It’s not so often you meet someone in person you have admired from afar and they turn out to be everything you imagined. This is what happened when I met Julie Zerbo, the brains behind the niche blog The Fashion Law. Zerbo attended law school in Washington D.C. and combined her interest in fashion with the practical field of law when she launched her blog after her first year. She blogged about the little known world of fashion law, and specifically, exposing blatant copyright infringement. (A few years ago a discovery by Zerbo led to Chanel issuing an apology for designing bracelets that looked a little too much like Pamela Love’s.) A burgeoning area of law, she has parlayed her expertise outside of her popular blog and regularly contributes to other leading industry news sources, and consults on fashion law for many luxury fashion companies. If I sound like a total fan girl, I am. Zerbo has managed to evolve the content of TFL beyond the legal angle and has positioned herself as a truly unique, poised, and authoritative voice in the digital fashion news space. Trust me, when I tell you this is hard to do, not to mention well.
Why did you launch The Fashion Law?
I only decided to launch the website as an afterthought. Towards the end of my first year of law school, one of my professors mentioned fashion law to me, and I was immediately intrigued by the marriage between the fields of fashion and law. So, I started researching and writing on my own, exploring core legal concepts in the context of the fashion industry, as a way to learn about the topic. After a while, I had quite an archive of articles and decided to start sharing them in the form of a blog, because while there were people practicing in this field, there really were not many sites at the time that were consistently providing content on fashion law and the business of fashion.
Were your classmates surprised this was the legal route you took?
I don’t think so. Although, it certainly was not the norm. “Fashion law” was not a term that was being thrown around a lot when I started, but I think my classmates pretty much knew what I was up to when I’d miss a bunch of classes in order to attend the various fashion weeks. Also, to some extent, I was always a bit removed from the law school community because I knew relatively early on that I wanted to pursue a career in this field. In Washington, DC, where I went to law school, my options were very limited. I interned there early on and really did what I could, but after that, I spent the vast majority of my time working on the website and splitting time between DC and New York so that I could be working in my field (whether it be editing textbooks or working in-house or consulting with designers) but also be going to classes.
Why don’t more brands take legal action to protect their designs?
In the U.S., they really can’t, and there are two key reasons for that, I think. First, copyright protection often does not apply to the designs that are copied – whether they are garments or accessories. This is commonly the case because copyright law does not protect useful articles, such as clothing and accessories. Thus, this type of law provides little protection for those things in their entirety. Elements of a design, such as a fabric print of which a garment is constructed, or a sculptural element of a accessory that is “separable” from the design’s functionality (such as the highly ornate heels of the shoes that Alexander McQueen showed for Fall 2010, for instance), may be protected under the umbrella of copyright law, but that’s about it.
Second, design patents, the type of protection that does rather neatly apply to garments and accessories as a whole, does not make sense for the vast majority of items just based on the very seasonal nature of the fashion industry. Design patents entail a fairly lengthy process, at least a year, which is often longer than it would take for the design at issue to be “last season,” so to speak, and thus, less likely to be copied by fast fashion retailers. Also, the design patent process is expensive (thousands of dollars per patent) and so, it is simply out of the price range of many brands, with the exception being big fashion houses.
Having said all of that, design patent protection tends to make sense if the design is going to be a big seller and/or if the brand plans to re-release it or build upon its foundation (this tends to be “it” accessories), but other than that, this type of protection does not make a lot of sense for the vast majority of brands, particularly emerging ones.
This is part of why fast fashion retailers make hundreds of millions of dollars by copying the designs of others and only very, very, very rarely are sued for doing so.
What is the most blatant copyright infringement you have seen to date?
That would have to be the Rottweiler tote that Nasty Gal was offering in 2013 that was an exact replica of Givenchy’s Rottweiler Antigona tote. That was a really outrageous copy because Nasty Gal’s version bore the exact same photo as the Givenchy bag, it certainly would have amounted to copyright infringement. Needless to say, Nasty Gal removed it from the site pretty quickly (a testament to the fact that it really was an appalling infringement).
