Julie Zerbo is the twentysomething founder and editor in chief of The Fashion Law, a website dedicated to the field of fashion law and business. She is a vocal critic of fast fashion and dubious industry practices, especially when it relates to fashion media.
The rise of social media has turbocharged global materialism and consumer culture, and nothing reflects this more than the incessant and unending chatter from the fashion industry. Fast fashion in particular is not only a challenge to our society but also a detriment to our ecology. As my awareness has grown around the challenges of fast fashion, I’ve found myself engrossed in a blog called The Fashion Law.
One fine day, I saw the blog stand up for a small designer in Scotland who had her design stolen by Chanel. A few weeks later Chanel apologized, and I became a fan of this fair-minded blog. I wrote an email to the editor of the blog — Julie Zerbo — and mentioned that I was going to be in New York and would like to get together to talk about the fashion industry. We met at Happy Bones in the Little Italy/Soho area and talked for hours. This is an edited version of our conversation.
Om: Were you interested in fashion when you were growing up?
Julie: Not really. In law school a professor thought I might be interested in fashion law, and it turns out that I was. I didn’t set out to work in fashion or to be a blogger. I was under the impression that I would go to law school, do everything that a traditional law student is supposed to do, which is write on the law review and join the court team and then be summer associate and go into a big firm.
But by the time I was in my first summer of law school, my website had taken off. That took up a lot of my time. I would go home from school and write articles of my own and post them, giving me instant access to readers, which I found to be more interesting than the law review practice with its extensive lag time
Law Review is very well respected and old school. I find it to be dated, though, because the articles are so long and it’s not digestible material. It’s not interesting for everyone, and the audience is somewhat limited. There was something about being able to reach so many people and make these otherwise difficult, complex topics more digestible.
In addition, from the beginning it was selfish. It was a way for me to learn. We didn’t have fashion law classes then at my law school, so I would read and research and write as a way of learning the theory of law.
Om: When I was growing up, it took forever to pay your dues and get to the point of success. Now with the internet age, it seems like you can have an impact at a relatively young age. Do you agree with my assessment that the internet has allowed people to compress the time it takes their careers to unfold?
Julie: I agree completely. While I have been able to build an audience in this area of fashion law, I don’t think that’s even remotely equivalent to the experience of some of the people that I look up to in fashion law. The website and the internet have given me a platform much earlier than they probably should have.
Om: My argument is that the internet compresses time and distance. It’s like a time machine: You fast-forward to what you’re supposed to do much faster, because you find out much faster what you’re supposed to do. One of the things I often think about is the correlation between how we’re always on the internet and fast fashion.
Julie: I lose sleep thinking about the cycle of fashion and about fast fashion. There absolutely is a correlation, especially in terms of time. One of the ways it started was to make these high-fashion garments accessible at every price point, which I think is a noble goal. It just has come with so many abuses, whether it be slave labor, which fast fashion retailers have been accused of, or unsafe garment factories, as we’ve seen multiple times over the past several years, or human rights abuses.
We’ve created this system that is so unbalanced. We’re asking for so much in terms of the quantity of garments, and we’ve come to expect it for so little in terms of price that it’s an unmanageable system.
Practically, it’s cheaper to send X amount of dollars on a PR campaign than to implement a new auditing system for overseas suppliers. It looks prettier. It’s something tangible that shoppers can be a part of. Fashion is meant to look beautiful, and it’s supposed to make you feel beautiful. Part of that is the industry protecting itself and making sure that it always looks good.
Om: How do you, individually, stay away from this magnetic pull of the industry and becoming part of the firmament?
Julie: I consider myself much more in academics than a fashion industry insider, and that gives me some perspective. Not being afraid that I’m going to burn bridges — it’s my biggest asset. I feel stronger about telling the truth, being an objective voice and educating than making friends.
Other publications and blogs can’t get away with that, because advertisers are on top of everyone and censoring what people can say. Luckily, I have advertisers that are largely based in academia.
Om: This is a tough business. There was that big story of you taking on Chanel: It was pretty amazing to see that and that they actually made amends and took the product off the market.
Julie: It was surprising, because I didn’t know that anyone would read my story. At the time, I was still a first‑year law student. I didn’t know that a blogger had that kind of power. I was just writing about what I thought was right. It goes to show that you don’t have to be a CEO of a fashion company or an editor in chief at a huge publication to have an impact.
Om: How would you describe the fashion industry to people who are not into fashion? People ask me, “What is Silicon Valley like?” My simple explanation is that we have thousands of socially dysfunctional, ultra‑smart people in one tiny space, so things happen. We don’t know how, but things happen. That’s it.
Julie: The fashion industry is like high school, but everyone’s better dressed and and everyone ignores any elephant in the room.
Om: The other day at an event for a well‑known brand, I realized that this company has less than $50 million in revenue. Their presence is so much bigger than the reality of their business. My perspective is a bit messed up because I’m in Silicon Valley, where things become big pretty fast. I was shocked by how small many of these operations really are.
Julie: That’s a good point. The perception of the fashion industry is that it’s a lot more glamorous than it is. Designers are made into celebrities. Then you go to their office in the Garment District in New York and realize they have a team of five people. It’s much different than you would otherwise perceive it, when they’re on the red carpet with a celebrity or on TV.
Om: It’s “The Emperor Has No Clothes.” That’s part of social media. Instagram and Facebook help create this projection. It’s the ultimate glorification of an average person, including fashion and tech.
Julie: We forget that the image portrayed on social media is curated. No one’s showing their daily life, by any means. They’re showing this idealized version of themselves.
Most often it’s for the purpose of branding, because in fashion, particularly in high fashion, there’s this ideal that has to be upheld in order to charge $3,000 for a purse. Particularly on social media, I think it’s easy to forget that this is someone’s Instagram page as opposed to a huge brand.
Om: Social media is much more of an equalizer than most people think, so we have a lot of small brands that are getting exposure. I’ve suddenly become aware of a lot more products from Japan and Europe, even South America. Do you feel that this will have an impact in the long term on some of the larger companies like LVMH or Kering? Do you think they’ll start to see some of the attention move away from their brands to these smaller players, or do you think the magazines, TV and advertising will still keep them in tight control of the fashion industry?
Julie: One of the big positive takeaways of social media is that it has given exposure to brands that lack a marketing budget. I’m not sure whether that will ever challenge the truly big guys in the industry.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how brands or anyone in their respective avenues can compete with the established system in whatever industry they are in. You have to work within the established system and make it that way, or can you make a system of your own.
I’ve been struggling with this point, and it seems social media has to some extent given people an alternate avenue to make their name. Going outside the norm to compete, and that doing business doesn’t only have to be conducted within the existing system in order to work.
Om: Sometimes I wonder if I want to believe that more than anything else. There was a line from the show The Wire: “The game is the game.” You can’t change that, unfortunately.
Photos by New York based photographer J S Silberman. Follow him on Instagram @jssilberman