Meet The Editor Committed To Law And Order In The Fashion Industry

Julie Zerbo is a fashion copycat's worst nightmare

Once a year, Chanel presents the Métiers d'Art, a fashion show outside the regularly scheduled fashion weeks. Chanel is a brand as invested in giving credit as it is with getting it, and the Métiers d'Art is intended to showcase both the brand's craftsmanship and the work its "artisan partners bring to the house's collections." In December 2015, Chanel set the show on a whimsical, Hollywood-style soundstage merging Parisian and Roman city features rendered in gray scale. Models stalked the sidewalks in black lace, metallic tweeds, and heavy metal eyeshadows.

The show harkened back to traditional Chanel silhouettes while drawing special attention to the unique textiles, leathers, textures, and details that are enabled by the house’s relationships with artisan partners. It lasted for nearly 20 minutes (an eternity on the runway), and at the end, Karl Lagerfeld emerged surrounded by a handful of male models who wore button-down shirts, britches, newsboy caps, and Fair Isle sweater vests, all rendered in the same shades of patterned gray.

As images from the show hit the internet, a Scottish knitwear designer named Mati Ventrillon realized she’d seen those sweaters before. She had made those sweaters. Chanel had purchased her sweaters, claiming they would be cited as reference.

On her personal Facebook page, Ventrillon wrote: “I specifically said that I was going to sell it to them for the reputation of Chanel house, and because I would not expect them to copy my design … Little [did] I know.” Julie Zerbo, the founder of The Fashion Law, which examines the intersection of fashion and legality, saw the post, examined the evidence, and published “Chanel Accused of Copying Looks in Métiers d'Art Collection.” In it, Zerbo not only dissected the ways in which Chanel had failed Ventrillon, but also recalled Chanel’s history of this behavior. In 2012, for example, Chanel paid a settlement of more than 200,000 euros after being caught stealing designs from a former supplier, World Tricot.

At the time of posting, Ventrillon was wavering on taking legal action, but Gary Robinson, the political leader of Shetland Islands Council, was calling for Fair Isle patterns to be trademarked and saw an opportunity to sync Ventrillon’s cause with his own. Chanel eventually issued a full apology and promised to credit Ventrillon moving forward. It was a big story, with every element for drama: a legacy brand with a reputation to protect, an independent designer taking on a huge corporation, and a journalist documenting every step, from grievance to apology. And it was told before anyone else by Zerbo.

This wasn’t the first time she had caught Chanel in a kind of theft. Three years earlier, she broke the story of Chanel knocking off Pamela Love’s 2011 distinctive gold cuffs during a 2012 show. Fashionista quoted Zerbo at the time: “When I glanced at a photo of an industry insider wearing Chanel's crystal bangles, they registered in my mind as Love's designs. That's called consumer confusion, folks! It's also called stealing.” A few days later, Chanel pulled the bracelets. Zerbo also announced a Jeff Koons and Louis Vuitton collaboration a month before any other media outlet — despite not being invited to preview the collection, unlike other fashion editors who were shown the collection at the Louvre in March after signing non-disclosure agreements. And have you ever noticed that when Kylie Jenner or Emily Ratajkowski plug a particular brand of fit tea or weight-loss gummy bears, their cheeky, upbeat caption will be quietly followed by the hashtag #ad? Zerbo's been writing about Federal Trade Commission violations by brands and influencers for years, trying to demystify those tangled symbiotic relationships for the everyday consumer.

Zerbo founded The Fashion Law while she was still in law school. Initially focused on human rights abuses, Zerbo found herself sidetracked by what she calls, with the caveat of “quote unquote,” fashion law. She started a blog to elucidate the legal complications that saturate the fashion industry for everyday consumers, and ended up taking major players to task. Zerbo’s unwavering ethics, her legal expertise, and her ability to break stories make her site essential reading for anyone who cares as much about fashion as they do about morality.

The Fashion Law’s magic lies in its nimble, accessible dissections of legal briefs and ongoing litigations. That, combined with Zerbo’s keen, instinctive eye for instances of copyright infringement (and straight-up rip-offs), make her invaluable. Whether it’s calling out brands like Forever 21 (for its egregious, repeated instances of knocking off independent designers) or directing consumers toward more humane alternatives to fast fashion, The Fashion Law has emerged as a pillar of practical virtue in an industry where the media often functions more as a partner than a watchdog. Free of the editorial constraints that advertisers, brand relationships, and commercial partnerships involve, Zerbo uses her freedom to criticize the failings of a mysterious, often opaque industry. The fashion business may be far from perfect, but its constituents do occasionally demonstrate a willingness to change — usually after they’ve been called out on their bullshit. Julie Zerbo is here to call it when she sees it.

Image provided by Julie Zerbo.

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

Tell me about your background. What led to you founding The Fashion Law?

Julie Zerbo: I was always very interested in economics, and ended up going to law school in Washington, D.C., four years ago. When I was there, a professor brought up fashion law, and I started looking into it. I saw a void in terms of sites covering the topic. I just started researching and writing on my own. I compiled a ton of articles, and put them on a blog because I thought maybe other people would be interested in this as well. I never really set out to be a blogger. I never set out to be — quote unquote — in the fashion industry, it just kind of happened that way.

Actually, if I could do anything differently I would change the name of the website, because it's not just about fashion. It's entertainment, it's art. Anything that I think is interesting and my contributors think is interesting. Anything that has grounding in either business or law.

