This Writer Digs Into The Horrors of Fast Fashion
Within the heavily policed and calculated confines of the fashion industry, Julie Zerbo does the impossible. The founder of The Fashion Law website remains firmly objective in her fashion reporting and, in doing so, challenges a range of authorities in the fashion industry—from Chanel to French luxury goods holding company, Kering, to “Industry ‘It’ Girls.” Not only has Zerbo gotten off without so much as a dirty look from Hudson Kroenig, she’s been immensely successful, and is now a respected and trusted source in the industry.
When young girls and boys say they want to work in fashion, infiltrating the industry by way of an economics major and law degree is not, I imagine, part of their googly-eyed dream. And yet that’s exactly how Zerbo got to where she is today—despite how unconventional and uncommon it may be. After earning a degree in economics and international business, she went on to attend law school, where she discovered fashion law and founded The Fashion Law. “When I started the website I saw a void in the market or online for sources of fashion law news and business of fashion news,” Zerbo told me. Nor is she wrong; even today, the content published online by fashion publications is, by and large, controlled by advertisers and business deals. Furthermore, to remain afloat they must focus on clicks. It’s hard to find an online fashion publication today that doesn’t have some sort of personal agenda, which is what makes The Fashion Law so notably different from the rest. Zerbo’s agenda has always been clear and unwavering since day one: “To be unbiased and to be objective.”
Zerbo’s work is rooted in hard facts—and I say hard because, for anyone unfamiliar with law, the online legal sources that she combs through daily to learn about the latest cases, lawsuits, and complaints are really hard to decipher. “Not only are they difficult to navigate, in my opinion, for non-lawyers, they’re just not a very readable source.” And so one of the many hats she wears at The Fashion Law requires interpreting this legal material for the average, untrained reader. “I’m very happy to say I never feel like I have to dumb anything down—it’s just kind of condensing and making things a little bit more straightforward,” she explained.
As one of the very few fashion bloggers who are not only fluent in law, but who remain objective in their reporting, Zerbo certainly has a leg up. But she’s also squarely in the minority. For some fashion bloggers, this might be a deal breaker; they just can’t risk losing big advertisers or the support of heavyweights in the industry. Fortunately, Julie chooses her few advertisers wisely, and therefore never finds herself at the mercy of them. Plus, as she told Racked back in 2014, she has “a really old school mentality when it comes to fashion and writing.” Like Cathy Horyn, she doesn’t accept freebies (gasp), nor is she trying to get chummy with any designers.
That’s not to say she hasn’t made some friends in the industry since starting her site. In fact, it was one particularly bold piece—in which she called out Chanel for copying one of Pamela Love’s designs, after which Chanel apologized and never manufactured or sold the product—that sparked a friendship with Ms. Love. For the most part, however, her work hasn’t made her a ton of fashion industry friends. When I asked if it’s ever scary to challenge such influential authorities in the industry, she said, “You know…calling Chanel out for copying Pamela Love—yeah, that was scary. And there have been other articles since then when I’m fearful, but I know that those are the ones that need to get published.”
Among her many groundbreaking stories are ones exposing the often seedy affairs that are typically shrouded in verbose law jargon, to asking the questions that so many are thinking but would never dare ask. At the forefront of her concerns, however, is a much more dire issue: fast fashion.
Many garment factories feature “child labor, and even forced child labor.”
There seems to be a vague sense among consumers that the countless racks of clothes at Zara and H&M are not a sign of ethical manufacturing—an implicit, yet smothered, reality. But surely most consumers aren’t aware of the cold, tragic facts—surely they don’t know about the “child labor, and even forced child labor,” according to Zerbo, that goes on in the garment factories “that serve as suppliers to H&M, Zara, Topshop, Nasty Gal, and even Nordstrom–just to name a few.” If they were aware of these horrible working conditions—of the toxic chemicals, “limited access to soap, water and working toilets,” the lack of “proper medical supplies, lack [of] proper lighting and ventilation,” and of the often verbal, sexual, and physical abuse—surely they wouldn’t casually saunter into Topshop on their lunch breaks. Unfortunately, much of these human rights violations go under reported. Or, if big websites do cover these inhumane working conditions—as was the case with the Rana Plaza tragedy that was impossible to ignore—they’ll often, as Zerbo pointed out back in 2013, publish a subsequent article touting Zara’s new lookbook.
“The situation is not ideal for anyone,” Zerbo said. Not for uninformed consumers, certainly not for the women and children working in these conditions, and not for designers either, who are constantly overworked and perpetually thinking about their next collection, only for their designs to be copied immediately after they hit the runway. Which makes one wonder why Olivier Rousteing would tell Alexander Fury back in July 2014, “I love seeing a Zara window with my clothes mixed with Céline and Proenza [Schouler]!…I’m really happy that Balmain is copied.” Zerbo says it’s obvious that Rousteing “doesn’t work in the legal department at Balmain, because they allocate resources to fighting copies and to fighting trademark infringement and things like that.” She’d like to think that Rousteing meant that he likes when his designs are interpreted by or inspire other brands, but it’s just as likely that he’s unaware of what goes on in these factories.
Most designers are not pleased when their work is copied by fast fashion brands, and they’re not afraid to say so. They don’t see it as these companies taking inspiration from them, so much as stealing their ideas and sales. Unfortunately, as Zerbo has explained numerous times, there’s often nothing these designers can do about it. “The laws in the United States,” she told Who What Wear, “particularly copyright law, do not provide much [for designers]—they’re not really a friend to fashion.” The sad truth is that fast fashion, in terms of making a profit, is doing a lot of things right—Amancio Ortega, the owner of Inditex (Zara’s parent company), Zerbo reported last month, “briefly took Bill Gates’s spot as the world’s richest man.”
Fast fashion may be setting the pace for the entire fashion industry, but there was a time when it was nothing more than a glint in Ortega’s eye. Kim Jones, the artistic director of men’s collections at Louis Vuitton, remembers this time well and collects vintage clubwear by designer legends such as Christopher Nemeth, Stephen Linard, and Vivienne Westwood as a sort of memento from that time. Back then, as Jones told Lou Stoppard, “People didn’t buy 32 pairs of Jimmy Choos and Louboutins. People didn’t have 16 pairs of sunglasses. People didn’t have 22 dresses. They just didn’t. They had these clothes to go out and have fun with. They wore these clothes. When you got a piece of Westwood or whatever, you wore it four times a week.” To think how nice it would be if we could somehow go back to those days—if, for nothing else, than for the sake of our credit card bills.
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Portraits courtesy of Julie Zerbo. Additional images via The Fashion Law/Racked, Nastygal, Vogue.