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The Law Student Putting Fashion Brands in Their Place

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Image via The Fashion Law.
Image via The Fashion Law.

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In 2012, Chanel debuted its Fall 2012 runway collection, complete with metal cuffs emblazoned with giant crystals. They were pretty, they were expensive, and they were direct knockoffs of indie fashion designer Pamela Love.

In stepped Julie Zerbo, a student who started a blog called The Fashion Law the year before. Zerbo penned a post about the copycat bracelets, which was subsequently picked up by mainstream media outlets. Within days, Chanel agreed not to sell the bracelets out of respect for Love.

The Chanel/Pamela Love incident is just one example of the type of work Zerbo does on her site. A law student at Catholic University, the 27-year-old dedicates her free time to blogging about, well, the world of fashion law—a part of the industry she feels doesn't get enough coverage. Recently she's tracked counterfeit suits, copyright infringements and tax evasion.

Racked caught up with Zerbo to chat about the genesis of The Fashion Law, the tools she uses to track down and cover each case, and how her professors feel about her blog.

Chanel's Fall 2012 bracelets, which were knockoffs of Pamela Love. Image via.

Why did you start the site?
"After my first year of law school, I felt really uninspired, like it wasn't the place for me. I thought I had made a huge mistake. Then one of my legal mentors mentioned fashion law to me. I started looking into it, and it happened naturally from there."

Were you always interested in fashion?
"No, definitely not. I always had an appreciation for fashion, but was initially interested in constitutional law. I planned to pursue a career in that and really focus on human rights issues. But then I started looking into fashion law. There wasn't a lot of information out there. A few sites wrote about it, but no one was consistently providing content focused on fashion law. I began teaching myself, researching and writing every day in connection with my more traditional studies at school. Eventually, I decided to share my work in the form of a blog."

What about the topic do you find interesting?
"It marries a very academic topic, law, with one that's less academic. I've realized how much fashion really is a business and how many really smart people are involved."

What tools do you use for your research and reporting?
"Because I have a access to a lot of legal databases, my daily viewing practices are different from most people's. I look at really nerdy sites like WestLaw, which is a big legal database, and Lexis Nexis. There's a lot of fashion context there that most people aren't necessarily looking at. These are websites that have all the lawsuits in the United States filed. What I do is try to make fashion law more accessible to people so they don't necessarily have to do all of the work."

What's your relationship like with the brands you cover?
"Usually it's not too awkward. Most of the brands know that it's not personal, but people do write, 'Can you take that down?' Other than that, it's not bad. My number one goal is to be objective. Because I'm not a personal style blogger, I don't necessarily need the clothes and the relationship, so it's not as important for me to buddy up to the brands and be their ally. At the same time, if you think about a lot of the brands that I write about negatively, like Forever 21, I don't necessarily want their clothes or need to be on their good list. But I'm not in the business of being a bully. In the beginning, a lot of my stories came from looking for knockoffs and finding them. Nowadays, I do a lot less of that and more of commenting on the industry and in-depth legal case analysis."

Are you ever worried that you'll get slapped with a lawsuit?
"No, I have a lot of confidence in the accuracy of what I write. I do a lot of research before I post anything, and part of what I'm doing is not taking the easy road. I know that a lot of people would much rather look at a pretty post with an outfit than read about the reality of the brands, but a lot of these stories need to be told—:whether or not the brands like it and whether or not people necessarily want to read it. I also write when I flat-out know there's a situation. Like when Nasty Gal literally made the same Rottweiler bag as Givenchy, just without the label. They probably ended up getting a cease-and-desist letter because the bag was removed pretty quickly. "

Nasty Gal's version of a Givenchy bag, right; the original is at left. Image via The Fashion Law.

