Greg Weisman was clearly headed for beach-bumdom. All he wanted to do as a teenager was get down to the beach and surf. His idea of a great weekend was to head with friends to Baja and surf, eat lobster, and surf some more.
What no one, not even Weisman himself, realized was that he was at the dead center of a fashion revolution about to explode on the country. The Southern California surfing scene not only produced a memorable share of America’s music scene, it was the progenitor of a growing look of casual clothing. Weisman grew up in San Diego, sketching surf and skate labels on his school folders because that’s what occupied his mind. Later some of his friends hung ten on the surf fashion wave, starting up surf clothing companies that eventually helped spread the scene across the nation.
So Greg Weisman knows the territory intimately. But until he became a lawyer, he never imagined that his fashion knowledge would be useful. It was not only useful, it helped him carve out an original and fascinating career in law.
Today, at age 36, Weisman is a partner in the L.A. law firm of Silver & Freedman and the chair of its apparel industry practice group. In the past few years Weisman has helped triple Silver & Freedman’s apparel client base and has become one of the leading attorneys in the city’s multibillion-dollar fashion industry.
That’s the suit-and-tie version of Greg Weisman. The person who shows up to chat on a recent bright Sunday afternoon, however, is the board-shorts-and-T-shirt Weisman. This is Weisman the surfer, the guy who even today would readily become a beach bum so he could surf every day, if only somehow he could afford it.
With a boyish face dotted with freckles, Weisman arrives at a Malibu coffee shop after a morning of surfing. Even though the waves weren’t great, he’s still happy to have clocked some time in the water. “This is one of those days that I chalk up to just satisfying the urge to get wet,” he says, scooting his chair to warm up in the sun. Both of Weisman’s personae are integral to his success. The lawyer Weisman will earnestly cite the myriad transactional matters he routinely conducts for the apparel, footwear and accessories communities. “I do a lot of licensing,” he begins, “Creating licensing agreements. Dealing with ongoing licensing problems. Licensing disputes. Termination of license agreements. Breach of license agreement claims. Negotiating exit strategies out of licenses …” The other Weisman keeps swiveling his head every time a Porsche cruises by. He simply can’t not look. “It’s the harmony of the engine,” he says, peering down Highway 1 at the back end of a 911, its engine musically revving at 5,000 RPM alongside the sparkling Pacific Ocean. After speaking with Weisman for a while, one thing is readily apparent: Malibu is crawling with Porsches.
Equally as clear is Weisman’s passion for his job. He loves it. He loves solving the business and licensing problems of his clients. But he really loves the gonzo nature of the start-up companies that are the heart and soul of California’s exceptional action-sport fashion scene.
“I’m a big fan of those labels,” he says. “But they can get into a lot of trouble. This segment of the industry is dominated by creative people who have an idea and maybe a little bit of money to launch a new clothing line. But they’re not the MBAs of the world. They leap before they look. I love their entrepreneurial spirit.”
He also represents many of fashion’s marquee names, what he calls “conservative garment” labels. These big fish of the apparel industry also count on Weisman for their licensing, trademark disputes and intellectual property work. But while strait-laced Weisman winds through the minutiae of those deals, the other Weisman remains steadfastly core.
“There’s an amorphous concept, particularly in the action-sports apparel industry, of what is core. What’s legit, what’s cool,” Weisman explains. “That concept is solely defined by what the kids think, and what defines market position can be lost in a day.” If a company with a solid reputation with the surf and skate crowd becomes too mainstream, it can lose its edge — its core — and become less desirable.
Core constantly changes, so action-sports labels must figure out how to attain and hold onto it. Risk taking is a key component. That’s why Weisman has to look at situations from both sides of the legal coin.
“The successful entrepreneurs take risks and [those risks are] sometimes against my express advice,” Weisman says. “I’m probably — to a fault — nervous and conservative about business issues. I try to talk them out of dangerous things, but I’m only successful 20 or 30 percent of the time.”
Here’s an example of what Weisman couldn’t talk a client out of. Someone at Etnies footwear thought up an image for a promotional poster. It was called the “Quad Jump” and here’s the scenario: Someone on a skateboard sails off a ramp into the air. Directly above him, there’s someone in mid-flight on a BMX bike. A snowboarder glides over both of them, while at the same time, someone soars above them all on a motocross motorcycle.
“Just consider the decapitation risk posed by this particular stunt,” says Weisman. “The concept was basically, This has never been done, so let’s do it. So my client’s general manager calls me up and my response is, ‘Someone is going to die,’ which would probably be even better publicity.” As long as everyone was wearing the Etnies shoes, that is.
Sid Beaty is the general manager of operations and administration at Sole Technology, which owns Etnies. He remembers getting a call from Etnies’ promotions department on a Friday afternoon informing him about the Quad Jump photo shoot, which was to take place the next day at a California ski lodge.
