Handling the Intricacies of Fashion Law

In the fashion industry, the law can sometimes be more subjective than people realize. Kellwood Company’s Keith Grypp is helping his employees understand why.

Kellwood Company has seen a lot of change over the years in areas such as focus, strategy, and leadership. Now, it’s one of the leading apparel manufacturers in the United States, and it sports a vast portfolio that encompasses women’s and junior’s brands, such as Democracy, My Michelle, Sangria, and Briggs NY. Few have been able to witness the company’s circuitous path quite like Keith Grypp, a twenty-five-year company veteran who has served as a financial auditor, systems analyst, and attorney, among other positions. Nobody knows Kellwood like Grypp, so it makes sense that he would want to bequeath that know-how to the company’s next generation.

About a year ago, Grypp and his team began organizing a series of in-house educational programs that focused on the legal aspects of the fashion industry. “There’s a lot of gray area and a lot of myths out there,” Grypp says. “I think many people always want to do the right thing, but they might not have the knowledge or understanding to always make the right choices.”

Human resources teamed with Grypp to help execute his vision after a survey about culture revealed that employees desired more opportunities for personal growth and training. Grypp also cites a few minor legal kerfuffles that indicated some training would be helpful. “It highlighted that maybe there are some issues out here that we should look into and address more broadly,” he says.

To begin, Grypp focused on what he considers to be some of the most critical areas: copyright law, employment law, and social media. Copyright laws fall under the wider umbrella of intellectual property, though Grypp notes that he works closest with Kellwood’s designers in areas of copyright. “A lot of their design is trend-driven,” he says. “What colors are popular? What prints? What designs? They need to be careful that they’re not infringing on somebody else’s copyrights.”

“When you’re not educating people, they just start doing what they think  is good for the company—and it might not be.”

That’s a tricky subject, however. In the fashion industry, there’s no clear-cut rule as to whether or not there’s been a copyright violation. That doesn’t mean some designers don’t tell themselves there are clear rules of thumb. “There are myths in the industry that if you change five elements in the print and design you’re OK, or that you just need to change the design by 20 percent,” he explains. “Designers hear this in the industry and they think it’s the law, but it’s more subjective than that.”

Grypp says it comes down to two areas: it can’t be a copy, and it can’t be substantially similar. “You can’t just go in and change five things and assume it’s not substantially similar,” he says. “You have to look at what you’re being inspired by and make sure your creation is developed and changed so that it’s your idea and not a copy of somebody else’s idea.”

Since copyright violations can be difficult to pinpoint, Grypp works to ensure his sessions incorporate real-life examples that have happened at Kellwood. “That allows them to ask specific questions and reference similar situations they are dealing with,” he says. It’s important to Grypp that the training feels targeted toward not only the fashion industry, but also to Kellwood specifically.

Another area that can be tricky to navigate is social media. For Grypp, it’s important that those who operate the company’s numerous social media accounts—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—understand the difference between a personal account and a business account. On Twitter, for example, retweeting a celebrity’s tweet is fine for a personal account, but on a business account like Kellwood’s, it could come across as an endorsement by that celebrity. “If we don’t have an endorsement from that movie star,” he says, “they obviously might have issues with us using their name.” The same goes for trademarks that might, unintentionally, appear in the background of photos.

These are the sort of minute aspects that most don’t think about when using social media. “People are so ingrained in it; it’s part of their lives,” Grypp says. “They think about it from their personal point of view, but when they’re acting on behalf of the company, they have to act otherwise.”

However, the industry’s legal peculiarities can be overwhelming for employees, which is why Grypp believes most issues occur by accident or merely out of good intentions. He cites the latter particularly when discussing employment law. “Employees think they’re helping, but it’s not doing the company any favors if you are not abiding by the law,” Grypp explains. As examples, he notes employees who work through breaks or managers that take it easy on an employee by not properly documenting an infraction.

Grypp is happy with how the trainings have gone thus far and has plans to fold issues of social and product compliance in soon. He also notes an unexpected benefit: better working relationships across the board. “It’s a good two-way street between legal and the business,” he says.

It’s also common sense. A basic understanding of an industry’s law saves everyone time and effort in the long run. Grypp sums it up well: “When you’re not educating people, they just start doing what they think is good for the company—and it might not be.”