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Fordham University launches Fashion Law Institute, a first for the industry

September 10, 2010 |  7:13 am

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Wednesday morning, before Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week got underway at its new Damrosch Park home, the fashion industry's legal landscape was being reshaped just across 62nd Street at Fordham University's Lincoln Center campus.

That's where fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg brought down a wooden gavel tied with a pink grosgrain ribbon, marking the official opening of Fordham Law School's Fashion Law Institute.

"As someone who has been around this business a long time, I can tell you that a lawyer who understands fashion is a very important thing," Von Furstenberg told the crowd.

So important, in fact, that von Furstenberg personally donated $50,000 to help fund the new program, an amount matched by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, of which von Furstenberg is president. She said she is convinced the new program would be beneficial to the fashion industry after meeting the professor who will serve as its academic director.

"I was immediately impressed by Susan Scafidi, Von Furstenberg said. "She was wearing one of my wrap dresses with the epaulets, and she'd changed the buttons on it and given it nicer buttons."

More impressive, Von Furstenberg said later, was that Scafidi seemed to genuinely understand the vagaries of the law as they apply specifically to the fashion industry.

"It's not that the laws are any different, but if the lawyer speaks the same language from the start it makes things a lot easier. There are a lot of issues you need to get to early."

Von Furstenberg wasn't the only one to sing Scafidi's praises at the press conference. "Professor Scafidi created the first course in fashion law, so it's only fitting she's at the helm of the world's first fashion law center,"  said the dean of Fordham Law School, Michael Martin. The program will focus on the five most important aspects of the law as they apply to fashion designers: "intellectual property, business and finance, international trade and government regulation," Martin said.

Said Scafidi: "We want to address all the legal issues that arise throughout the life of a garment, from the designer's original idea to the consumer's closet."

While intellectual property rights (dealing with trademark, knock-off and counterfeit issues) are the first thing that spring to mind when thinking about the intersection of the law and fashion, Von Furstenberg said that for a young, emerging designer, negotiating the world of legal contracts is even more important. "When you're just getting started, there is tremendous [legal] exposure, and signing a contract that you don't fully understand can be one of the biggest problems."

After the press conference, Doug Hand, a lawyer who has worked with the Rag & Bone label and the CFDA, also pointed out that funding a fashion brand often leads back to some unique intellectual property challenges. "Other industries have two major ways of funding -- competitive finance [a stock initial public offering, for example] or mergers and acquisitions. With fashion there's a third: a licensing transaction." Hand said that properly understanding a designer's or brand's rights and responsibilities in a licensing agreement is crucial.

In addition to offering a fashion law survey course, Fashion Law & Finance, Fashion Ethics, Fashion Retail Law, and a class in sustainability and development, the new institute hopes to host legal seminars and help law students get real-world experience by working with the CFDA and New York's fashion community.

"What better time to do this than right now, with Fashion Week moving right to our doorstep?" Scafidi said.

Legal pinstripes never looked so stylish.

-- Adam Tschorn reporting from New York

Photo: From left, Susan Scafidi, academic director of Fordham's new Fashion Law Institute, Fordham Law School dean Michael Martin, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, CFDA Executive Director Steven Kolb and Sheila Foster, associate dean of academic affairs, at the Sept. 8 opening of the new institute. Credit: Adam Tschorn / Los Angeles Times

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