“I called Greg and he says, ‘They want to do what?’” Beaty recalls with a laugh. He says Weisman counseled them not to go through with it, but to no avail. “He then kicked right into gear and took charge. He said we need to do this, this, and this. Sign this document, negotiate that. He actually took charge of the event.”
While Weisman continued to insist that the stunt shouldn’t be done, he secured the right insurance riders, indemnified the forestry service and generally protected all the parties involved, especially his client. He may not have been able to stop the stunt, but he was damn sure that if anything went wrong, no one could
sue the company.
Beaty says it resulted in fantastic photography with no decapitations, although the final plan scrapped the motorbike idea. “This is a unique industry,” Beaty says. “Most attorneys don’t deal with these issues of spectacular events. But Greg has a good understanding of the mindset of the industry. Greg is absolutely core. That’s key to him doing his job so well.”
Weisman brightens as he thinks back to the stunt. He admits, “It was pretty cool. I have to hand it to them because that’s the way they get successful.”
Weisman may have always been core, but he wasn’t always so sure of his career path. He attended the University of California at Berkeley to get a degree in architecture, but changed his major to history and decided on law school. He was awarded a J.D. from the University of San Diego School of Law in 1994. But from his first day he found himself in a rut of tort litigation that left him questioning whether he wanted to pursue a legal career any further.
He was soon rescued from what he remembers as an “unfulfilling practice of medical malpractice defense.” A friend with a clothing company recommended that Weisman contact his lawyer, whose firm represented predominantly apparel clients, including lots of surf and skate labels.
That firm was Reinis & Reinis. Partner Mitchell Reinis says he knew Weisman would be a perfect fit because he identified with the people who were riding the crest of the surf fashion business wave. “He had an engaging personality and a real desire to bring representation to those manufacturers,” says Reinis. “And he surfed.”
Weisman says he was especially grateful for that job for allowing him to establish an expertise in the industry at an early age. Today, Reinis is a partner at Silver & Freedman’s litigation department and a member of the intellectual property and apparel groups. He came to the firm, in part, because of Weisman, and says he’s seen his former charge’s work evolve to that of a polished and very sophisticated lawyer.
Unfortunately, part of that sophisticated lawyer’s job is to be the bearer of bad news about the retail industry, to break it to start-up labels that getting into the big retail stores isn’t easy and not always worth the hassle. His typical advice is stay out of department stores because they tend to buy popular products from those companies and then openly knock them off for a cheaper price. That’s not even the worst of it.
“If I sell you something for $100, you’re supposed to pay me $100,” Weisman says. “But even after signing a contract, some retailers will say to these small labels, ‘If you want your stuff in here next season, you’ll take 75.’ It’s an unbelievably dirty and devious game that gets played.”
That’s where the experience of the suit-and-tie Weisman comes in handy. He not only knows the law, he knows the fashion business. Dealing with so many clients of every stripe of the fashion world, he’s usually got a good game plan for new, hot labels. “I can say to them, ‘Hey, I know this stuff. I know exactly what your problems are going to be. In fact, I’ve even worked with the party with whom you’re negotiating. I know exactly what they’ll do and what they won’t do,’” says Weisman.
The Star Factor
With greater frequency, the star factor influences Weisman’s practice. In the 1980s and ’90s, the fashionable thing for a celebrity with lots of money was to own a restaurant. These days, it’s putting your name on a pair of jeans.
“The fashion industry has always been there for those with money or fame, and it’s becoming more so, particularly in the hip-hop and rap arenas,” says Weisman. “During the last five or six years every rap star has decided that they need a clothing line. But only a few of them are actually successful.”
One celebrity that is experiencing success, and thanking Weisman for it, is rapper Nelly. His Apple Bottoms line of women’s clothing is very popular (it even made Oprah’s list of “favorite things”), but it wasn’t always like that. In 2003, the line opened to under $3 million in sales. Nelly’s business manager, Mike Chaffin, says Weisman joined the legal team in 2004 and was instrumental in boosting the bottom line.
“He’s been crucial in the design of the licensing plan and so many other key negotiations,” says Chaffin. “By the end of 2005, we expect to do about $40 million in sales.”
Chaffin says that Weisman has acted as attorney, business adviser and someone who is truly interested in the company. “I deal with a bunch of lawyers, but Greg is by far the best one,” Chaffin says. “I don’t want to oversell him, but he understands what we’re trying to do, and can explain it to the corporate guys who don’t get it.”
With his flair for fashion know-how, it would seem natural that Weisman would make the leap to start his own label. But he says his designs won’t be heading down the runway anytime soon: “Once in a while I throw a creative idea to one of my clients and they say, ‘Stick to law, Weisman.’”
That leaves only one thing that could pull him away from fashion law. “If all of a sudden I miraculously develop enough skill to be a professional surfer …” he says looking toward the ocean. “But that’ll never happen.”
It’s okay, though. Greg Weisman is still core.