This morning I attended a Fashion Week event, put on by the Fashion Law Institute in New York City. In many ways it was like any other show. Models, dressed in tiny floral bikinis and metallic vests, posed in the center of the room, while viewers sipped champagne and snapped photos. But this event was celebrating something more than new designs and creativity; it was applauding the progress the Fashion Law Institute has made in protecting the legal rights of both models and designers.
I spoke to Doreen Small, a stylish, enthusiastic professor at the Institute, who is from the Lower East Side, and “as Jewish as they come.” Wearing a silky white dress and black glasses lined with gemstones, she is both a fashion guru and a lawyer. The Institute is an organization within Fordham University School of Law that offers six or seven courses to law school students who want to work in the fashion industry. “It’s not a monolithic body of law,” said Small. “You need to know about intellectual property, copyrights trademarks, right of publicity, counterfeiting issues, sponsorships, endorsement issues, real estate issues, tax, labeling, advertising, modeling and immigration.”
In addition to training lawyers, the Institute also has an outreach program for designers and models who need help with their businesses. There are pop-up clinics where young designers ask complicated questions about protecting their trademarks, getting tax advantages and freeing goods stuck in customs. Models seek help negotiating their contracts or changing agencies. It also hosts a summer boot-camp where anyone, not just law students, can take courses on intellectual property and employment issues. The institute’s lectures, like one titled “The 10 Things Every Model Should Know,” are typically packed.
The Institute works along groups like the Model Alliance and the Council of Fashion Designers of America to promote standards and fair practices across the industry. One big issue is underage modeling among children as young as 12 or 13. (Marc Jacobs came under fire earlier this year when he knowingly hired two models under the recommended age of 16 to strut his runway.) Privacy for models is also a growing issue. “Some of the models are concerned that there is more attention being paid to them dressing and undressing,” says Small. “And in today’s age everyone is snapping a picture and not everyone has a press credential.”
After talking to Small I watched her go back into the arena, flash a huge smile at the models and designers, and then hug her colleagues, all clinking glasses of pink bubbly.