When do you see other fashion blogs taking the "easy road" out?
"A lot of sites glorify fast fashion and that's something that I really believe in not doing. It's a topic I write about a lot. The Primark example recently, when a shopper bought something at Primark and there was a label sewn in from a worker who said they were forced to work really long hours. It came to light after the fact that it was a hoax and a publicity stunt. A lot of sites were really happy to say, 'Okay, this was fake, we can all go back to our lives, it wasn't real.' But I wrote that in that one instance it may be a hoax, but that doesn't change the fact that there are a lot of inhumane practices and abuses that go into the production of fast fashion. So when everyone's happy to put it to bed because that one example wasn't reported accurately, I want to shed light on a bigger issue that people obviously don't want to address."

What's your policy when it comes to gifting? Do you accept freebies?
"No, I don't. I have a really old school mentality when it comes to fashion and writing. Like Suzy Menkes, I believe that a real critic doesn't take gifts. I send it back. Or if there's something that I really want, I pay for it."

What are the more interesting cases you've covered?
"Recently, the Balenciaga case—they're suing Nicolas Ghesquière for remarks he made to Systems Magazine—was really interesting. He wasn't badmouthing the design house, but speaking on behalf of a lot of designers in his position. It shed light on how much we as an industry expect of these creators. I'm usually most taken by trends in lawsuits that shed light on our current time; fashion reflects what's going on in the world. The intern lawsuits I found to be interesting. Also, there's been a flurry of Italian tax evasion cases, like Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino, Prada, Armani. I'm also seeing a lot of employment stuff, like employees from Louis Vuitton and Cartier jumping ship to other companies and trying to take a bunch of information."

How has social media affected the legal side of the fashion industry?
"It's just the latest in practices that make copying easier. It started with a fax machine: People would take pictures of designs at the show and fax them to their suppliers. Now it's devolved to emailing and tweeting. At the same time, more people having access to fashion and making their voices known, be it on Twitter or Instagram, makes the whole industry more transparent. I know I'm not the only person doing it—Susie Bubble is frequently at shows and tweets 'Hey, someone else did that first.' This allows more people to join in the discussion."

Do your law professors know about your blog?
"They do. A lot of people don't know what to do with me. Most people in D.C. want to work in government or politics or something like that. So a lot are very confused by my interests, but some are extremely supportive, especially during Fashion Week when I'm not at school for quite a bit of time."

A Supreme tee and a Zara interpretation. Photo via The Fashion Law.

What were some of your early blogging challenges?
"It was trial and error every day. In hindsight, I didn't know anything about blogging or the business of fashion. I didn't know anything about social media. I had to really teach myself not only fashion law, but how to use Blogger and Wordpress and how to engage with readers. That's why I have so much admiration for personal style bloggers. They really know how to captivate an audience and get people to keep coming back. Now I struggle to find time and remain true to my voice. At times, the challenge is just not being afraid to write things."

How did you build your readership?
"The Chanel/Pamela Love story helped a lot because other publications started talking about The Fashion Law. But honestly, gaining readership and actively seeking it out has never really been a focus. Promoting my site feels kind of counter-intuitive to me. It isn't going to attract the amount of readers that a site like the Man Repeller does and I'm totally fine with that. I know that not everyone is looking to the blogosphere for quality content; sometimes they just want to read about Kim K. A lot of readers and people that I admire in the industry read The Fashion Law, and I'm very content with that.

Where do you see The Fashion Law headed?
"I'm interested in working on it full-time. I'm also interested in practicing law, just to gain experience so I can be useful to the designers I want to help. The legal system makes it difficult for young brands and emerging designers to afford legal services, and I really believe that they need it when they're starting out."

Do you think there's a need for smart fashion blogs like yours?
"That's something that I think about a lot. Right now, we're all obsessed with personal style blogging. I actually do feel a lot of respect for personal style bloggers because they put themselves out there and a lot of them are extremely knowledgeable. But there's a misconception that everyone who's interested in fashion is just interested in looking pretty and going to shows, when there really is this whole other realm—the business of fashion, the legal aspects of fashion—that's just as big a part, if not bigger, in the grand scheme of things."

What advice would you give to bloggers looking to do real reporting?
"Make sure you do your research and know the case law. Make sure you know the actual legality of the situation. You don't want to be defending anything. My blog posts often aren't very long, but a lot of research goes into them because I don't want to be writing things that aren't true."