Going Viral: Fashion, Law, and the Coronavirus

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As the coronavirus rapidly developed into a worldwide crisis, every major industry has had to grapple with the far-reaching effects of the pandemic. The fashion industry is no exception. “Fashion is not just the clothes that we wear every day, but it’s also economically vital,” explained Jeff Trexler, associate director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham, in an online panel held on March 27. “By treating it as something we can shut down for a sustained period of time without consequence, we’re wreaking a lot of economic havoc throughout the world.”

The webinar, entitled “Going Viral: Fashion and the Coronavirus,” was the Institute’s first-ever virtual event. An online stand-in for the Institute’s in-person annual symposium (rescheduled for September 2020), the panel addressed the wide range of challenges the fashion industry is facing in this unprecedented “new normal.” “I believe that coming together is what we can do best,” said Professor Susan Scafidi, founder and director of the Institute, who moderated the discussion. 

Despite the inability to host an in-person event, the virtual discussion drew an audience of more than 700 participants worldwide. “It’s the largest audience we’ve ever had,” said Institute Assistant Director Ariele Elia. “In a typical conference room, you’re limited by the capacity, but that’s not the case with an online event.” A recording of the webinar is available to view online for CLE credit until April 30, 2020. 

Tony Kim, founder and CEO of Hero Within, a brand offering clothing that marries fashion with comic book and nerd culture, explained that the virus began to affect his company as early as February. “Much of our production pipeline is in China, and after the Lunar New Year, many of the factories didn’t reopen.” As the crisis grew, many of the brand’s major shows were also canceled. As China has begun to lift lockdowns, some of Hero Within’s factories started to reopen in March—not to continue business as usual, but to meet brand new demands borne out of the pandemic. “We asked our factories to shift gears and focus on the production of face masks,” Kim said. 

The virus drives home “just how dependent the sourcing supply chain is on each link in it,” said Gary Wassner, CEO of Hilldun, a premier provider of factoring and financial business in the fashion industry. Trexler, who is also the co-founder of Moda Legal, illustrated this further, explaining that contracts between parties in the supply chain may or may not include force majeure clauses that cover issues of pandemics and illness. “You may find yourself in a position as a designer where, legally, the retailer may cancel the order of your goods, but you can’t cancel anything that you ordered to prepare those goods,” he explained. He suggested reviewing all contracts and working to cooperate with all areas of the supply chain.

Left: Professor Susan Scafidi. Right (top to bottom): Adjunct Professor Don Obert, Adjunct Professor Karyn D. Jefferson, and Professor Jeff Trexler

Don M. Obert, founder of the Obert Law Firm and adjunct professor at Fordham, joined the discussion remotely from Italy, the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak in Europe. Obert, based in Florence, stressed the importance of “coordination, flexibility, and preparedness” in weathering the crisis. He also cautioned, “Now is not the time for the hammer,” urging listeners that the kindness and understanding people show one another during these months of crisis will not be forgotten once things return to normal.

“It helps to understand what the other party is thinking and what their interests are,” said Cristina Del Valle, senior associate general counsel at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Sometimes you can come up with a solution just from understanding what their actual concern is.” Del Valle said the Met Museum’s closure to the public and cancellation of all events, including the Met Ball (widely considered the premier event in the fashion world), is costing the organization $100 million and has left the legal staff scrambling to reexamine and discuss contracts with their suppliers and event hosts.

While many brands are not considered essential businesses, those that are have been thrust into a new legal landscape, as well. “You need to have a plan, then a backup plan, then a backup to your backup plan,” quipped Karyn D. Jefferson, in-house counsel at Benjamin Moore & Co. and also an adjunct professor at Fordham. Many of the company’s employees are still reporting for work, armed with a document that asserts their essential worker status in case they are stopped by law enforcement. Like the other panelists, Jefferson echoed the need for cooperation and flexibility—in her case, that means providing options for employees, whether it is working remotely or having paid time off to care for sick family members. “Employees are your biggest asset, and they should be factored into the decision-making—think about how decisions impact them.”

Overall, the speakers shared messages of positivity and cooperation. “We’re all in this together,” urged Kim. “I’m convinced this isn’t the end for us all, but it’s a new reality, and we have to accept that and move forward with as much hope and optimism as possible.” 

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