging sexual misconduct in recent years, including against Paul Marciano, Bruce Weber, and others. Models are not props, and they have the same rights to workplace respect as everyone else.”

UPDATED (January 7, 2020): Bloom has since confirmed the she is representing seven of Wang’s accusers. In a tweet on Tuesday, she stated that her firm has “been barraged with calls, especially after Alexander Wang called the allegations ‘baseless,'” noting that “many call to say the ‘liar’ accusation upsets them, and to offer help and information.”