By: Alan Behr, Phillps Nizer Partner and Fashion Law Practice Chair
The inexplicable year 2020 was marked by technology connections that curiously spun into the fashion business worldwide. It is easy to point to the new Zoom wardrobes people have been buying online as a good example, but consider for a minute some far more circuitous connections:
On New Year’s Eve, a friend sent me a Facebook page showing the Staatsoper of Vienna, one of the world’s preeminent opera houses, displaying across its Neo-Renaissance façade an enormous lighted sign that sequentially spelled out “DANKE FUER NIX” (thanks for nothing). Just a couple blocks away, deep in the storage room of the Hotel Sacher, where I was supposed to be in March, but where I indeed never arrived, lies my latest suit from Henry Poole & Co. of Savile Row, London. Karen, a wise member of the tailor’s staff who, in more rational times, needed only to keep me from again mucking up my VAT refund forms, had sagaciously asked if I really wanted her to send out the suit (in Savile Row parlance, a single-breasted dining jacket, waistcoat and trousers in dark grey pinhead worsted) for me to collect in Austria. I said no worries, send it, please, and I even remembered to pack the suspenders (I mean, of course, braces) to hold it together when I arrived. Needless to say, the suitcase was never locked shut. It next turned out that the law firm I was to visit in Vienna was among the first establishments in Central Europe to have a COVID-19 outbreak—and there went my visit. And so, my suit sits comfortably in its box, along with the newly published book I had ordered on the history of Henry Poole (the oldest tailor on “the Row”), and there went as well my last chance of the decade to have original Sachertorte.
That had earlier come to mind when a neighbor’s dog, a rescue animal with emotional problems, charged at me and sank her fangs into my right kneecap, tearing open the sturdy denim of my Levi’s 511 jeans. The owner offered to pay for my pants. As I managed the bleeding, I explained that was the least of it, and lucky her that I had just changed out of a Henry Poole suit. The tech connection continues from there: while going for my tetanus shot, I asked for a COVID-19 test, and it came back positive. For reasons not clear to anyone, I spent a lucky quarantine completely asymptomatic, but that gave me plenty of time to reflect on all that and to consider future posts I hope to provide.
Tailors such as Henry Poole depend on foreign trade. (Well-dressed London men remain ubiquitous, but there simply are not enough of them to keep all the houses going.) For the tailors, even more so than for me, not being able to travel internationally was an enormous disruption—one that, without concessions from landlords and others, could prove ruinous. As reported in The New York Times, most of the properties on the Row are owned by a single landlord, The Pollen Estate, just under four-hundred-years old and therefore mercifully able to think long term. It gave the houses the rent accommodations necessary to hold them over until business improves.
We have seen similar prudent arrangements made in New York City where landlords who see the bigger picture and, if permitted by their lenders—which sometimes have a say in the matter and which also have to think in broader terms if their own customers are to remain viable—have been similarly forgiving. Accommodations can take several forms, including forgiving late payments, stretching out due dates for payments, abatement of rent for a period of time, permanent reductions of rent, and allowing tenants to sublet or to surrender all or a portion of rented space (sometimes in combination with the foregoing or in exchange for lengthening a lease term).
Despite rumors to the contrary, the practice of law can sometimes be a satisfying experience, and it has been a particular joy at the firm to help our fashion clients and so many others navigate through the perfect storm brought on by the pandemic.
And so, our suggestion to the fashion community at the start of a new, and let’s please hope, better year: retrieve that lease you signed and have a good look. Work with counsel and make sure that you understand what it says about your options when things might go wrong. And while you are at it, have counsel do some digging on your landlord to find out how it responded to tenant problems during the pandemic. As always with commercial law: what you understand now, when things are relatively quiet, can only benefit you later—when, after all, who can tell?
 Norges Bank Investment Management (the sovereign wealth fund of Norway), holds a majority interest in The Pollen Estate.