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Role Call | Susan Scafidi, Professor of Fashion Law

Susan Scafidi, professor of fashion law at Fordham Law School, says "never stop learning."
Susan Scafidi | Source: Courtesy
  • Rebecca May Johnson

There are few sectors of the economy that offer as wide and interesting a range of career opportunities as fashion. Role Call highlights some of the industry’s most interesting jobs and the talented people who do them. For more information about fashion industry roles like this and others, visit BoF Careers.

NEW YORK, United States — In 2010, Susan Scafidi founded the Fashion Law Institute, the first academic center dedicated to the law and business of fashion, with the support of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. The Institute is an independent non-profit group with headquarters at Fordham Law School, where Scafidi taught the first course in fashion law, helping to define the field.

BoF: Please describe your current role

As founder and academic director of the Fashion Law Institute and a professor at Fordham Law School, I wear multiple hats. The institute’s mission is to offer training for fashion lawyers and designers of the future, to provide legal services for design students and professionals, and to share information and assistance on issues facing the fashion industry. Day-to-day, that includes hosting public programmes, managing our free pro bono clinics, teaching and coordinating curriculum with my wonderful team of adjunct professors, conducting research, and working with members of the fashion industry and the legal community. Fashion is a global industry, so I also travel quite a bit, speaking and spreading the good news of fashion law around the world.

BoF: What attracted you to the role?

Fashion law didn’t exist, so I had to create it. There was art law, sports law, entertainment law, health law, banking law — but no field of law dedicated to fashion, which is among the largest industries in the world and one that quite literally touches all of us. Fashion houses and designers had always consulted lawyers about discrete issues, but there were no specialised resources or specific training available to support the industry.

In defining fashion law, I thought about the questions that designers ask and all of the legal issues that may arise throughout the life of a garment, from the designer's original idea to the consumer's closet. These include intellectual property; business and finance; subjects like employment and real estate; international trade and government regulation, and consumer culture and civil rights, including matters such as religious apparel and dress codes.

BoF: What is the most exciting project or initiative you have worked on?

There have been some amazing moments — establishing our series of pro bono fashion law pop-up clinics, helping to found the Model Alliance and pass a law to protect child models — but for me, the most extraordinary two weeks each year is 'Fashion Law Bootcamp'.

We've been able to bring together lawyers, fashion industry professionals, and students from all over the world for intensive study both in and outside the classroom, and it's incredible to be surrounded by people who believe in our work and want to be part of the fashion law community. Our participants have founded their own boutique firms, launched fashion lines, worked for companies ranging from Marc Jacobs to Forever 21, and shared their knowledge in many creative ways.

Last year, we partnered with Levi Strauss & Co. to create a west coast edition of Fashion Law Bootcamp in San Francisco in addition to the original New York version, and we're looking forward to collaborating again.

Each year we celebrate the Fashion Law Institute’s anniversary with a show featuring designers who have been part of our programmes, with all of the attendant New York Fashion Week glamour — but, even more extraordinary than that are the quiet moments when someone tells me that one of our programmes has changed her life.

BoF: How is your role changing? What are the forces driving this change?

One of my primary goals is to expand fashion law beyond lawyers. Not every designer needs to become an attorney, but everyone needs to incorporate law into business decisions and to know when to consult a lawyer. Legal literacy is as important to the business of fashion as financial literacy. My role is to make legal education more accessible to members of the fashion industry.

Another key development is the global growth of fashion law as a field and our many new international projects and partnerships. We’ve moved from the early days of defining and promoting fashion law to widespread interest and expansion and I have a strong interest in maintaining the integrity of the field and its utility to the fashion industry.

BoF: Tell us about a time you failed and how you learned from it.

When I was a junior professor and told my law school tenure committee — at another institution — that I wanted to write about fashion, a project I started in the late 1990s, they essentially forbade it. “Too girly, too frivolous, nobody will take you seriously,” was what they said. I argued with them, noting the economic importance of fashion and the fascinating theoretical questions at stake, but to no avail. Ultimately I wrote a book on another subject, got tenure… and came straight back to fashion.

Rather than limit the conversation to academia this time, I started a website and connected with the fashion industry. That led to my involvement with the campaign to create legal protection for fashion designs under US law similar to that which already exists in the EU, Japan, and other countries.  The law has failed to pass — yet! — but we’ve been able to raise awareness of the issue and to explore ways to use existing intellectual property laws to support creative fashion designers.

The lesson: be persistent but be flexible, and if life smashes your favourite teapot to bits, don’t try to glue it back together — you’ll only end up with a leaky teapot. Instead, design a fabulous mosaic.

BoF: What advice do you have for people who are interested in doing what you do?

Develop both excellent legal skills and expertise in the business of fashion — and never stop learning. Fashion law is not a compromise career for reluctant lawyers who would rather be watching runway shows. You’ve given yourself a challenge: the law is a service profession and the application of law to fashion requires cutting-edge knowledge of both subjects. Ultimately, the key to being a successful fashion lawyer is to remember that your clients’ legal well-being is your responsibility. If you do, you’ll always be mentally dressed for success.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

For more information about fashion industry roles like this and others, visit BoF Careers.

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