The Boss Will See You Now

I once insisted to my colleagues that it really is nothing to write a blog post: you can do it while waiting in the checkout line at Whole Foods.* Although that has proven overly ambitious, I was indeed standing in that very line the other day when a customer laboriously explained to a cashier about how another market had developed biodegradable non-paper bags, how her cooperative apartment building simply disposed of the Whole Foods bags without recycling, and in general how unrealistic it was for Whole Foods to expect anything good to come out of its use of paper shopping bags. The cashier, a very young woman, clearly had not been expecting, on punching in that morning, to debate sustainability with a stranger; she took the woman’s payment and gently encouraged her to move on.

Why did the loquacious customer decide that a cashier was the right person to address shopping bag policy at a company with 91,000 employees? I reflect on that because I am sometimes approached by people in the fashion business in the hope that I will introduce them to others who can help them in their careers. Young designers want me to introduce them to retailers. Entrepreneurs at start-ups want help in meeting financiers, and financiers want me to introduce them to the owners of thriving businesses and distressed businesses. Sometimes, I can accommodate them, but because lawyers tend to rub elbows with other lawyers and with executives who need (I did not say want) to speak with lawyers, doing so is not commonplace for use. My contacts are therefore what you would expect from a fashion lawyer: people who have devoted at least part of their work lives to dealing with contracts, governmental filings and lawsuits.

There are many different areas of expertise and specialties in the fashion and luxury goods businesses. And there are also many layers of responsibility. We all know that, but when you want something enough, it is easy to forget—and to hope that whoever you can easily get hold of is the right person to meet. Before approaching an organization, it is always a good idea to learn as much about it as possible, first to know about what it wishes to reveal about itself, second to know what it expects next to achieve, and third, and perhaps most important, to know who is the gatekeeper for the topic you are hoping to bring to the fore. Your lawyer can sometimes indeed be a resource. We have access to databases and we do know useful people. So we may have the right contacts for you—or we may not; it all depends on what you want and on those old but eternally important variables: good timing and good luck.

We have come a long way in gaining quick access to information from the days when, at the insurance company where I once worked, the people in charge of investments made sure to own one share of every corporation listed on the New York Stock Exchange, just to be able to receive the annual report. But that information and so much more is now readily available online—which of course means you do not need anyone else to look for you, as long as you know where to look. It is when the devil arrives with his proverbial details that lawyers can sometimes help—as can accountants, consultants and all the other professionals who absorb the time and money of business people everywhere. It is just part of the game, but it is a game we should all know how to play.

* Because I know I will be asked, as was the case with this post, the best time to catch up with your blogging is while waiting for your eight-year-old to soak himself and everyone nearby in a water-gun fight at a very wet playground.

Credit: Alan Behr


When The CEO Must Go

American Apparel fashion store on April 23, 2013 in Manchester, UK. American Apparel was founded in 1989.

The bankruptcy and attempted reorganization of American Apparel demonstrate not just that fashion is a risky business but also that, in bad times as well as good, it brings into play some unique considerations. First among those is that fashion businesses tend to arise from the unique vision of one or a very few individuals. That is true as well for tech startups, but except for a few software geniuses (such as Mark Zuckerberg), entrepreneurial masters (such as Bill Gates) and brilliant marketers (such as Steve Jobs), once a tech business gets going, skilled replacements are relatively easy to find.

That is not the case when the founder and guiding light of a fashion business is also its chief designer. As even well-established brands have demonstrated, bringing in a new designer who understands a brand’s signature looks and who can add his or her own vision while somehow keeping all that fresh (and keeping loyal customers purchasing) is not an easy feat.

The situation at American Apparel was ironically even more complicated because much of the trouble started when its founder, Dov Charney, was forcibly removed. More of a businessman than the creator of a signature style (American Apparel was all about ever-cool basics made in the USA), he dominated the company. He made a failed effort to return; and while everyone involved focused attention on that, the business lost its vision and too many of its customers, and then slid into receivership. That might have happened anyway, but the disruptions caused by the long-running Charney episode may well have been the tipping point.

It all serves as a reminder that, in fashion, getting a clear and effective legal structure into place as early as possible, with understandable methods and procedures for personnel transitions and successions, could potentially be a business-saver. True, Ralph Lauren, that grand warrior for American gentlemanly style, simply and graciously stepped aside as CEO of his company, letting the business keep running, apparently seamlessly, from there. But legal planning is not about expecting the best; it is, unfortunately, about hoping for the best while planning for the worst. And when it comes to fashion and the people in fashion, that is nearly always a prudent way to go.

Credit:  Alan Behr