Fashion Law Institute symposium panel addresses authenticity as street style and high fashion combine

Photo credit: Lisa Granshaw

Photo credit: Lisa Granshaw

By Lisa Granshaw

On Friday April 20, Fordham Law School’s Fashion Law Institute held its eighth annual symposium with the theme of “Fashion Influence.” The symposium is a full day event attended by lawyers, designers, students, media, and other professionals. Fascinating discussions were held during five panels called “Money makes the World go ‘round,” “Fashion TECHtonics,” “Refashioning Rights,” “Street Smart,” and “Intellectual Property and the Court of Public Opinion" that offered information on everything from blockchain to state taxes and internet sales. Each was extremely interesting and I look forward to exploring the topics further here. However, one panel I wanted to highlight in particular now was “Street Smart.” It touched on some elements that I think will strike a chord with GeekFold readers.

Ali Grace Marquart, a lawyer and adjunct professor at the Fashion Law Institute, moderated the panel which featured designer and visual artist Baptiste’ Ellard, Highsnobiety’s managing director Jeff Carvalho, assistant general counsel for Equinox Holdings Inc. Sigrid Nelson, Bellizio + Igel partner Daniel Bellizio, and Epstein Drangel associate Mary Kate Brennan. The official description proposed to address the following:

“From the Dapper Dan revival to the rise of Supreme and Kith and most recently LV’s hiring of Off-White founder Virgil Abloh, street style is fashion’s hottest category, with customers lining up for blocks in advance of the latest releases. This transition from street to elite has brought with it a series of legal and ethical issues, too many of which are catching lawyers and designers by surprise. What are the rules of the game for collaborating with long-established brands, influencers, or outsider artists? When does an homage cross the line into intellectual property infringement or cultural appropriation? Are counterfeiting and the resale market out of control? And what are the written (and unwritten) rules for managing street-style crowds on city sidewalks and actual streets? Join this panel to get the drop on law and street style.”

The panel lasted more than an hour and touched on most of these topics as panelists answered moderator questions and offered their thoughts before the panel closed with a Q&A with attendees. Throughout the panel though, the moderator and panelists kept coming back to whether or not streetwear can remain authentic in the world of high fashion. One of the first questions Marquart asked Ellard was if the area can keep its level of individuality and rebellion as streetwear designers collaborate with brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, who were once suing street style brands and startups for creating what they thought of as bootleg goods. To Ellard, the answer is yes.

“As long as it’s authentic. When these brands are collaborating with artists, I feel like they have to know who the person is in order for it to be authentic and not just about the dollar,” he said. “Nowadays it’s about the dollar. Back in the day, streetwear was way down here and high-end fashion was way up here. They didn’t want no part of you, but now they’re seeing that the money’s there so a lot of brands are trying to do it just for the money as opposed to somebody like Alessandro Michele who reached out and collabed with Trevor Andrews. I was reading an article about the meeting that they had and he was saying how genuine he was and they connected...I feel like if you have situations like that, it definitely works in your favor.”

Ellard thinks big brands can find success with such collaborations by visiting the artists and spending time with them at their studios for a week or two in order to understand their perspective and what drives them to make things. When asked by Marquart what makes something street style and separates it from everything else, Ellard said “doing it just for the love.”

"Street Smart" panel. Photo credit: Lisa Granshaw

"Street Smart" panel. Photo credit: Lisa Granshaw

When the panel was asked by a member of the audience about Virgil Abloh, founder of Off-White and current artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, using the Mona Lisa in his work, Bellizio, who works with Abloh, said art is an area the designer is just interested in.

“He’s been very straightforward about saying ‘I’m designing things I would have wanted to wear. I’m drawing on inspiration of things that inspire me’ and it spans multiple genres and one happens to be fine art,” he said.

Carvalho answered that he thinks something that makes Abloh different from a traditional designer is that he “looks to make as little change as possible to a piece or product while giving the most impact possible.”

“He talks about this idea of changing only about 10 percent of something to have an impact. That’s how he views it…” he said. “The Mona Lisa fits with streetwear when it comes to putting icons on a product that have a meaning and there’s a certain emotion that comes from that and essentially what Virgil’s doing in using the Mona Lisa and other famous examples is telling the world ‘this is important to me and maybe you should be paying attention to it as well.’ It could be as simple as that.”

Although fine art often falls into public domain, it still comes with its own legal issues and navigating intellectual property and infringement remains a pressing concern for street style. The moderator asked Bellizio how he would advise a new designer in this tricky area. To him, fashion throughout time has been inspired by previous fashion.

“I think people interpret things differently. I think they position things differently, but it would be foolish to think people came before this who weren’t inspired. For some reason with streetwear, inspiration stopped being used as a term and went to copying. I’m not quite sure why and I think this is where barriers are being broken down, why if someone is of the pedigree of high fashion it’s ‘I was inspired by so and so.’ If you’re streetwear, it’s ‘you knocked something off,’” he explained. “It’s a societal thing. It’s a cultural thing, but again these are the barriers that are being broken down and need to be broken down. I think this cuts across all people in that ‘streetwear’ realm. They are looked at as ‘you’re copying. You’re unoriginal, inauthentic,’ and again if you’re coming up through luxury it’s ‘you’re inspired by. You know the history. You’re so well educated.’”

During Brennan’s presentation, she focused on counterfeits and “how imitation is the biggest form of flattery until it’s not because your brand is worth money.” Of course, as noted by Carvalho when answering another question, one reason bootleg culture is still around might be because some around the world don’t have access to these items and they’re figuring out how they can wear them.

Although this conversation didn’t touch directly on infringement in relation to pop culture beyond fine art, the legal implications speak to challenges in geek fashion. The concerns about authenticity also raised questions familiar to geek fashion fans and companies. Speaking to the idea of popularity, the panel concluded by coming back to the question of streetwear, authenticity, and relevance.To Marquart, popularity doesn’t have to be a terrible thing.

“I think there is this idea that if something becomes popular then it’s less authentic and less individual in that way and that may not be true. If it is coming from a genuine, authentic place like Ellard said, you did it because you loved it. That it was embraced once it was out there is not a bad thing. It doesn’t make it any less authentic. It still came from the right place,” she replied.

These sentiments reflect arguments in geek culture over comic books and other elements entering the mainstream and if that means it’s losing something and is no longer authentic. The question is one that I occasionally see cropping up in geek fashion specifically as well with more high-end collaborations such as the Star Wars Rag & Bone collection.

To Carvalho, consumers need to receive more credit. He believes buyers will call BS on something when it’s not authentic and it’s not just streetwear where this is the case.

I think Marquart and Carvalho’s points are quite true when it comes to streetwear and other areas in and out of the fashion industry, but I agree most with Ellard’s thoughts on the topic. Earlier in the panel he said he does believe streetwear isn’t just a trend and will have staying power. It’s not going anywhere, now it’s just getting recognized. However, in answering this final question he repeated what he said earlier about how he thinks it won’t lose its authenticity if the reason designers are doing it is because they love it.

“Follow it no matter how different it is or what anyone else has to say. If it’s from your heart and it’s genuinely why you’re doing it then do it as opposed to, like I said earlier, for the money. That only lasts so long,” he said.

It’s the love for something that will keep its authenticity alive. It’s something I hope those working in everything from high-fashion to indie brands keep in mind for streetwear and beyond.

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