BROOKLAND — Fashion blogger and law student Julie Zerbo ’13 was featured in a recent Wall Street Journal article that focused on her role as a fashion watchdog and commentator.
Hunting for Fashion’s Copycats
By Ray A. Smith
April 26, 2012
Wall Street Journal
A 25-year-old fashion blogger busted the 102-year-old house of Chanel.
When Julie Zerbo heard from two readers of her eight-month-old blog, the Fashion Law, last month saying a bracelet featured prominently in Chanel’s recent Fall 2012 runway show seemed familiar, her antennae went up. She looked at the show images online.
“That’s when it clicked to me ‘oh my God, that’s a Chanel bracelet, that’s not a Pamela Love bracelet’,” she says, referring to the small New York-based jewelry designer. Ms. Zerbo then banged out the blog item “Chanel’s Crystal Bangles Look FAMILIAR!” about how the Chanel bangles bore a “striking resemblance” to cuffs in Ms. Love’s Fall 2011 collection. She posted the item with side-by-side pictures.
Since the Fashion Law’s following is small, Ms. Zerbo alerted the much-larger Fashionista blog, which linked to her post on a Monday. By Tuesday, Chanel issued a statement to Fashionista saying it decided not to offer the bracelets in question for sale “out of respect for the concerns raised.”
It was a coup for Ms. Zerbo, a second-year law student at the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America. “To think that the Chanel Fall 2012 collection was somehow affected by me and the Fashion Law is mind-blowing,” Ms. Zerbo said on a recent Friday in the lobby cafe of a Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C. She typically spends Friday afternoons in the cafe working on her blog when she isn’t studying or at her part-time job doing research for the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition and the Internet.
Ms. Zerbo is one of a breed of fashion bloggers scouring the Internet and stores for instances of similarities or outright copying. Fashionista even has a series called “Adventures in Copyright” devoted to outing alleged copycats. Last month, retailer Topshop removed a dress that looked similar to one by Yasmin Kianfar, a young British designer, after Susanna Lau, founder of the Style Bubble blog, lambasted the British fast-fashion retailer for “aping” the designer in a series of tweets. “Big thank you Susie x,” the designer tweeted at Ms. Lau.
After the Chanel flap, Glamour.com called Ms. Zerbo “the brainy blogger.” Ms. Zerbo said traffic to her blog more than doubled immediately following the incident to 4,000 page views a day. Her Twitter page also gained about 100 followers; she now has more than 800. (Chanel declined to comment beyond its initial statement to Fashionista. Pamela Love said in a statement: “I have the utmost respect for Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel…I truly do not think that this was malicious on their part.”)
Copyright is a contentious area in fashion. While trademarks such as Tiffany’s signature blue box are protected by copyright, fashion designs in the U.S. aren’t. Christian Louboutin and Yves Saint Laurent are embroiled in a lawsuit filed by the shoe brand over YSL’s use of red soles in shoes in its resort 2011 collection. Christian Louboutin’s red sole is trademarked. YSL has said a designer should not be allowed to “monopolize a color.” The case is currently in an appeals court. The Council of Fashion Designers of America has been pushing for the U.S. Congress to pass legislation that offers copyright protection for designs.
Armed with her Apple MacBook Pro and often fueled by several strong cappuccinos, Ms. Zerbo last week brought her followers up to speed on Louis Vuitton winning a nearly two-year-old counterfeiting lawsuit. On a recent Friday, she downloaded court documents on a case in which Gucci has accused the Guess brand of copying Gucci’s G logo and stripes for Guess sneakers. She likes to include fashion posts that have nothing to do with legal issues, too. “I don’t think that the average person loves law, it’s pretty cut and dry.”
“Julie mixes it up with fun posts on style and the industry,” says Steven Kolb, chief executive of the CFDA, who follows the Fashion Law on Twitter. “Her writing is simple and clean. You don’t have to be a lawyer to understand the business and legal posts.”
Ms. Zerbo says brands haven’t contacted her to write about potential knockoffs. She doesn’t accept gifts from labels or retailers. Her reasons for highlighting alleged copying are “to educate about fashion law and give credit where credit is due,” she says.
Ms. Zerbo was inspired to start the Fashion Law blog after attending a two-week “boot camp”-style class at the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School last summer. She decided to make fashion law her career after enjoying the course. She cites the institute’s academic director, Susan Scafidi, who has her own blog called Counterfeit Chic, as a role model and inspiration.
“It’s exactly what we hoped to do, to train a new generation to focus on fashion law,” says Ms. Scafidi of the attention the Fashion Law has received. She adds that these blogs can create “social pressure on copyists not to do so.”
The Fashion Law blog even calls out what it sees as copying by fast-fashion retailers, stores where much of the inventory quickly mimics runway looks at bargain prices. Ms. Zerbo accused Primark, a U.K.-based retailer, of copying the floral patterns and silhouettes from designer Prabal Gurung’s resort 2012 collection. A Primark spokeswoman said in an email it would continue to sell the clothing: “Primark disputes the accusation of copyright by the Fashion Law blog as this floral design is an on trend seasonal look seen across the high street this Spring Summer.” Prabal Gurung declined to comment.
Last summer, Ms. Zerbo worked for a lobbyist on behalf of the CFDA and the American Apparel & Footwear Association, conducting research and attending hearings on piracy. She has accepted a summer internship with the legal department at shoe designer Stuart Weitzman.
Ms. Zerbo, who grew up in Ocean City, N.J., was drawn to fashion at an early age: “Every picture of me as a child, I’m wearing high heels and a dress.” She describes her style as “a bit of mainline Philadelphia preppiness in me and then L.A. hippie.”
Ms. Zerbo says she sees her role as a defender of small designers, who may not have the financial ability to take an alleged copycat to court. She attended the fashion shows of smaller designers including Cushnie et Ochs in February after they became aware of her blog.
“She started posting things to our [Facebook] wall, she would send things to us like ‘Asos [a British online retailer] knocked you off’ and little blips like that,” says Michelle Ochs, co-founder and designer of New York-based Cushnie et Ochs. “We’re a small company so there’s nothing legally we’re going to do about it. It’s good to know.” Asos declined to comment.