Both brands produce very classic products, but Maryam Nassir Zadeh recently accused Mansur Gavriel of knocking off her brand’s shoes for the upcoming season – does she have a case against MG?
Nope. That is an easy one! Some of the brands’ styles look almost exactly alike, color and all, which lead a lot of fashion sites to assume that this was an clear cut case of copyright infringement, but it’s not. They’re shoes; they’re useful, and so, copyright protection does not apply. And as I noted above, if there were “separable” elements, such as the Alexander McQueen-type heels, they could hypothetically be protected and lead to a merited claim of copyright infringement but that is just not the case here. The designs are basic slides and mules.
Given that we can very clearly rule out any form of copyright protection, Zadeh’s only other remedy would probably be design patent protection and even that likely does not apply because honestly, the shoe designs are not all that novel, which is a required element for design patent protection. In fact, as I noted in an article on my site, it would probably take Mansur Gavriel’s attorney about five minutes to show that the styles of shoes at issue here have been done a number of times in the past – long before Zadeh introduced hers – and that the current designs do not make any notable innovations thereto. As a result, design patent protection is just not an option.
Do brands ever get upset with you for certain commentary?
That is not something that happens often to my knowledge, and it’s not something I worry about. I’m not one to mince words, but a lot of people understand that my main objective is to have the website’s commentary be informed, objective and authentic, which I believe can be difficult to come by online, in particular. The articles are directed at industry-wide issues, and criticism is about brands not individuals.
I suppose the Nasty Gal team and its founder Sophia Amoruso are upset since they block TFL on all of their social media accounts. Instances like that are very rare though. I think it’s rather obvious that I’m not in the business of being a bully. In the beginning, a lot of my stories were centered on exposing knockoffs. Nowadays, I do a lot less of that and more of commenting on the industry and in-depth legal case analysis.
The Fashion Law is one of our regular reads, how big is your team?
It is very small. Its just me, a few contributors and an intern or two.
Are you writing everyday?
Yes – on TFL and on side projects. Sometimes I take little vacations but I’m not happy if I’m not constantly reading, writing, and educating myself. Plus, fashion and the business thereof – even the law in some areas – changes constantly, and so, I wouldn’t be doing my job and staying abreast of the trends in any of the industries if I was not constantly doing my research.
Like many other bloggers, you have parlayed your unique blog content and have become the Fashion Law expert – do you enjoy this role?
Yes, enormously! While I am very much of the “let your work speak for itself” mindset, I appreciate the opportunity to educate my readers, especially because the vast majority of sites that take on fashion law and even business topics are often not particularly equipped to do so unfortunately and misinformation is spread. A lot of research goes into pieces on TFL and I am very confident in the accuracy of what I publish. TFL’s readers – who range from college and graduate students to designers, lawyers and CEOs – are so smart and informed. I never feel like I have to dumb anything down or put on a front, which makes it all very rewarding.
Moreover, I derive a lot of pride from the fact that I have a platform that enables me to spread thought-provoking, informative and context-driven information – whether it be legal case studies or business trend reports or just raising awareness about the human rights abuses associated with fast fashion.
And lastly, I am immensely grateful that I am in a position to show girls that being “in fashion” does not mean that you lack depth or intelligence, which I think is an inaccurate and frankly, unfortunate, stereotype.
How would you describe your personal style?
It’s very straightforward. I am super minimalist and not terribly fashion-y, in my opinion. I wear a lot of black – layered/airy silhouettes are my favorite. I basically wear a lot of Jil Sander and Prada tops paired with jeans or tapered trousers – Haider Ackermann is my favorite. I can’t stand jewelry and accessories for the most part, aside from sunglasses. So, that is not even part of the equation for me. I have been fortunate to be able to start building a wardrobe of garments I love for many years now, and do not have to actively participate in the fast fashion model of constantly shopping and chasing trends.
What do you love about fashion?
I love how dynamic and multifaceted it is.