Fashion Law: A New Frontier

 Law librarian uniform, standard issue.

Law librarian uniform, standard issue.

Law librarians are no strangers to fashion. Anyone familiar with our cardigan game knows what I’m talking about. Increasingly, other lawyers are catching up, with fashion law rapidly expanding as both a practice area and a field of general interest.

What even is fashion law? It covers everything from intellectual property, to business, to international human rights.

 Classic cinema.

Classic cinema.

Traditionally, fashion has enjoyed only limited intellectual property protection in the United States, where clothing design has been considered such an essential (or maybe inessential, depending who you ask) part of culture development that copycats have been encouraged by the market and the lack of legal constraints. Readers may recall the classic scene in “The Devil Wears Prada,” when Runway Magazine editor Miranda explains this phenomenon to fashion neophyte Andy, who had no understanding of the lofty origins of her "lumpy blue sweater."

A recent Supreme Court ruling, however, has shifted the conversation. In Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc., 580 U.S. ___ (2017), the Court held that graphic designs applied to useful articles can be subject to copyright, even if those designs are apparently essential to the usefulness of the article. This ruling certainly favors large shops with the resources to create novel designs, register them with the Copyright Office, and litigate against smaller operations with fewer resources. However, it also means that independent artists will now have recourse when their designs are mass produced without permission by behemoths like Walmart or Urban Outfitters.

 The cheerleader uniforms at the heart of the Star Athletica case.

The cheerleader uniforms at the heart of the Star Athletica case.

 View of the Dhaka, Bangladesh river walk.

View of the Dhaka, Bangladesh river walk.

The fashion industry is using the law to combat human rights abuses long associated with “fast fashion.” An international organization called Fashion Revolution is leading the charge to provide safe working conditions and fair wages for everyone employed by the industry, including floor shop laborers in developing nations. International scrutiny of these issues increased significantly in the wake of the November 2012 Tazreen Fashion factory fire, which killed at least 117 workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Attorneys and legal professionals can now obtain specialized degrees in fashion law. The Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School offers both an LLM and MSL in this burgeoning space, as well as two CLE “bootcamp” events, one in New York and the other in San Francisco.

Interested to learn more? Check out The Fashion Law, which tracks legal developments in the fashion industry.