If your idols are Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Diane Von Furstenberg, then we have the perfect career path for you.
The Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School in New York is offering lawyers the opportunity to specialize in fashion law this September. It’s the first academic degree of its kind in the world, which is pretty exciting news. (Don’t lament if you’re more familiar with LV than your LSATs, the program also offers a master’s in fashion law for non-lawyers, too.)
We asked the institute’s founder and academic director, for the lowdown on the field of fashion law—and the inspirational backstory behind the program’s creation.
What is fashion law, practically speaking?
I like to say that fashion law includes every moment at which law touches the life of a garment, from the designer’s dream to the consumer’s closet. That means we start with intellectual property protection of designer’s names and embodied ideas, move to business and finance issues including employment and real estate, then on to international trade and government regulation, including things like safety and sustainability, and finally to consumer culture and civil rights, including questions of what we’re permitted to wear to work or on the street and issues related to religious apparel.
Where did the idea for it emerge?
Back in the late ’90s, when I was a junior prof, I wanted my research to focus on the question of why fashion had so little intellectual property protection under U.S. law when so many other creative media have very extensive protection. Canadian law is very similar in that regard, with just a little bit more protection than the U.S. My tenure committee essentially forbade it—too girly, too frivolous—despite the fact that it was an interesting theoretical question and that fashion is a trillion-dollar industry. So, I went on to write about other things, like cultural appropriation, got tenure, and came right back to fashion.
At about the same time, the fashion industry was once again asking the same question: Why doesn’t the law protect us? I had moved to New York—temporarily I thought—and started a blog, Counterfeit Chic, which became the genesis for a field of “fashion law,” and started working with the industry. I soon realized that, while fashion houses had always consulted lawyers, there was no organized field of fashion law and no specific training for it, unlike sports law, art law, health law, banking law and so many other industry-specific areas. So, when I came to Fordham, I received approval to create the first course in the area. Several years later, in 2010, the Council of Fashion Designers of America helped me to create the Fashion Law Institute, an independent nonprofit that is headquartered at Fordham.
What kind of lawyer has been helping designers navigate the law traditionally? What can a fashion lawyer do that they can’t?}
Every designer, every fashion house, every apparel company makes decisions affected by law on a daily basis. Some can afford in-house counsel; many cannot. When we first defined “fashion law” as a field, there were no law school courses on the subject, law firms did not have established practice groups in the area, and there were no bar association committees focused on fashion law—attorneys had to train themselves to understand the application of law to the fashion industry, and designers had to find attorneys to assist them when necessary, often different attorneys for different issues. In fact, some of the attorneys who proudly advertise themselves as experts in the field today laughed at the beginning and told me that they were NOT “fashion lawyers.”
Fashion lawyers, simply put, understand the business of fashion and how the law affects it. Designers thus don’t have to pay for billable hours during which they’re trying to teach their lawyers about the fashion industry. Instead, they can work with attorneys who already have a level of experience and expertise.
Is the idea to serve designers and better? Or does fashion law cover the consumer or retailer too?
We’ve always included consumer issues as part of the field of fashion law: labeling, safety, sustainability, and even regulation of what we wear. Retailers, too, are part of the equation—in fact, we have a course in fashion retail law.
How long is the program? What’s the cost? What’s the level of interest among students?
Either the LLM for lawyers or the MSL for non-lawyers is a one-year full-time program, and there’s also a part-time option available. The tuition is approximately $53,000 USD for the LLM and 25 percent less for the MSL. The level of interest is overwhelming, with emails and applications coming in from all over the world.
Is a love of fashion a prerequisite or just a love of law?
The most committed fashion lawyers and the smartest designers are deeply immersed in the fashion industry and have a strong awareness of the importance of law to the business of fashion. Fashion law is about loving what goes on behind the seams.