I think that for a long time, legal writing was limited to legal publications, or publications that only lawyers would read. It just wasn't accessible to the average person. And that's kind of what I pride my site on: making it a hub for reliable, accessible information.

Over the past two years, the site has gone after unethical advertising on social media. How did this issue come to your attention?

Zerbo: I'm on Instagram, and I'm also a consumer. I'm seeing these undisclosed ads. And also, I want to really question — not just on social media, but in magazines as well — why are we seeing this dress as opposed to another dress? The Federal Trade Commission issues guidelines, and I saw one of their updated guidelines on how endorsements should be treated. It was just something that no one else was really writing about; rightfully so, because many places are dependent on that revenue. It’s integral to the industry’s inner workings. I wanted people to get a glimpse of what that scheme, so to speak, was really like.

The Fashion Law has also broken some major, industry-rattling stories over the past two years. A notable example was Chanel knocking off Mati Ventrillon in 2015.

Zerbo: The Fair Isle one was interesting. That designer spoke out, and a wide variety of publications ended up picking it up. I interviewed her and she said that Chanel, a high fashion house based on the ideals of originality and creativity, promised they would credit her, and include her name in connection with the design. I suspect there might have been a financial component but I'm not entirely sure. It tends to be really confidential in nature.

But that's a good example of a brand with a reputation that stands to be tarnished if they're called out for copying. They typically tend to act, and act relatively quickly, to remedy the situation. So much of what we see on the runway, at any given time, is a reinterpretation of something that has already been done. So much of fashion is reworking existing design-element staples. There is a chance that your inspiration is someone else's design, and there is room for mistakes to be made. I'm just not of the mind-set that, you know, anything in fashion is necessarily new or belonging to anyone, unless it is truly original and you have legal protection.

What gives The Fashion Law its investigative edge when it comes to breaking these stories?

Zerbo: I mean, a lot of [the stories we cover] are legal in nature. My contributors and I are just plugged into that world. We have access to information that is otherwise difficult to find. And honestly, sometimes we have the source at the same time as everyone else; we're just able to turn the information [around] faster because we understand what the legal documents say.

Having said that, before we publish any information that includes a legal proceeding, we actually read the legal proceeding, which is not a uniform practice in fashion and nonlegal journalism.

Does that allow you to add more dimension to the stories than other publications? Or do you think that other publications should adopt the same practice?

Zerbo: I think that should be standard practice. I feel very strongly that if you're going to write about the law, you should do it in a way that's accurate and thoughtful. These aren't fluff pieces, they are pieces that stand to have very real significance. The thought of consumers, or readers in general, being misinformed as to legal information or business information is troubling. Many, many places are choosing speed over accuracy, and that's just not something I'm interested in doing.

I’ve noticed that stories about fast fashion knocking off independent designers seem to really capture an audience, but never really put a financial dent in H&M or Forever 21. Why do you think that is?

Zerbo: A lot of what we see, in terms of copying from fast-fashion retailers, is completely legal in the United States, because of the way our copyright law is structured. A luxury brand depends on their reputations as creative innovators. If you're calling out a fast-fashion retailer, their business is built on copying. They don't necessarily care about being called out.

In addition to writing about copying on a factual basis, I've written extensively about my personal feelings about copying and the business practices of these fast-fashion giants. My initial focus — human rights law — is something I still feel very strongly about. And these fast-fashion retailers often are consistently and egregiously abusing the human rights of the individuals who are making their clothes. People don't think about that.

It’s important to not take a brand's word for it when they say that they're transparent, or green, or sustainable, because that's such a coveted marketing ploy right now. It's effective because people really are waking up to the human rights abuse, the environmental abuses, the design piracy, that comes with fast fashion. This is not in any way to say that other types of fashion are immune to these abuses, but the frequency is much higher with fast fashion. Consumer consumption habits are driven in a very interesting way, and if we ever want to evolve past fast fashion, I think there will have to be a larger cultural shift of consciousness on a very collective level.

Do you have any advice for consumers who want to make better, more ethical choices?

Zerbo: Yeah, absolutely. The Fashion Law does list ethically made fashion at all kinds of price points. There's a really big misconception that if you want to shop in a way that's ethical, you have to go high end. I get that a lot. Like, not everybody can afford Prada, and that's not the alternative I'm suggesting by any means. Right now, in particular, there's so many brands working hard to make strides in the eco-fashion sphere that it's been absolutely transformed over the past 10 years. There are more options now than ever before. I don't like to say "don't do this" and then not provide any alternatives or solutions. I'm not in the business of telling people what to wear. I just prefer to shop this way because it's what I know.

Do you have a more utopian vision of how the fashion industry could function?

Zerbo: I do. I don't have the nuts and bolts worked out particularly, but for me there's two things, both of which stem from greater transparency. I think that I write about fashion on a daily basis, and I respect it. But [the industry] is based on this very intertwined system of the establishment, and even the industry's disrupters are part of this game. There's not a lot of transparency around it. The same conglomerates control all the same companies. The same editors are going on vacation with the same creative directors. The same influencers are getting free clothes and not disclosing it.

Also, there [should] just be a lot less stuff. We don't need all of these clothes, and the idea of seasonality and trends and over-the-top fashion shows, while it serves a very real purpose in terms of the bottom line, it still feels excessive.