Fashion Law Institute 2nd Annual Symposium

Susan Scafidi in Daily Fashion Report (blog), May 01, 2012

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On April 20, fashion industry professionals and attorneys came together at the home of the newly defined field of fashion law to discuss current issues and participate in a Q&A with designer Yeohlee Teng on the theme FASHION=ART+COMMERCE. The Fashion Law Institute’s second annual symposium kicked off with a panel of financial experts addressing the question, “IPO, Yes or No?” – a tantalizing option for many fashion houses in light of the stunning success of the Michael Kors IPO and the Brunello Cucinelli and Tumi roadshows in anticipation of their own public offerings.

Speakers including John C. Kennedy of the law firm Paul Weiss, which handled the Michel Kors offering, cautioned against being overly optimistic in approaching any form of fashion financing, however. Hilldun Co-CEO Jeffrey Kapelman reminded attendees, “Hope is not a strategy.” From the perspective of Roberta Karp, former General Counsel of Liz Claiborne, the answer to the IPO question was an emphatic, “No.” While all of the panelists acknowledged benefits to becoming a public company, Karp noted that the pressure of answering to a board can be an unwelcome experience for creative designers.

Turning to the issue of fashion counterfeiting, the second panel invited brand protection experts to share cutting-edge research and approaches to the problem, which has increased with the growth of online retail. Te Smith of MarkMonitor noted that 30 percent of internet sales begin with a brand name search, which can pull up more sites advertising fakes than genuine merchandise.

Traditional enforcement measures are often compared to the arcade game Whac-a-Mole – counterfeit retailers pop up on the street corner or a website, brand owners shut them down, they pop up again elsewhere. In the “Beyond Whac-a-Mole” session, speakers suggested new solutions ranging from the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition’s new payment processor initiative to New York City Council Member Margaret Chin’s proposal to outlaw the buying (and not just the selling) of fakes to the International Trademark Association’s upcoming campaign to educate teens about counterfeit goods. Attorney Michelle Marsh of Kenyon & Kenyon suggested starting even younger, telling the audience that her six-year-old was devastated when he believed he’d received a fake.

On the next panel, speakers from around the world addressed the role of the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – in the current fashion equation. Intellectual property enforcement issues, economic pressures, and the global distribution of manufacturing topped the list. Sao Paulo-based Financial Times reporter Vincent Bevins noted that the increased interest in the fashion industry in Brazil is complicated by a lack of manufacturing capacity, which results in extremely high prices. “I was happy to be invited to speak,” he added, “because I come to New York to buy socks.”

The “Admonishments” session focused on whether the law should regulate digitally manipulated or potentially offensive images of models and celebrities, in particular the fashion photos that provide unrealistic “thinspiration” to impressionable adolescent girls. Seth Matlins of Off Our Chests urged federal regulation to require advisory messages on all altered images, a measure that would be akin to cigarette labeling.

Dartmouth computer science graduate student Eric Kee has developed a numeric scale to measure how much a human image has been manipulated, ranging from minor alterations like eliminating a blemish to a complete Photoshop facelift. Seeing a potential application of Kee’s work, Model Alliance president and founder Sara Ziff noted that models like herself have little control over their images, but envisioned a future in which contracts might include not only no-nudity clauses but also limits on the degree to which an image could be altered.

The symposium closed with a conversation between designer Yeohlee Teng and Professor Susan Scafidi, founder of the nonprofit Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School, followed by a runway show featuring Teng’s spring collection. Teng is renowned not only for her architectural designs but also for her commitment to manufacturing in New York City’s Garment District, an industrial neighborhood where she has deliberately located her elegant retail boutique. When asked about the FASHION=ART+COMMERCE equation and whether her dual roles as a creative designer and small business owner ever conflict, she deadpanned, “Yes. My brain is black and blue.” Scafidi replied, “Oh, dear. Let’s not make those next season’s colors.”