On Monday, October 15, students, faculty, and alumni gathered in Feil Hall to get an insider look at the complex high-stakes business of fashion law. The evenings’ panelists, who were featured in the cover story of the Spring issue of LawNotes, included a powerful group of fashion business alumni: Susan Posen '78, Chair of the Board, Zac Posen, Lee Sporn '86, Senior VP Business Affairs and General Counsel, Michael Kors, Sherry Jetter '86, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, HMX, LLC, and Avery Fischer '93, Senior VP, General Counsel & Secretary, Ralph Lauren. The panel was moderated by Les Fagen, a litigation partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, an expert in the areas of intellectual property and trademark law.
The evening kicked off with each panelist describing their career paths. Interestingly, none had their sights set on fashion; each fell into it rather serendipitously. Sporn, Fischer, and Posen all had worked at large law firms, and Jetter had been an Assistant District Attorney.
Given that fashion law encompasses so many different areas of the law, from real estate to corporate finance, intellectual property, compliance, and labor law, each panelist emphasized the importance of becoming a strong general practice lawyer before joining a fashion company. “As general counsel one of the most important things I do is issue spotting and making judgment calls. You need that experience to be able to make those calls. You need that breadth of lawyering skills that you learn at a firm,” said Fischer. “That’s where you build the foundation.”
In fact, none of the panelists recommended going directly from law school to a fashion house. “We don’t have time to teach young lawyers in an in-house setting,” said Jetter. “We need lawyers to come to us with the ability to hit the ground running.” However, Jetter emphasized the importance of internships as a tool for getting a foot in the door and for learning what really goes on in the legal department of a fashion house. “Internships are a wonderful opportunity to build relationships and learn first-hand about the breadth of work that crosses a general counsel’s desk,” she said. “Plus, we all love free help,” she joked.
Fagen also asked the panel to discuss the issue of copyright infringement. “Design is not protected by existing copyright law,” explained Posen. “You cannot protect the look of a dress. So your designs copied, and that creates more business in the industry, but I don’t benefit from that economically. You are taking my idea.”
“Part of the problem is that all designers get inspiration from somewhere and a lot of it is from other work. In that way, they are not duplicating, but getting inspiration,” offered Fischer. “The question is at what point does inspiration turn into imitation?” Sporn added: “You are either arguing that you were inspired, when you are a defendant, or that you were imitated, when you are a plaintiff. Our job is to make sure our own designers are clear on where we draw the line.”
Fagen also touched on the human rights issues associated with manufacturing of clothing at low-cost factories overseas. “When you manufacture overseas you have got to be able to see what is really going on there and examine the conditions,” said Jetter. “When I am confronted with those questions I always err on the conservative side. You never want to see your company on the front page of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. You have to be really careful about where you work.”
Fagen concluded the evening by asking the panelists if they thought a course in fashion law would be as beneficial as studying each of the separate subjects that make it up. Sporn, who will be teaching a course in Fashion Law at the Law School this spring, responded: “I hope it’s useful because I teach it! I think there is value in any business-focused course where what is being taught is how one gives advice in a business context. Law school doesn’t generally teach students to be advice givers and what a fashion law course can do is focus on real situations and discuss what a business lawyer will do in that situation. Posen agreed: “A course in fashion law is a course on how to be a good business lawyer.”
View photos of the event.