Fashion Week Goes the Law-School Route

New York's Fordham University offers legal assistance and courses to aspiring designers and models.

Models pose at the Fashion Law Institute Spring 2013 fashion show. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images Entertainment)

Monthly pop-up clinics occur during the academic year. They were added to the institute’s offerings about a year ago after school officials had already been fielding calls from young, new or not-yet-lucrative designers who needed help understanding their legal options.

“Most … are emerging and/or indie designers with silk-brocade dreams and frayed-shoestring budgets,” Scafidi says. Pro bono representation is a staple of many law firms but is a less common service when it comes to fashion law, she added. (There are currently no income restrictions, but this may be revisited as the clinics grow and issues become more complex.) The CFDA, according to CEO Steve Kolb, refers designers to the clinics after narrowing their concerns and reminding them that it is not a long-term legal relationship.

Meanwhile, FLI maintains a bullpen of lawyers who are required to be well-versed in fashion. (No one has time to explain what a production sample means.) Attorney Anne-Marie Bowler has volunteered for about a year. Designers seek her help with intellectual property issues; agreements with salespeople or stores that want to carry their designs; leases; copyright for jewelry or pieces of art; and trademarks for items such as logos.

She appreciates the clinic’s level of professionalism, that FLI does the client matching and especially that the issues are finite, so there is usually no need for follow-up. Bowler’s cogent advice: “Put all understandings in writing … think about how to protect your product and name when branding or going forward.”

Lawyers are cautioned against advertising or marketing themselves and must carry malpractice insurance, complete an online questionnaire checking off their area or areas of expertise and undergo an assessment of any potential conflicts. An FLI law student is assigned to assist each case with advance research, document review and other tasks.

“It’s also great for the law students to get firsthand experience in the industry,” Kolb said. “We notify over 450 members when the next clinic is approaching and make the connections.”

The FLI has also helped the CFDA by issuing “mini-briefs” in accessible language that provide designers and brands with guidance on topics such as appropriate internship conditions.

By the looks of the fashions and music at the shindig and FLI’s law-related offerings, it seems that the institute has a lot to celebrate. No telling what Scafidi and FLI will dream up to toast their third anniversary, but you can bet it will be fashion-fierce and legally sound.

Tricia Elam is an attorney, instructor at Howard University and the author of the novel Breathing Room.