“Fashion Law”. It sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? After all, fashion, which typically evokes images of supermodels and Anna Wintour, is more “The Devil Wears Prada” than “Devil’s Advocate”. Long considered too frou-frou for serious lawyers to be concerned with, fashion law has proven to be an emerging practice area in recent years, housed in one of the most lucrative global industries, creating new grounds for lawyers with various areas of expertise to strut their stuff.
In a nutshell, the fashion industry functions on the basis of collaboration, primarily between designers, manufacturers, merchandisers and retailers from all around the world to deliver to consumers clothing, footwear and accessories. The industry has many moving parts, and is characterized by short product life cycles and erratic (and sometimes unpredictable) consumer demand, an abundance of product variety and a growing number of different supply chains as business-to-consumer models, and technology evolve.
By and large, the fashion and legal industries are enjoying this new and exciting symbiosis. Sure, there are those TMZ-esque sensationalized lawsuits (I’m looking at you, Louis Vuitton) but the positives of this coming together by far exceed the few peppered cons. According to The Boston Consulting Group’s 5-year study of the global fashion and luxury sector, out of 26 industry sectors, fashion and luxury ranked first in consumer companies, and was the largest value creator, measured by total shareholder return (the study reported 35% annualized total shareholder return). The global fashion industry is valued at over $1.5 trillion, and employs millions around the world. Apart from shareholder returns, the industry makes significant contributions to the lives and livelihoods of billions of people around the world.
The recent boom in demand for fashion – haute couture and high street alike – has come from emerging and fast-growing markets in the Middle East, East Asia, and South America, allowing fashion houses and mass retailers to seek more diverse patronage and investment from these new international hotspots. But with a more complex, global canvas for the fashion industry to legitimately thrive in, there is more scope for intellectual property infringement, close copying of design, labor exploitation, and innovation stagnancy.
The most publicized legal involvement in the fashion industry comes in the form of big brand litigation – Christian Louboutin against Yves Saint Laurent, Lululemon against Calvin Klein. But the bulk of the work is preventative and collaborative. Securing the right trademark and copyright protections to place a designer’s brand and individual design elements at a strategic advantage over unprotected designers and brands is crucial in discouraging and avoiding infringement. Securing patents and provisions around data protection for fashion and luxury goods that intersect with technology in the form of social fabrics or wearables is another important facet of protection that competitive, forward-thinking fashion houses will be pursuing. With 3D printing and other innovations in high-volume production becoming more accessible and making it easier than ever to make copies, designers will want to know how to protect their creations in the face of new technologies. Individual designers and manufacturers often join forces in business, using attorneys to create powerful and profitable business solutions for growth and sustainability.
The fashion and luxury goods sector has become a global melting pot of creativity, revenue and value-generation, but it’s growth also lends itself to increased competition and ease of infringement. It’s a good thing that finally, some attorneys have taken notice of the opportunity to engage in protective preventative measures for designers and manufacturers and their businesses.