(The Root) — It could have had a clever campy name, such as "Fashion Brief" or "Legal Runway," but Fordham University Law School's Fashion Law Institute simply billed its event last week during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week as a fashion presentation. The affair was held at the Box in New York's Lincoln Center to commemorate FLI's second anniversary.
Founded in September 2010, the school offers seven courses, including fashion law and finance, fashion ethics, sustainability and development, and fashion-modeling law. Additionally, seminars, open to anyone interested, are given several times a year with intriguing titles such as "Law of the Fashion Show," "Law and the Little Black Dress" and "Nice Ice: Ethical Alternatives to Conflict Diamonds."
Lawyers and law students can attend an annual weeklong summer boot camp to get a crash course in fashion legalese. Plus, attorneys volunteer to give free advice to rising designers and models at the school's pop-up legal clinics.
The fashion-installation idea came about after a panel discussion at the school earlier this year. "We had met these wonderful designers for whom a show at Fashion Week would not be financially feasible," Susan Scafidi, the institute's academic director and an innovator in the field of fashion law, told The Root. "So why not have our own show?"
It featured hair, makeup and nail sponsors, as well as designs by seven of the designers who used the clinic's services: Dimitry Said Chamy, whose installation was made from recycled milk containers; Emmett McCarthy, a former Project Runway contestant, who showed his breezy EMC2 clothing made of floral fabric; Rachel Dooley, who showed her Gemma Redux mixed-metal and vintage-jewelry designs; Maureen Cahill and Elizabeth Crotty, with their line of Keely Rea bathing suits and resort wear; Kelima K, usually a bridal designer, who featured asymmetrical dresses and one standout voluminous kimono; and Sarah Canner, who showed her Vespertine biking designs — vests and jackets over white shirtdresses.
Twenty-four paid models from five agencies were acquired through contacts and the lawyers who teach the modeling-law class. Models stood in a row on the platform and periodically rotated en masse while members of the fashion and law communities visited, stared, praised, photographed, mingled, sipped spirits and bopped to a DJ's rhythms.
But the event might not have been possible without Scafidi. She has been able to attract formidable sponsors (including designer Diane von Furstenberg and the Council of Fashion Designers of America) for funding, and seasoned lawyers to help staff the clinics. In addition, Scafidi's attention to detail means that seminar participants often receive cool swag like attractive black shopping totes, and volunteers sport flashy lapel pins with FLI's logo: a gavel formed by a thread spool and needle.
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.